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"The Book of Stephen"

The Baltimore Sun
April 20, 2003

For in much wisdom is much grief;
and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
Ecclesiastes 1:18

A bomb went off inside Stephen Vicchio's head.

The explosion occurred shortly before 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, September 25th. It was a crisp, cusp-of-autumn evening in Annapolis. Vicchio – a stocky, square-jawed philosophy professor at the College of Notre Dame; author of ten books, two plays, and scores of newspaper essays; a fixture on local radio talk shows; the lunchpail intellectual whom one colleague calls "Baltimore's philosopher laureate" -- was walking across the campus of St. John's College, where he was about to conduct an adult education class. The topic would be the Book of Job, which he has read some three hundred times and which served as the subject of his doctoral thesis. Poor, put-upon Job. God's punching bag. He of the let's-test-your-faith boils, broken family and monumental bad luck.

Boom! It was, he recalls, like being whacked in the back of the skull by a two-by-four. Vicchio dropped to his knees, then crumpled on the ground. He'd been walking alongside Bill Braithwaite, a St. John's faculty member, who ran to a nearby student and borrowed a cell phone. Braithwaite dialed 911. In less than half an hour Vicchio was at Anne Arundel Medical Center and doctors were zeroing in on their diagnosis: left middle cerebral artery stroke. Although he never lost consciousness, he could not speak, could not hear out of his right ear, could not see out of his right eye. Indeed, the entire right side of his body was paralyzed, as unresponsive as stone.

Even while lying on his back in a daze, Vicchio was aware that fuses were blowing, that he was about to become a different person. He often speaks of "my old life," as if his existence, like the Bible he has been contemplating since his childhood days in parochial school, is divided into two epochs. Before and After. The Old Stephen and The New Stephen.

There are two types of strokes: hemorrhagic (a burst blood vessel) and ischemic (a deadly blood clot). Vicchio was felled by the latter; unusual for someone about to turn 52, since ischemic strokes are a product of the hardened arteries associated with old age. Deposits similar to the grit on coarse sandpaper somehow adhere to the silky-smooth inner surface of the vessels that feed the brain. The result is what doctors refer to as a "turbulent flow" of blood that can clot and block an arterial passageway. With its oxygen supply cut, the brain begins to die. Cell by cell, The Old Stephen was slipping away.

"I was sitting down to watch the season premiere of West Wing," says Sandra Vicchio.

That's when the telephone rang. That's when she learned what had happened to her husband. That's when Sandra called a friend, Ginny Larsen, and asked if she would drive her from Baltimore to Annapolis... now. As the two women sped down Route 97, Sandra Vicchio was given a crash course in brain physiology. She was on her cell phone with hospital personnel who explained the risks and benefits of t-PA, a controversial blood-thinning agent that can dissolve clots and mitigate the effects of an ischemic stroke, providing it's given within three hours of an attack. And assuming all goes well. Sandra was told there was about a 6 percent chance that t-PA would trigger potentially fatal bleeding. Next-of-kin approval was needed, but the doctors couldn't afford to delay treatment until she got to Stephen's bedside. What to do? Play the odds or play it safe? Sandra opted to put her faith in God and in t-PA, giving her consent over the phone. She then waited and agonized until the lights of Annapolis popped into view.

"I didn't know," she says, "if I was going to drive to the hospital and find my husband dead because I gave him the wrong drug."

Her husband was alive. Working in his favor was the fact that, despite a history of high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure, he was in good overall condition: Stephen had been on a stationary bicycle kick, having pedaled some 5,200 miles in the past nine months. Working against him was the fact that he hadn't recognized the classic warning signs of an impending stroke.

He had met Braithwaite for dinner before class. Vicchio slurred some of his words during the meal, his tongue inexplicably in need of obedience training. Earlier he'd had a few episodes of blurred vision. Leaving the restaurant, his legs felt wobbly, as if the sidewalk was made of Jell-O. The prudent course of action would have been to get medical assistance. But he had other things on his mind: "I was mostly worried about whether I was going to get to class. I had a responsibility to teach."

