While in grammar school, Lawrence played cricket energetically, but after a match, unlike his mates, he would sneak back into school to do something different: explore the skies with a refractive telescope an alumnus had gifted to the school. He joined an astronomy club and even assembled a telescope for his parents’ backyard. He graduated with distinction and went to London with his classmates to celebrate.
Now, in the nightclub she was dancing with a man who spoke with an Oxbridge accent. They kept seeing each other, and five years later they were married.
In the decade that followed Lawrence finished his doctoral research under a Nobel Laureate and went on to do post-doctoral work in observatories in Belgium and France. A US university offered him a tenured position, which became the principal seat of his subsequent work. He wrote major articles, gained numerous citations and pioneered radio telescope use for galactic studies.
Then, one day Lawrence returned from a project in Peru complaining of diarrhea and backache. For academics back pain is a common complaint, but in this case their life was to change radically. The pain quickly proved both acute and intractable; it started unaccountably and continued indefinitely, sometimes cripplingly. Doctors misdiagnosed it as arthritis and fibromyalgia and prescribed wrong medicines. The pain continued and became worse. Twenty years later, a specialist identified it as arachnoiditis, a dire spidery pain, caused presumably by a misapplied Epidural during a hemorrhoidal operation during adolescence.
The effect was the opposite. It made him dependent on even larger, and eventually less effective, doses. They made him a different man. He was no longer the person who played soccer with his son or shared a story with his wife. He was never very interested in domestic chores, but now he had no connection with those. He became careless about his grooming, and his hours of eating and sleeping became erratic. His overweaning preoccupation with his work had not made it easier to live with him. Now, his frantic effort to continue his work, despite his physical limitation virtually isolated him from his wife and children.
Annikka, who had again returned to full-time work as a language instructor once the children had grown up, did not know what to expect when she returned home. Increasingly she drew sustenance from her work life, for life at home had turned slowly untractable.
One morning, Annika entered his room and found it unusually quiet. Lawrence was not breathing; he had swallowed all his pills and put an end to his life.
I wonder if the surgeon who placed the needle of an Epidural syringe in the wrong place in a young man’s lumbar could ever imagine the change he wrought in the career of a scientist and in the life of the people around him.