This week the world lost a rare writer at the age of 43. He was not a media fixture and certainly not one of those writers making appearances at the literary salons. He was a Dublin homebody. But what an astounding person Christopher Nolan was.
Nolan was born with cerebral palsy, could not speak, nor control his extremities. Confined to a wheelchair, he was the type of person our society looks at with pity or largely ignores. Thankfully, his family never saw him that way. They loved him unconditionally, interacted with him and taught him as one would any child. He would go on to school, though no one fully appreciated his mental acuity.
A drug was discovered that allowed Nolan to move one muscle in his neck. (Bono of U2, who attended school with Nolan wrote the song “Miracle Drug” about the boy). At the age of 11 he was equipped with a “unicorn stick” which was fastened to his head. With it Nolan would peck at a typewriter. His mother had to apply pressure to his chin to stabilize the boy’s head, allowing him to work his art. It was a torturous process, taking him more than 15 minutes to produce one word on the page. And what words they were.
He published his first book at 15, a collection of poems appropriately titled “Dam-burst of Dreams.” His second book won Britain’s prestigious “Whitbread Book of the Year:” in 1988. It was called “Under the Eye of the Clock,” a biographical work in which he refers to himself as Joseph Meehan. At one point in the book Nolan writes of crying upon the realization that he is not like other children:
``Looking through his tears he saw [his mother] bent low in order to look into his eyes. `... Listen here Joseph, you can see, you can hear, you can think, you can understand everything you hear. You like your food, you like nice clothes, you are loved by me and Dad. We love you just as you are.' Pussing still, sniveling still, he was listening to his mother's voice. She spoke sort of matter-of-factly but he blubbered moaning sounds. His mother said her say and that was that. She got on with her work while he got on with his crying.
``The decision arrived at that day, was burnt forever in his mind. He was only three years in age but he was now fanning the only spark he saw, his being alive and more immediate, his being wanted just as he was....
``That day looked out through his eyes for the rest of his life. Comfort came in child-like notions, his clumsy body was his, but molested by mother-love he looked lollying looks at his limbs, and liked Joseph Meehan.'
Nolan was a Catholic, one who was often frustrated by his inability to open his mouth at communion time. But the mark of his faith is evident in his work. In “Under the Eye of the Clock” he wrote of Christmas:
“Bells pealed in all the Dublin churches as midnight nudged home its bashful meaning to all the crazy longing. Christ the God-child now breathed a human breath. The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst man. Manger-cradled the Saviour lay. Midnight Mass marked the moment for Joseph; crested now with knowing, he marvelled at the nobility of the human person.”
His Mother, Bernadette told the Christian Science Monitor in the late 80’s: “``He has shown (people with disabilities) that life is worth living, and it doesn't matter whether you're in a wheelchair or a bed; it's what's going on in your mind and your soul that is important.''
Beyond his somersaulting innovation with language, the thing that lingers about Nolan is the improbable miracle of the man himself. I am in awe of the great sacrifices he made each day to share his voice with the world. Each overwhelming obstacle to communication was soberly considered, and ruthlessly overcome. Of writing he once said: ``My mind is just like a spin dryer at full speed. My thoughts fly around my skull, while millions of beautiful words cascade down into my lap. Images gunfire across my consciousness and, while trying to discipline them, I jump in awe at the soul-filled bounty of mind's expanse.''
How many able bodied people put off their calling, or make needless excuses for doing nothing. The next time those deadening temptations bubble up, we should think of Christopher Nolan. With a stick affixed to his head, in a body he could not control, his mother holding his chin, Nolan managed to produce a book of poetry, a play, a novel, a biography and an incredible witness for us all.
May Christopher Nolan rest in peace.