Vicchio remained in Anne Arundel Medical Center for four days, then transferred to Johns Hopkins Medical Center. There, he found himself in the hands of, among others, Dr. Eric Aldrich, assistant director of Hopkins' cerebro vascular program. Vicchio suffered what Aldrich considers a "moderate stroke," which would have been a massive one had Sandra elected to withhold t-PA. Nonetheless, extensive damage was done. Imagine, says Aldrich, the human brain as a pizza pie cut into six equal slices.

"One of those interior wedges is gone in him."

Fortunately for Stephen Vicchio, his brain is a pizza with everything on it. And he was getting maximum use out of it pre-stroke. His office at Notre Dame is crammed as tight as a smuggler's suitcase. Books, books, books. Everywhere. By the hundreds. He insists he has read them all, from A History of Science to Love, Sex, Death, and the Meaning of Life; from The Essential Wittgenstein to The Book Of Legends. Professor Vicchio can not only quote Aristotle, he can tell you that Aristotle's wife was a nag, which is minor baggage compared to that of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose four brothers (he can also tell you) committed suicide.

"I think sometimes I surprise people by how much I know," Vicchio says. "In some respects, I think I'm in that last generation of scholars that are well read."

But that missing slice of pizza has cost him a cognitive step or two. He used to be able to devour 100 pages of text an hour. Now it's about 20. He used to be able to read and / or speak nine languages (English, French, German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, and Danish). His English remains intact. Those other memory files have been corrupted to one degree or another.

There is a laundry list of things Vicchio can no longer do: ride a bike, drive a car, open a bottle of wine, boil water, knot a tie, move his right arm, wash his left arm, pull up his pants, put on a coat. He half jokingly remarked to a friend, "I don't even sneeze well now."

He and Sandra have a two-year-old child, Jack. Stephen also has a ten-year-old son, Reed, from a previous marriage. Both boys must come to terms with a slower-moving, more fragile version of their father. He has lost 35 pounds. He hasn't been able to pick up Jack since the day his knees buckled in Annapolis. WYPR radio host Marc Steiner, who has had Vicchio on his show numerous times, recently stopped by the house for a visit. Jack came roaring into the living room. Stephen was sitting on the couch and reached out with his left arm, attempting to reel in his son for a hug. Jack seemed spooked by him and scurried away.

"I looked at Stephen's face and I could see the hurt in his eyes," says Steiner. "He's in a great deal of emotional pain over this stroke."

Fifteen percent of stroke victims have a second attack within a year. To complicate matters, in January Vicchio's father went into the hospital for a heart bypass operation and had a stroke during surgery. He has been drifting in and out of consciousness ever since.

Despite the extra weight of those worries, Vicchio has made substantial physical progress. His hearing and sight have bounced most of the way back. The first three times he tried to stand up after the stroke, he fell, but he rarely uses a wheelchair anymore, having graduated to a walker and now a cane. His voice is pitched higher than before and he occasionally double clutches when speaking, as if some words are carved on tiny blocks of wood that catch in his throat. It will take at least a year to see what level of functioning can be reclaimed. But these limited, interim gains have been impressive. Aldrich says that if a neurologist examined Vicchio's brain scans cold, his opinion likely would be that the patient will never walk or talk again.

"The magic of rehab is happening," adds Aldrich, "and life goes on for the Vicchios."

"Magic" makes rehabilitation sound too easy, almost fun. Sprinkle some pixie dust and Presto! Throw away that cane. Pull up those pants. After a seven-week stay at Hopkins, Vicchio spent 55 days as an outpatient at Sinai Hospital. A bad stroke renders chronological age meaningless. On the one hand, you become an honorary octogenarian who walks, talks, and thinks in slow motion. But, notes Sandra Vicchio, "In some ways it's like instantly being a child again." You have to relearn almost everything from scratch.

