Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright
What We Can Learn from Pascal’s Triangle
1 2 1
1 3 3 1
1 4 6 4 1
1 5 10 10 5 1
Above is a very small section of an infinite pattern, Pascal’s Triangle, a mathematical marvel, elegant in its simplicity. Each number is the sum of the numbers above it; the 2 in the third row is the sum of 1 and 1, the 3s in the fourth row are sums of 1 and 2, and so forth. From this almost childish system arise all sorts of fascinating and complex mathematical relationships. For example, look at the first 1 in the second row, and notice the other cardinal numbers—2, 3, 4, 5 etcetera—run diagonally down to the right. They also run diagonally to the left from the other 1. Moreover, the sum of each row yields 1, 2, 4, 8, 16: the exponents of 2. And this is only the start of the wonders the Triangle has in store, still yielding exciting new discoveries after hundreds of years.
Some might ask why anyone should care about Pascal’s Triangle. If, for example, your children, for reasons you can’t understand, move you from your home and maroon you among strangers, Pascal’s Triangle won’t help much. But although useless in the face of, for example, Alzheimer’s, Number Theory offers a world of purity and perfection invisible to the human eye, revealed only to the mind. God speaks the language of mathematics, in everything from black holes to the design of a humble seashell. Sometimes it may seem frustrating that God speaks only in mathematics, and will reveal that f = ma but won’t explain to Catherine Quick why she can’t stay with the man who’s shared her life for sixty years.
Even if God did explain it, my mother-in-law would forget, just as she forgot how she threatened Mildred, the feeble octogenarian next door, warning “that whore” to stay away from her man, or how she hit my father-in-law with her fists, or threw hot Maxwell House at him. Just as she has surely forgotten, if she ever knew, that the rows of Pascal’s Triangle yield the exponents of 2.
Every day Dad visits Mama at the Blair House where we moved her after she became unmanageable, and every day she asks when she can come home, and every day he avoids answering. Although it wouldn’t matter if he did answer because, as I have said, she’d forget anyway. He wants her to come home, too. He tells my wife Nancy that Mama only mentions Mildred “sometimes” now. He thinks if Mama came home again, it might be different. He doesn’t have Alzheimer’s but a more common memory loss, forgetting what hurts to remember. Though it was a short time ago, he doesn’t really remember calling us, frightened, unable to deal with her rages. At first, Nancy could get Mama on the phone and talk about other things to distract her. We took shifts with her sister and brother, driving to Macon to make sure things were under control. Sometimes Mama got angry, but mostly it was just silly. She’d ask how long we were staying. Sunday, we’d say. She’d ask me, “And what is it you do?” I’d tell her. Then she’d ask how long we were staying. And what work I did.
Nancy and I had stopped at a barbecue restaurant halfway back to Atlanta one Sunday evening, exhausted, when the call came. Dad. Mama was angry about Mildred. He was frightened. When we got there, Mama was distraught and crying, while Dad placidly ate a bowl of noodle soup. He didn’t speak or look up. His calm seemed unnatural, but I suppose it was dangerous engaging her, even with eye-contact. My in-laws are in their eighties, but he is the frailer one, and now that his back has curved so he can barely raise his chin, she has the advantage of height as well. Maybe the best course in that situation is stay quiet and unobtrusive and focus on something else, noodle soup, if that’s what there is.
“Mama,” Nancy said, her voice allowing as little room for disagreement as pointing out that two 1s are 2, or that 2 and 1 make 3. “We’re going to the hospital. Get dressed.”
“What about Lee?” (My father-in-law.)
“He’ll follow us in the other car.”
Nancy and Mama sat in the backseat, and I drove. The closer to the hospital, the calmer she grew. At first she cried over Dad, how much she loved him, that she couldn’t bear losing him to “that bitch,” “that whore,” next door. Then she worried her behavior would give him a second heart attack; he’d had his first about ten years before. Then she turned to pleasant and inconsequential things—what that building had been before being a beauty parlor, memories of fresh donuts when the red neon light came on at the Krispee Kreme, how Macon had changed over the years, and by the way, what was it I did for a living?
She was hospitalized two weeks while they balanced her meds, switching her to a more potent antipsychotic that made her a little droopier. I secretly suspect Dad hadn’t been diligent making sure she took her Seroquil. My in-laws are near-phobic about psychiatry. When Dad got a package from Mama’s psychiatrist, he phoned Nancy in a conniption fit: imagine, “Psychiatric Care Center” right on the envelope for anyone to see! As far as Dad’s concerned, psychotherapy should be handled with the same level of decent shame as pornography. As you’d imagine, this attitude doesn’t help matters. I’m not sure Mama even knows she has Alzheimer’s. I’m certain no one in the family ever said the word aloud to her.
In any case, she had been released from the hospital only a day when she threw a cup of hot coffee at Dad. Mildred, she said. He’d been seeing that “whore” Mildred. But if it weren’t Mildred, it’d be something else; Mama’s rage isn’t against the neighbor, but the betrayal of her own mind. And the shame attendant on that betrayal. And it will not get better. Each day she pleads to come home from the Blair House, and Dad, whom she beat and cursed, longs for her to come home too, and he is unhappy, and her children are unhappy, and there is no good ending to this.
But I digress.
I hadn’t meant to write about life, which is broken and ugly, but mercifully temporary, but about something which is indestructible, beautiful, and eternal. How essential Pascal’s Triangle is, in spite of the fact, or maybe because of the fact, it exists only in the Mind of God, and how different it is from life, which so unfairly must be judged by its conclusion: hope and joy, and the memory of hope and joy, tapering to a point and finally disappearing into infinite nothing, unlike the perfect triangle that begins with 1 and spreads into infinity.
My family and I moved from North Carolina to Tennessee and into a world of confusing adolescent needs and expectation. The prepubescent eleven-year-old girls I left were still trying to decide whether it was time to wear deodorant. Here, in a suburb of Memphis, the girls were already shaving their legs and priming and concealing, risking the tender parts of their necks to create corkscrews that framed their faces.continue reading >