Excerpt from the Book
“I’m beginning to glimpse something that is beyond the rules of computation but is still comprehensible. I can’t speak of it yet—can’t conceive it yet.”
- Sir Roger Penrose, Mathematical Physicist
After suffering a cerebral hemorrhage during a stage performance with her bluegrass band, a young mother of two small children comes to her appointments in a motorized wheelchair. The stroke has turned her life upside-down. The right side of her body is unresponsive, her professional life is on hold, and she is not able to care for her children without help. Her husband has recently separated from her and is living with another woman.
Words come slowly for her now, and when she speaks her meanings are dense, like haiku. “I’m jealous,” she says one morning.
I am relieved that this is coming up. We’ve been talking about practical things, but she has not said very much about the upheavals in her family, and the heartbreaks. “But it’s not what you think,” she says, stopping me short. “I’m jealous of myself. Before the stroke.”
I had been going down a wrong road.
She sits quietly for a minute and then begins to talk about her life before and after the stroke. With an economy of words, she speaks about how much she has lost, how much harder it is for her to do everything now. She pauses then, looking tired. I sit, struck by the starkness of it, and by the beauty of her telling.
I can only say to her that I find her ability to deliver a big message in a few words poetic. She favors me with a slow, wry grin.
“There’s a story about Stephen Hawking,” I say. She nods. She knows about Hawking, the British cosmologist who suffers from a motor neuron affliction called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease. And she knows what ALS can do to the body.
“As the ALS has progressed, he’s begun to lose his ability to speak,” I say. “And he’s noticed that his thinking, which has tended to conform to linear language – as thinking does – has begun to open out into a wider awareness. He can visualize multidimensional models of the universe more easily.”
“Have you noticed anything like that?” I ask her. “Is there is anything different about your before-stroke and after-stroke thinking? Anything that runs through both?”
She is quiet for a long time. I wonder if she has moved on to something else. But the tiredness in her eyes softens, and a richness of expression begins to shine through the partial paralysis of her face. “No,” she says steadily. “But I have just discovered something. You know the before-stroke and after-stroke ‘me?’ I am in both. Untouched.”
Her vocal cords have been affected by the stroke, so her range of voice tones has been diminished. This makes it hard for her to lend emphasis to her words. So she says it again, “Untouched.”
A few days after this session, it happened that Stephen Hawking came to town to speak to a sold-out, standing-room-only crowd at Berkeley Community Theater. Up on the stage he was a small figure in an elaborate wheelchair with keyboard attached, his body crumpled by ALS. There was something riveting about his “voice,” digitally manufactured from what he typed, and about the droll humor he laced through his frontier ideas about “stable chaos,” the birth of the universe, and the math behind the idea that the stuff of the universe has a particular “critical density” that holds us in delicate balance between the Big Bang and the Big Crunch. About black holes he warned, twinkling all the way to the back row, “Navigating through black holes could be too fast. We might turn into spaghetti!”
At the end of his talk Hawking was handed a basket of questions passed up from the audience. Looking through them quickly, he chose two. “Do you believe in God?” he read. “I am asked this question often,” he said, looking out at us. “Like Einstein, I do not believe in a personal God. But one has to ask the question, Why does the universe bother to exist? If you like, you can make God the answer to that question.”
Then he read the second question, “What would you say to the population of disabled people in Berkeley?” There were many wheelchairs in the audience. “Disabled people must concentrate on areas in which they can compete with anyone,” he said in the curious electronic voice. And he added, “I don’t want to be known as a great disabled scientist. I want to be known as a great scientist.”
The next weekend, I found a more or less body-shaped place on the jagged headlands of the Mendocino coast as a heavy green surf came pounding in below. Overhead the sun was trying to burn off a thinning film of fog. Sitting on my rock, I was thinking about Stephen Hawking, speaking as someone who found his voice after losing it, choosing a question about God and a question that gave him a way to share with the audience what he believes and doesn’t believe about the limitations of physical disability. And I was thinking about my client, who found within herself a wholly intact I that runs through the before-stroke and after-stroke circumstances of her body. In this moment an insight appears, and she takes her place among the most serious investigators of, as Hawking frames it, how the universe works and why we are here.
There is something deep, something elusive, still missing in our understanding of these workings. What is certain is that a person can slip into an alignment with the mystery. Often while out under the sky. Indoors, or out. On legs or in wheelchairs. There, on a lucky day, we see something.