Learning to Be Helpless
By the time I was thirteen, I had figured something out: Whenever my parents sent me to sleep over at my best friend Jeffrey’s house, that meant there was real trouble at home. The last time it had happened, I found out later that my mother had had a hysterectomy. This time I sensed my father was in trouble. Lately he had been acting strange. Usually hewas calm and steady, just what I thought a father should be. Now he was often emotional, sometimes angry, sometimes weepy.
Driving me over to Jeffrey’s that evening, through the darkening streets of residential Albany, New York, he suddenly drew a sharp breath, then pulled the car over to the curb. We sat there together silently, and finally he told me that for a minute or two he had lostall feeling on the left side of his body. I could detect the fear in his voice and I was terrified.
He was only forty-nine, at the height of his powers. A product of the Great Depression, he had gone from outstanding achievement in law school to a secure civil-service job rather than risk trying for something that might pay better. Recently, he had decided to make the first bold move of hislife: He was going to run for high office in the State of New York. I was enormously proud of him.
I was also going through a crisis, the first of my young life. That fall my father had taken me out of public school, where I’d been content, and put me in a private military academy, because it was the only school in Albany that sent bright youngsters to good colleges. I soon realized I wasthe only middle-class boy in a school made up of rich boys, many of whom came from families that had been in Albany for 250 years or more. I felt rejected and alone.
My father stopped the car at Jeffrey’s front walk, and I said good-bye to him, my heart in my throat. At dawn the next morning, I woke in a panic. Somehow I knew I had to get home, knew something was happening. I stole out of thehouse and ran the six blocks home. I got there in time to see a stretcher being carried down the front stairs. My father was on it. Watching from behind a tree, I saw that he was trying to be brave, but I could hear him gasping that he couldn’t move. He didn’t see me and never knew that I had witnessed his most awful moment. Three strokes followed, which left him permanently paralyzed and at themercy of bouts of sadness and, bizarrely, euphoria. He was physically and emotionally helpless.
I was not taken to visit him at the hospital or, for some time, at the Guilderland Nursing Home. Finally the day came. When I entered his room, I could tell he was as afraid as I was of my seeing him in his helpless state.
My mother talked to him about God and the hereafter.“Irene,” he whispered, “I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in anything after this. All I believe in is you and the children, and I don’t want to die.”
This was my introduction to the suffering that helplessness engenders. Seeing my father in this state, as I did again and again until his death years later, set the direction of my quest. His desperation fueled my vigor.
A year afterward,urged by my older sister, who regularly brought home her college reading to her precocious brother, I first read Sigmund Freud. I was lying in a hammock reading his Introductory Lectures. When I came to the section in which he speaks of people who frequently dream that their teeth are falling out, I felt a rush of recognition. I had had those dreams too! And I was stunned by his interpretation. ForFreud, dreams of teeth falling out symbolize castration and express guilt over masturbation. The dreamer fears that the father will punish the sin of masturbation by castrating him. I wondered how he knew me so well. Little did I know then that, to produce this flash of recognition in the reader, Freud took advantage of the coincidence between the common occurrence of toothy dreams in...