Thank you, Stephen Hawking

I watched The Theory of Everything on the aeroplane on the way to Paris. We are on our way to Rome for the marathon and we are full of nerves and excitement, full of terror and self-doubt, looking forward to getting to the start line, and afraid witless of what is to come. Can we do it? We haven’t trained enough. It was an ambitious plan to go from zero to marathoner in just a few months. And the concept of doing it just for fun seems unfathomable to runners and non-runners alike – we have seen some weirdly contorted faces accompanying the words ‘for fun?’ – usually said in a fairly high pitch to accentuate incredulity.

But I digress.

I have been wanting to watch the movie and was very excited to see it on the in-flight movie menu. The best for me on a long-haul flight – it gets me so excited – is to have my tray of airline food, my dinky bottle of airline wine, and a movie on my tiny little airline movie screen. I didn’t get my tray of airline food, as the concept of vegetarianism as a voluntary dietary option has not yet reached Europe, it seems. I did have the dinky wine, though, and the movie on it’s mini screen.

And so there I sat in the dark, headphones over my ears, wedged between an always forward-facing woman who took up both armrests, on the one side, and my soundly sleeping, eye-masked daughter on the other.

The movie was just incredible. Eddie Redmayne’s acting puts him in a league of his own. But Stephen Hawking’s story is what left me shell shocked. Sure, everybody knows his story – man genius bedridden because of motor neuron disease. But that’s not the story, is it? That’s kind of a working title.

The story is of so much love and courage, sensitivity, insight and humour. There is pain and sadness and real tragedy, and yet, through it all, there is love and courage and always, it seems, a sense of humour. ‘Life would be tragic if I weren’t funny,’ he said.
Through the horror of living in a body that day by day becomes less functional, through the devastation of waking up from anaesthetic to find he cannot speak, through every setback, he remains inspired, remains in tune with the world around him, and never stops thinking and creating. He never gives up.

‘There should be no boundary to human endeavour,’ he says. ‘However bad life may seem, while there is life, there is hope.’
At the end of the movie, I sat watching the credits roll across the screen. I couldn’t bring myself to move.

Would he give it all back? Would he turn back time? Would he exchange his life less ordinary for the banal? For the chance to feed himself, to get up from his bed and walk, to hold his children, to go grocery shopping? Would he rather have that than the life that allowed him to be knighted?

Imagine needing so much courage just to face each day. Just to wake up and still be you – not the you you were or the you you thought you would become, but the you now, trapped in a body that will not function, with a mind that functions higher than most of the rest of the human population. And you choose not to end it all because you are brave enough to have hope – because where there is life there is hope.

No matter how much the movie shows his physical atrophy, it is still all clean, sanitary, romanticised. There are bodily functions beyond eating, that require far more intimate and humbling dependence on others. What strength of will helps one transcend that? What strength of character steers you past the stares, the embarrassed silences, the bumbling, inappropriate questions and comments?

And I mutter about running too slowly? Maybe even walking when I should be running? What the hell? I am sitting on an Air France aircraft, jetting my way through the night to stand at the start line of Maratona di Roma.

For sure my mind has been going back to all those runs I missed, all those times I should have gone to gym, all those times I should have just done a few sit-ups instead of grinding away at that soulless work I do for that exploitative industry. And I do feel ill-prepared for what I am about to attempt – I am ill prepared. But, fuckit, it in no way compares with having to struggle each day to breathe, to just make it from sunrise to sunset.

I’m not going to get all full of resolve, all New Year’s resolunion-y, here and vow never to complain again. Of course I am going to bitch. Of course I am going to want to be fitter, stronger, faster, younger and, yes, dammit, more attractive. I bet you Stephen Hawkins also wants some of those things. At age 72 I bet you he also sometimes wonders where the time has gone, he also looks in the mirror and would like to see a different face. For all his genius, for all his accolades, I bet you we all want the same thing: less suffering, less pain, and more of the good stuff.

So, just as the magic of all inspirational moments fade with time, so will this one. But I am certain I have been altered by this story. I am certain it that I will hold it in my heart when I start to hurt on Sunday. It won’t help me run a sub-five but it will certainly put my hurt in a bit more perspective. It is a good hurt of a body being pushed, not a horrible hurt of a body just trying to make it from one moment to the next.

And so I will run and walk, and stroll and struggle with gratitude – gratitude for this moment in time that I have been given, gratitude that I have, for some reason, been given this hiatus in the banality of grocery shopping and school runs and deadlines and cooking supper and walking dogs, to be in the Eternal City with my Firstborn Daughter and gratitude that I have been given this body that has not yet worn out, that has served me so well, despite some rough treatment from time to time, that at age 54 is still strong enough to go the distance at whatever speed.

No, I am not an elite athlete. No, I do not have the body of Jennifer Aniston or Madonna. But what I have is pretty damn okay. And if we’re going to draw a bell graph of fit, strong and healthy, my little dot is sitting at the very favourable end. So, shut up Negative Self. Just shut up. And thank you, Stephen Hawking, for all you have come to teach us.


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