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Lions Roar : July 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2011 62 Nonetheless, there are times when his mind seems so differ- ent that I barely recognize him. As when he finishes breakfast and wipes his plate with balled-up Kleenex, round and round, and then places it on the draining board, insisting it is now “clean.” I explain yet again that dishes need to be washed after a meal, but he just doesn’t believe it. To his eye they look clean, even when clotted with egg, and I regularly find dirty plates on the draining board, ready to be reused. And sometimes the illogic really worries me, like when he asked if he could catch the flu by talking on the phone with a sick friend, because “the breath goes in one end and comes out the other.” And yet, and yet, the old spouse I know still inhabits his being. I often see him clearly through the storefront window of his face, his thoughts rapping to come out, and I hear him speaking in old familiar ways, crafting a new piropo with Whit- manesque flare, such as “O Parakeet of the Lissome Star.” Fortunately, despite his left-hemisphere stroke (which too often results in severe de- pression, anger, or both), and a near-death pneumonia of ten months ago, he seems al- together happier than before, living more in the moment, grateful to be alive. Our life is different, but sweet, often devolving into hilarious cha- rades as Paul—like a lepi- dopterist with a handful of oysters—tries to pin a word down. Such funny word com- binations can spill from an aphasic’s mouth! So our days together still include many frustrations, but once again revolve around much laugh- ter and revelry with words. “The thing you put in the kitchen is void,” he told me yes- terday, and it was only when we went there and looked out the window that I understood he was trying to say: “The bird feeder in the kitchen courtyard is empty.” The finches were looking for their breakfast. One recent afternoon, I mumbled with a yawn: “Why am I feeling so sleepy today?” He replied with utmost sincerity: “Perhaps your mental en- cyclopedia has been requisitioned by a higher force.” Those were the words his brain had found to say: Maybe you’re worn out from having to concentrate so hard on looking after me. I pictured the encyclopedia in my head and a big hand reaching in to grab a bunch of volumes. After five years, I can finally share such word lore with Paul again. But aphasia still plagues him with its merry dances, and with its occasionally missed adverbs and verbs, its automati- cally repeated words or phrases. He can’t use a computer, can no longer type, and has trouble reading his own handwriting. So he will always need an assistant. I can hear Paul shuffling papers at his desk right now, re- vising a sci-fi novel, Now, Voyage r, whose main character 1/8 Humbly has a son named 1/16 Humbly. Apparently one of the characters is the Zoom Queen, a woman who can become un- fathomably large or infinitely small depending on her mood. Hmm. Wonder who that could be? In Now, Voyager, the narrator shifts from first to third person, “I” to “he,” and when I asked Paul if this was intentional, he said that he hadn’t noticed. So perhaps the three voices in his head (which appeared soon after the stroke) continue to take turns, or he simply forgets which perspective he’s speaking from. During his window of heightened fluency in the middle of the day, he can write, stringing together chains of regained words, or make phone calls, or lunch with friends. Not all three; he has to choose. But, to some degree, isn’t that the same for all of us? I can write first thing in the morning, or I can answer a bunch of emails, or I can telephone a friend—I, too, have to choose where to spend my limited packet of mental energy. This morning, while working in my study, I heard the low whisking rumble of the bedroom door opening, followed by the steps of naked feet, then a tiny clicking which I knew to be the sound of Paul returning his ear stopples to their plastic case. I called to him with a mrok, to tell him where I was—in my bay window—and he mroked back, then appeared at my study door, naked as a wombat. “Where’s my cantilever of light?” he asked sleepily. I smiled. This was a new one. “Do you mean... your velour jogging suit?” “Yes.” “It’s in the laundry room.” Why did his brain produce cantilever of light when search- ing for velour jogging suit? How or why or when might it seem to him a cantilever of light? Cantilevers are rigid, his jogging suit soft. Cantilevers support bridges. Unless he was thinking of his clothes as a bridge to the bright, wide-awake world? That seemed a reach. But the phrase captivated me, and I had to laugh when I realized that we’d been together so long I had instinctively known that cantilever of light meant velour jogging suit. Thank heavens for circumlocution... That dog can hunt. Amid all the nonsensical verbal puzzles, living with Paul at times feels like living with a koan, one of those paradoxical dialogues, inaccessible to reason, that are taught by Buddhist sages as psychic knots for meditation. Even to begin to inter- pret a koan one has to shed the cords of logic, bend language, Poet, essayist, and naturalist, DIANE ACKERMAN is the author of two dozen highly acclaimed works of nonfiction and poetry, including the bestseller A Natural History of the Senses. PHOTOBYTOSHIOTSUKI