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Diane Ackerman recalls husband's stroke recovery

The secret to a long marriage is to embrace changes, said poet, essayist and naturalist Diane Ackerman, MFA '73, M.A. '77, Ph.D. '79, July 13 in Kennedy Hall.

Ackerman is the author of two dozen highly acclaimed works of nonfiction and poetry, including "A Natural History of the Senses." She focused the talk on her latest work, "One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing." The book chronicles the illness and recovery of her husband, novelist and poet Paul West, and its impact on their 40-year marriage.

The couple met at Penn State in the early 1970s when she was a "flower child undergraduate" and he was "a professor with yards of education." Ackerman was a sophomore when she enrolled in West's graduate contemporary British literature class.

"Some people said we had absolutely nothing in common," Ackerman said. She and West came from "wildly different" cultures, generations and backgrounds. While Ackerman grew up in America, West came from an eccentric family in Britain.

"Who can say why two people become a couple?" Ackerman said. "Couples are jigsaw puzzles that hang together in just enough places. They're never total fits or misfits."

Besides embracing their differences, Ackerman learned to overcome their hardships. Thirty-four years into their marriage there was a "lightning strike," she recalled. West battled a kidney infection for three weeks. Later, lightning struck again one day when West moved his lips, creating a sound between a buzz and a murmur. "For a moment I had an odd thought that he might have a mouth full of bees," Ackerman said.

The stroke gave West global aphasia. "Aphasia is not the loss of language; it's a retrieval problem," she said. "Words crowd one another and very often the wrong words are the only ones the mouth can utter. In the cruelest of ironies for a man whose life revolved around words, he had suffered immense damage to the key areas of his brain and he could no longer process language of any form."

West went through five speech therapists without improving much. "What I began to realize is that Paul had indeed been using some huge words," Ackerman said. It occurred to her that while simple words people learn as kids are processed in the key language areas of the brain, the words people learn professionally are processed in other parts of the brain.

Ackerman hired a home health aide and encouraged her husband to watch television and movies.

"At one point he was lamenting that he couldn't remember any of his pet names for me," Ackerman said. "So I encouraged him to make up some colorful new pet names, and with great effort he managed to blurt out one a day for 100 days in a row." These 100 pet names gave Ackerman the title for her book.

It has been seven years since the stroke. West is working on a novel and is able to communicate with his wife again, sometimes in roundabout ways. Despite these challenges, their love continues to grow, she said. "A bell with a crack in it may not ring as clearly, but it can ring as sweetly."

Dorothy Chan '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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Joe Schwartz