Idiots be saved


July 21, 2000


            My ex-editor David Cruz said it best: I don't suffer idiots well.

            Something about stupidity -- I mean lack of intelligence -- that absolutely frustrates me.

            So does its close associate: madness.

            Over the years, I've never reacted well to those people too far off the beaten path. One woman in the old rooming house in Montclair stirred up a vicious streak in me, drawing up in me an automatic hostility.

            This, of course, all goes back to my upbringing, my mad mother plucked again and again from me for admission into Greystone Park mental institution.

            I have harbored a secret anger against her for years, something that comes out potently each time I encounter a figure whose mental stature resembles hers.

            Over the years, I have struggled with other family members who -- because of time, ill health or alcohol abuse -- have degenerated into a similar mental condition. I was particularly angry in 1981 when I got stuck taking care of my uncle, Rich, whose brand of madness had caused him to verbally abuse me when I was a child. I secretly hated him.

            During the years I took care of him, I harbored a continual and sometimes very obvious anger towards him, not because of who he was so much as the situation and the unfairness.

            I'm told one of the great American myths is that we can escape our past. I have proven how false that belief is, saddled with the people for whom I have had strong negative feelings.

            Yet once I managed to place him in an appropriate institution, these feelings faded, he no longer depending upon me for his sole support. I visited him frequently, took him out to lunch, and began to like him as a human being. Later, as he grew closer to death, he became more needy, but by that time, I had overcome most of my resentment towards him, and felt a kind of affection for him.

            Well after Rich got settled, my family pushed my mother out, and she became mine. She was different. She was the source of my rage, and in some ways -- although she seemed more helpless -- she had a pride of self that would not allow me to push her around nor let my anger use her as a scapegoat.

            I mishandled handling her, and during one confrontation, she cried out that I had no right to manipulate her life, or judge her, or make her do things she didn't want to do.

            And in some of this, she was right.

            Over the last few years, I have learned much about myself and how to deal with my mother, about human respect, about my own rage, about how I needed to control myself.

            I have not learned enough. But I've learned to get passed the anger to actually care about my mother, the way I did with Rich.

            Last week, as I was helping her out of the car, I told her to watch her step as we crossed the hump of a curb.

            "Are you going to help me over the big hump, too?" she asked.

            At first, I didn't get what she meant, by the time I did, she had hobbled on, as if the words had not been said. She never repeated them. She didn't need to. She knew I would and will, when that time comes.




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