In her book One Hundred Names of Love: A Stroke, a Marriage and the Language of Healing, Diane Ackerman remembers how she struggled to rally a smile as she entered his hospital room. Paul, her husband of 35 years, had suffered a massive stroke. She struggled to rally a smile. “Hi, honey,” she said.
Paul looked at her helplessly. His face was frozen in a distorted scowl; his mouth slouched to the right, his lip curled. He tried to answer. But all he could sputter was “Mem.”
Of course, she had no idea what he was trying to say. When she didn’t respond, he brought down his fist on the bed railing, repeating, “Mem, mem, mem.” When she tried to comfort him, he pushed away. He struggled to speak, but all he could manage was a little sound – whgggggggg – as if he were blowing out a candle. His frustration became anger, before he finally fell back on his pillow, defeated.
“Mem, mem, mem.”
“I wish I could understand you,” she said, more to herself than to him.
“Mem, mem, mem,” he cried.
“Mem, mem, mem” – the first words of the new language that they would learn together.
Once home, as she helped him recover, he had to relearn language – and she had to learn a new one. Over time, Paul was able to speak words other than “Mem” – and she was able to understand the different meanings of “Mem” on different days, at different times, in different sets of circumstances. Paul gradually recovered his speech, though his days are still riddled with aphasia. But thanks to the plasticity of the brain, the power of human will, and plain hard work, she hears him and understands what he is trying to say.
Six years after she walked into that hospital room, she says, “life is different, but sweet, often delving into hilarious charades as he tries to pin a word down . . . So there are many frustrations, but once again a shared revelry with words. And Paul seems altogether happier than before, living more in the moment, grateful to be alive.
“We often remember with a shiver those early days in the hospital, when life felt small as a noose, and I thought it was the end of our long love story. I discovered instead that it was only the beginning of a new chapter.”
Love that perseveres despite the obstacles, love that refuses to yield to discouragement and disappointment, love that puts aside personal need and gain for the sake of the beloved is the “voice” of the Good Shepherd.
Love that perseveres despite the obstacles, love that refuses to yield to discouragement and disappointment, love that puts aside personal need and gain for the sake of the beloved is the “voice” of the Good Shepherd. With compassion, a spouse struggles to decipher the love in the gnarled speech of her husband and responds in kind.
The “voice” of Christ is heard in the midst of their hard work to reconstruct their life together in hope and joy. Christ the Good Shepherd calls us to listen consciously, deliberately, wisely for his voice in the depths of our hearts; to listen for his voice in the love and joy, the pain and anguish, the cries for mercy and justice of those around us. In our own acts of generosity, love and forgiveness, we echo and give voice to the Risen Christ and the good news of hope and grace that is the Easter miracle.