Her husband began that process by attending Sinai's Return! program, which is geared toward brain-injured people who have hopes of regaining some measure of independence. He underwent occupational, speech, and physical therapy for five hours, Monday through Friday, before cutting back to three days. The alphabet initially looked like Sanskrit to him. Gradually, Vicchio pieced together sentences, then paragraphs. He smoothed out kinks in his mind by explaining to his therapist the different shades of meaning between words like "bed" and "sofa." He practiced gross-motor movements with his dominant right arm, trying to stick nine large, baby-toy pegs into nine, large holes within 20 seconds. He failed that test, but managed to teach himself to tie his shoelaces using just his left hand.

After nearly two months of training, the professor was able to hold a mock philosophy class for his fellow Sinai patients, dusting off an ethics lecture on Huckleberry Finn and posing to them the nettlesome question he has posed to thousands of college students: "How do you know when you or someone else has done the morally right thing?"

Vicchio is a quick study, although some of his therapists suspect he may be losing interest in his exercise homework. That's not uncommon for someone who, figuratively speaking, has always put the right pegs in the right holes. "He didn't ever have to adapt to anything," says Brenda Sochurek, coordinator of the Return! program. "He was successful at whatever he tried."

Laboring to button a shirt can be frustrating. Feeling as if you're wading through peanut butter whenever you walk would try Job's patience. But there is more to recovery than simple perseverance. The Vicchios' Tudor house in Homeland hasn't moved off its foundation. The neighbors still smile and wave. The sky overhead is still blue. His wife and extended family remain steadfast in their devotion. Everything is as it was. But nothing's the same.

"You're a teacher and a father and a spouse and a lover and all sorts of things," he explains. "And all of those relationships change."

It takes time, a long time, to redefine those roles, to get a fix on this New Stephen. He is everywhere. Well, not quite. One secluded corner of life remains unchanged. There is one safe harbor of normalcy.

"In my dreams," says Vicchio, "I don't have a stroke."

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. ... A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.
-- Ecclesiastes 3:1,7

The first Sunday of Lent arrives with smells of spring in the air and winter in temporary remission. On this blessedly sunny morning the Second Presbyterian Church in north Baltimore begins hosting a five-week seminar on the Book of Ecclesiastes; a team teaching effort by Stephen Vicchio and Chris Dreisbach, chairman of the philosophy department at Notre Dame.

Vicchio was up before sunrise for the 9:45 class. It takes him an hour and a half to get washed and dressed, but he also had butterflies: This will be his first public appearance since the stroke.

Despite its graceful prose, Ecclesiastes contains some of the darkest sentiments in the Old Testament. Vicchio eases himself onto a folding chair near the front of the small, second-floor auditorium, clips a lapel microphone to his sportscoat, and opens his hour-long lecture by declaring that King Solomon, widely believed to have written Ecclesiastes, couldn't possibly be its author. Read the original Hebrew text, he says, and you'll find "lots of Aramaic words" that came into use several centuries after Solomon died.

"Whoever wrote the book thinks that life is meaningless," he continues. "So what's this book doing in the Bible? That's a very good question."

The only uplifting passages, the only slanting rays of spiritual sunlight, come from scattershot thoughts about the nature of wisdom. Vicchio promises to explore that in the coming weeks. "I'm going to spend some time talking with you about the meaning of wisdom."

Fay Miller, who arranged the Ecclesiastes seminar and was a student of Vicchio's, says he is one of those rare, charismatic teachers who can regularly deliver "ah-ha moments" of genuine insight and illumination. Miller and the rest of the Second Presbyterian audience give Vicchio a round of applause when class concludes, but it was a workmanlike performance; all steak, minimal sizzle. And he knows it. In the car afterward, Vicchio turns to Dreisbach, who's at the wheel, and declares, "It was not as good as I used to be. But it was good enough."

