Let me start, if I can, on a more personal note. The other day I was reading Lee Strobel's The Case for the Real Jesus, and he makes the provocative comment that you taught yourself Greek by reading one of your own Greek textbooks-obviously a line begging for an explanation! Can you tell us a bit about that season of your life?
Eleven years ago this March I was diagnosed with a bizarre strain of viral encephalitis. It did serious damage to my memory, as well to the connection between my brain and my body. At one point I didn’t know who the president was. I knew who Bill Clinton was but I didn’t think that he was president. Later, I forgot my wife’s name. But we had only been married 22 years, so I consider that short term memory loss! Once we’re married for 50 years, I’ll have no excuse. I even forgot my own name a couple of times.
I was in a wheelchair for more than nine months. And I was exhausted all the time. During the summer after I contracted the disease, I was sleeping 22 hours a day. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t study. I would be hot one second, cold the next. I would sweat while wearing a short sleeve shirt in the snow. Bright lights really affected me, and still do. The neurologists finally decided to give me a rather potent drug by IV, known as Gancyclovir. This drug has been the prescribed treatment for HIV patients. It cost us almost $1000 a day for the drug. Pati would administer it in two 90 minute doses—a slow drip IV. She had to put on new rubber gloves each time because the drug was toxic and could burn through almost anything. A nurse had to take my blood twice a week to see if this napalm for the body was doing any other damage, like to vital organs.
When I had been on Gancyclovir for about a month, I had one of the most bizarre episodes of the encephalitis. It was June 6, and I began hallucinating. I was in bed (as usual), with not even enough energy to walk. But all of a sudden, I thought I was a marine on Gold Beach on D-Day. I jumped up out of bed and ran smack into the wall! I fell over and couldn’t move. Shortly after that, four big paramedics strapped me in a gurney and hauled me down to Parkland Hospital in Dallas (where JFK had been brought). During the ride, I seemed calm enough to the paramedic sitting next to me that he offered to unstrap me. I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea because I kept hallucinating that I was fighting dragons in medieval Europe!
By October 1997, I found myself at the Mayo Clinic. They never could figure out exactly the strain of encephalitis I had. The CDC never figured it out either. It has taken years to recover, and I’m still not 100%. If I get too tired or too hot, the first thing that goes is my legs. But I’m learning to cope with it and not work too hard. I used to run on 4 hours of sleep a night, but I can’t do that any more.
Through the whole experience, one thing I learned was how much God’s people care for one another. Folks were jumping out of the woodwork to bring us meals, help us with housecleaning, and help with paying the bills. I can honestly say that I’m grateful for having gone through it.
My Greek grammar had come out in the summer of 1996. I had spent seventeen years working on it, taking it through five pre-publication drafts that had been used in the classroom since 1979. In the fall of 1997, when I was teaching intermediate Greek again, I found myself not recognizing very much that was in the grammar. I couldn’t even understand the concepts, let alone recognize that these were my words! Then I discovered that even my basic Greek skills—parsing, vocabulary, translating—had all but disappeared. I had to relearn Greek in the midst of teaching it. I was teaching first-year Greek at the same time, and that helped me to relearn the basics. It was a very difficult year though, because I was really only one step ahead of the hounds all year. As I kept coming back to Greek, the synapses in my brain began to kick in. It was easier relearning Greek the second time around, but the circumstances were a bit unusual, especially having to reread my own grammar to understand the language better.Remarkably, one activity has not seemed to suffer at all from the disease: examining and photographing biblical manuscripts. I was in Athens last summer at the National Library, in the manuscript room. The temperature was about 100 degrees in the room. The room would be open for five hours a day. I would take no breaks—either for a meal or even to get a drink of water—and wonder where the time went when the day was over.