I just saw The Theory of Everything. I put off going, afraid to see things I didn’t want to see. And, yes there were scenes that felt similar to experiences with Ariela – the regression, the first wheelchair, the choking, the loss of speech. Then, Gary reminded me about the time Ariela met Stephen Hawking.
November, 1998: Thousands came to hear Hawking speak in San Jose. Preceding his lecture, he asked to meet with a much smaller group of students who used assistive technology for communication. Ariela’s teachers had briefed her on Stephen Hawking. She was excited to meet the celebrity scientist. We arrived early. Doormen at the Fairmont Hotel greeted her at the door. We rolled her down a long corridor with flocked wallpaper and crystal chandeliers. The pomp and grandeur of the place wasn’t wasted on Ariela. Dressed in a new outfit and patent leather Mary Janes, she felt like she was a celebrity, too. Questions for the professor had to be submitted in advance, and her question had been selected.
There must have been about one hundred students of all ages in the conference room that afternoon. Ariela was one of the youngest. When her name was called, Hawking rolled toward her. I had pre-programmed Ariela’s communication device with her question. All she had to do was hit her switch with her chin. She paused. I hoped she wouldn’t take too long. We all waited. Then, she hit her switch, and with her synthesized voice she asked, “When you were in the fifth grade, what was your favorite subject?”
It took Professor Hawking a few moments to respond. He had a small communication device mounted on his chair. It looked like he used one finger to scan through what must have been thousands of letters, words and phrases and another finger to select. “How old are you in the fifth grade in the U.S.? We have a different system in England.”
I suppose I was a bit awestruck by the man and the event. Forgetting that Ariela had a button on her device to say her age herself, I jumped in and answered for her. “She’s ten.” To this, Professor Hawking answered, “Science. That was my favorite.”
The movie is beautifully executed. His story is told without sentimentality. It portrays the man as the very real person he is – exceptional and flawed, as we all are.
“We are all different, but we share the same human spirit. Perhaps it’s human nature that we adapt and survive.” Stephen Hawking July 18, 2013.