They are the Batman and Robin of metaphysics. Years ago, Vicchio established a nonprofit Institute of Applied Philosophy at Notre Dame and eventually got Dreisbach involved to lighten the load. Vicchio has a melancholy streak. Dreisbach, an affable Minnesotan, never met a day he didn't like. Both, however, are admirers of Socrates, whose preferred classroom was the bustling Acropolis in Athens. Vicchio founded the Institute to carry on that grassroots-intellectual tradition.

"Public philosophy is the business of taking philosophy to real people, not just others in the Ivory Tower," says Dreisbach. "He does that better than anybody I've ever met."

In 1995 The Carnegie Foundation named Vicchio Maryland's "Professor of the Year", but his career sprawls far beyond campus. His essays aren't spongy academic pontifications, but rather the work of a sharp-eyed reporter whose beat is the human condition. He riffs on matters large and small: his father's hands, loneliness, the birth of his first child, the dropping of the atomic bomb. The writing often glistens, witness his nutshell description of Sister Virgina Geiger, one of Vicchio's favorite nuns at Notre Dame: "She has the kind of gentle face that one wishes to fall into, as a bee tumbles into a flower."

Vicchio and Dreisbach will take their Socratic dialogue act to elementary schools, colleges, union halls, corporations, the CIA, FBI, and other government agencies; talking real-world ethics with anyone who'll lend an ear. Sheldon Greenberg, an ex-cop who heads Johns Hopkins' Police Executive Leadership Program, says visitors to Vicchio's class might be surprised to find themselves in the middle of a "fierce debate" about Emanuel Kant's moral absolutism vs. John Stuart Mills' moral relativism.

"Stephen's teaching has made me wrestle to the point of losing sleep over decisions I made in the past," says Greenberg. "For example, my trust in eye-witness identification, my trust in repressed memory. Things that caused me as a young officer to make arrests and build cases, I now challenge."

As Vicchio's reputation grew, he was drafted to help write guidelines on police integrity for the Justice Department and, odd as it may seem, to lend his analytical eye to about a dozen local murder and serial-rape investigations.

"He could remove himself from the emotions of a case," says Captain Stanley Malm of the Annapolis Police Department. "Did he help us solve some cases? Yes. Did he come in and say 'It was the candlestick and Colonel Mustard?' No."

Marc Steiner thinks Vicchio has a knack for getting to the crux of all things philosophic because he's a "working-class kid." He grew up in Irvington, the same lower-middle-class, multiethnic enclave that produced New York Times columnist Russell Baker. In fact, Vicchio delivered newspapers to Baker's mother. His father, John, was a roofer by trade and baseball and football coach in his spare time. Stephen -- who is sandwiched between older, twin sisters and a younger brother -- went to Mount St. Joseph's High School, along with everybody else in the neighborhood. He played football and basketball, ran track, and got good, but not exceptional, grades.

A fire was sparked inside him in junior high school by a precocious classmate who kept asking a chase-your-tail question: If God is all-powerful, he should be able to make his left hand so heavy that his right hand can't lift it. But if God can't lift his left hand, that means he's not all-powerful, right? Go stick an eraser in your mouth, kid. That's probably what the St. Joe priests wanted to say. For his part, Stephen was enthralled. "I heard those questions," he says, "and I thought they were great. So I spent my life trying to figure them out."

His brain didn't kick into high gear until college. He studied philosophy at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, taught school in the city for three years, earned a masters degree at Yale Divinity School, then called it quits with a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion and ethics at Saint Andrews University in Scotland.

He rented a cottage in the Scottish highlands, where he hunkered down to write his dissertation on the Book of Job and the perceived injustices of human suffering. All that cogitating apparently took its toll. When he finished writing his thesis, Vicchio drove back to his dorm room at St. Andrews, strolled onto a pier at the end of the block and celebrated in a very unintellectual, working-class-kid way: He heaved his typewriter into the North Sea.

Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof; and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
-- Ecclesiastes 7:8

Vicchio is of the opinion that America would be a better place if everybody just spent a week in a wheelchair.

