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Bob O’Connor: Uncle kept his humor despite life’s struggles

Is there a lighter side to mental illness; a silver lining to the dark and forbidding madness into which some of us fall?

My favorite uncle passed away a few weeks ago and I was at his bedside when he breathed his last. He had been a brilliant student who graduated at the top of both his high school and college classes. He went to Georgetown Law School, he went to the theater, he went to the opera and, in his mid-20s, he went crazy.

Back in the early ’60s, we still believed that insanity was a yes-or-no proposition. Either you were sane and rational or you were certifiably nuts. In those days, psychiatrists used heavy drugs, psychotherapy, electric shock and isolation to treat what used to be called manic depression. (It is now called “bipolar disorder.”)

Today, mental health is viewed more as a continuum wherein we all move up and down the scale of sanity, most of us staying comfortably with the bounds of “normalcy.” Plus, physicians have far more effective drugs in their arsenal than they had a half century ago.

My uncle was born at the wrong time. He spent six decades moving in and out of sanitariums, psych wards and rest homes. His was a life of torment, a life unfulfilled. Yet he maintained his good humor and accepted his disability with a measure of grace.

I once visited him in the lockdown facility of a local hospital. While we chatted, an elderly gentleman in street clothes asked me for a ride home. He explained in great detail that his mother had forgotten to pick him up. I told him I would be happy to give him a lift when my visit was over. He smiled and indicated he would wait by the door. My uncle roared with laughter.

“Bobby,” he said, “I’m crazy and even I know that guy is a patient here!”

When my uncle found a home in an assisted-living facility, he asked that I bring him a record player and some of his opera records. Within a week I received a call from the director asking me to remove the record player. It seems that my dear uncle was blaring Italian opera well into the night. He had tried to engage his fellow residents in an operatic sing-along.

Another time I found him in the facility’s kitchen lecturing the staff on labor law and advising them of their rights. He was urging them to unionize. The workers were smiling; they genuinely seemed to like him. You see, he was neither violent nor mean; he was simply wacky. I suppose if he had been born wealthy, he would have been called eccentric.

The man was fluent in several languages, was well read and had a vast vocabulary. Yet he lacked basic social skills and was utterly unable to cope with the pressures of everyday life. I asked him once if he ever regretted not marrying or having children.

“No,” he sighed. “I wouldn’t have been good at it. Besides, I can’t take care of myself.”

My uncle was the only person I knew who could quote Emerson or St. Thomas Aquinas without sounding like an overeducated phony. He was particularly fond of a tune called “The Prisoner’s Song,” which goes in part:

Now, if I had the wings of an angel; Over these prison walls I would fly. And I’d fly into the arms of my darling; And there I would gladly die.

Here’s hoping you finally found your wings, Uncle Bob. Rest in peace.