My aches and pains
As I write, my right hand and left shoulder are paining. I feel discomfort in my right knee and left ankle. I have a headache and my nose is stuffy. Perhaps I need to go back to my doctor.
There are few books I despair of ever reading. But “A Brief History of Time from the Big Bang to Black Holes,” written by Stephen Hawking, is one such book. Time and again, I’ve taken it down from the shelf and started rereading it. But all in vain.
Admittedly, there are some passages easy to read and understand. For example, “The eventual goal of science is to provide a single theory that describes the whole universe.” I get it.
But other passages escape me entirely. Take this one, for instance: “In attempting to incorporate the uncertainty principle into general relativity, one has only two quantities that can be adjusted …” Huh? My headache is worse now.
Hawking has been described as the world’s smartest man, an accolade he dismisses as being “rubbish. It is just media hype. They needed somebody to fill the role model of disabled genius.”
A professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge for 30 years, this disabled genius has now told the story of his life and career in “My Brief History.”
Hawking is immediately recognizable because of the effects on his body of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease.
In his last year at Oxford, Hawking noticed he “was getting increasingly clumsy” and fell down some stairs.
After moving to Cambridge, he “became even more clumsy,” falling over while skating and unable to get up.
He was admitted to a hospital for testing. Whatever it was he had, he figured “they expected it to continue to get worse.”
In an understatement, he says, “The realization that I had an incurable disease that was likely to kill me in a few years was a bit of a shock.”
However, while Hawking was in the hospital, a boy in the bed opposite him died of leukemia.
“Clearly,” the scientist writes in his autobiography, “there were people who were worse off than me.”
Despite the “cloud hanging over my future, I found to my surprise that I was enjoying life.”
Falling in love, followed by the birth of children, along with professional success, gave him something “to live for.”
He went from using a manual wheelchair to an electric threewheeled car to an electric wheelchair.
Meanwhile, his progressing illness included “prolonged choking fits.” His speech began “getting more slurred.” Then, a trachectomy removed his ability to speak entirely.
For a while, the only way Hawking “could communicate was to spell out words letter by letter by raising my eyebrows when someone pointed to the right letter on a spelling card.”
He now has a personal computer and a speech synthesizer fitted to his wheelchair.
“At first,” he says, “I felt my scientific career was over and all that would be left to me would be to stay at home and watch television.”
Marital crises followed. Hawking underwent a laryngectomy, completely separating his windpipe from his throat. A later health situation led to a ventilator.
He recalls that when he contracted ALS at 21, he “felt it was very unfair … At the time, I thought my life was over and that I would never realize the potential I felt I had. But now, fifty years later, I can be quietly satisfied with my life.” His disability, he suggests, has not been a serious handicap in his scientific work. “In fact,” he says, “in some ways I guess it has been an asset.”
Remember my complaints itemized at the start of this column — pain in my hand and shoulder, discomfort in my knee and ankle, a headache and stuffy nose?
Well, after reading Hawking’s memoir, I wonder why I go to a doctor whenever I have an ache or a pain. As a diabetic, I realize there are times when a visit to a clinic is in order. But for the slightest ailment? Am I a hypochondriac? If nothing else, Hawking’s story may very well be a rebuke to me for too readily consulting a medical professional whenever parts of my body refuse to co-operate. Carpe diem. Perhaps it is high time for me to seize the day and focus on my strengths while downplaying my weaknesses.
Perhaps Hawking should have the final word: “When you are faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realize that life is worth living and that there are lots of things you want to do.”
“My Brief History” is published by Bantam Books of New York. Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at