"He's much more intimately connected to the world of suffering than he used to be," says Chris Dreisbach. "Everything is fair game for a public philosopher. This is just another opportunity to him. He's turning it into field research."

Whoever wrote Ecclesiastes turns out to have been a bit of a tease. The text, as Vicchio explains to his class on their final Sunday get-together, presents a concept of wisdom that only hints at a deeper meaning of life, which is articulated in subsequent books of the Bible; namely, that goodness will be rewarded in Heaven, not necessarily here on earth.

God may connect the dots of our being after death, but in the meantime, most people yearn for some mortal to make stopgap sense of it all. That's the philosopher's job, no? Vicchio estimates about a hundred friends and relatives have asked him to read the tea leaves of his stroke. Why you? What does the Big Picture look like now, Mr. Big Thinker?

"I think of myself as a deeply religious person," Vicchio explains. "It wasn't my time in the sense of it being my death. It was my time in the sense of it being my disability. There's an essay by William James called "The Will to Believe." You either make the leap of faith or you don't." He pitches his tent in the same camp as Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Augustine. They are "compatibalists," believers in free will within the confines of a Divine plan.

The only wisdom he personally has to offer can be found inside a Hallmark greeting card, which in no way diminishes its value. A man spends 30 years pursuing success, exceeds beyond all expectations, then one autumn night gets hit in the head by a two-by-four and concludes "the only thing that matters in life is love."

That man has the love of a wise wife. Sandra is an architect. She knows a reconstructed building can be stronger and more beautiful than the original.

"Thinking 'why us?' is pretty useless," she says. "One thing I don't like is when people feel sorry for me. I have my husband and that is huge. I guess I don't really think of him as disabled."

For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope.
--Ecclesiastes 9:4

Baseball, he says, has always been "the intellectual's game." No wonder he's a fan. What he especially likes is that it's a sport of limitless possibility. Theoretically, a batter could keep fouling off pitches forever. Think about that: no Then and Now, no Before and After. Only a singular, sweet, suspended moment.

Last season, Stephen Vicchio had a box seat on the first base line at Camden Yards for Opening Day. What a difference a year makes. Today he is sitting in his wheelchair parked behind the last row of the centerfield bleachers: the handicapped zone. He is wearing an Orioles cap and winter coat. His right hand lies dead in his lap. Perhaps to prove a point, God has made it so heavy that, for now at least, he can't lift it.

He was afraid a trip to the stadium might be too physically draining, particularly on an uncharacteristically frigid April afternoon. However, he rolled to his bleachers seat without much difficulty. "I'll have a beer," he says contentedly. "I'm at the ballpark."

Such small victories are important. They help disperse the clouds of depression that hover over many stroke patients. Vicchio rereads the Book of Job for comfort. He also sees a psychiatrist and takes Zoloft to stave off what Winston Churchill dubbed "the black dog." It still barks on occasion.

"My biggest problem lately is trying to figure out why being alive is better than being dead," he says. "I think being alive is better because it's the only life I have."

In the bottom of the third inning, there's a snow delay. Big, Biblical-size flakes sprinkle down from the heavens. Outfield grass is turning white. The spectators look like powdered doughnuts. The prudent course of action would be to leave and watch the rest of the game on TV.

Sandra greets him at the door with a smile. Jack breaks into an impromptu jig. "Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!"

Vicchio is safe at home.

Every minute of every day used to be filled. It seems he's "not doing anything right now" but sleeping and rehabbing. Patience, patience. "Professor Vicchio" is listed in the College of Notre Dame's fall catalog; scheduled to teach three courses.

He also is taking notes (left-handed) for a book. It is a mystery of sorts; about things lost and found, about digging deep to unearth that buried treasure called the soul, about what makes us us, and about how much The Old Stephen and The New Stephen have in common.

Being that the author is himself a work in progress, he is not sure what direction the book will take and, frankly, who knows if he'll have enough creative energy to write it. Stephen Vicchio has, however, already picked the title for Chapter One: Who Am I?