Monday, May 21, 2012
No. 103 The Tragic Story of Abram Lewis
Anytime we saw his red push cart coming down the road we ran as if to hide. He had never done anything to anybody that we knew of, but there was something scary and strange about the way he looked and moved, and our reflex action, whenever we caught sight of him coming, was to get far away, or at least out of his path.
His name was Abram Lewis, and when I think back on my own reactions to him I am ashamed. And the older I get, the more ashamed I am. Abram suffered from a severe form of cerebral palsy that left him almost totally disabled. He could not speak, only to grunt and moan. He couldn't walk either and he moved around on an old Western Flyer cart that was worn and weather-beaten. He steered with one outstretched hand while he pushed his cart along with a leg that extended over one side. The foot that he used for pushing was usually covered only with a sock that had been worn through so badly that the bare skin of his toes was always visible.
He wore old clothes that fit poorly and that were often both tattered and torn. They always appeared soiled, or at best unkempt. His face had a bearded stubble that accented a ruddy complexion, and his deep dark eyes evidenced a sadness that still haunts me when I remember his staring into mine.
Abram was one of several children born to a family that was very poor by today's standards. But on the Harkers Island of my youth his family was no more impoverished than most of their neighbors. So it was not poverty alone that caused him to be treated the way he was. Rather Abram's decrepit appearance was caused by a lack of sensitivity and even compassion. In retrospect, there was so little of both that it could be said that his life was less a life than a mere existence. And the latter was entirely lacking of the human dignity that might have been expected and ought to have been demanded.
In my memory, because of his handicaps and illness, Abram was seen and treated not with mercy but with begrudging pity and frequently with overt derision. Even some people in his own extended family seemed to feel as if he were a burden to be endured and nothing more. Some teenagers would mock and jeer him, and even those that were not the perpetrators were guilty of allowing others to make their fun, and even laughing as the scenes played out. Most grownups simply ignored him; a response that was hardly more laudable than the pranks of their children. Smaller children just ran away, as much because of what we had been told as because of anything we might actually have seen.
It would be comforting to think that Abram Lewis was the only person I knew who was victimized by his time and condition, but there were others whose situation differed only in the degree of their disability. Very few of them had the benefit of the special treatment they needed to make their lives more comfortable and bearable. I can't accept that this benign neglect was entirely because of a lack of love or concern or even of resources. It was, I presume, much more attributable to a lack of any awareness of what should and could be done.
Abram's story had a happy ending of sorts. When he was forty years old he was placed in a state maintained training school, almost a hundred miles away in Kinston. There, he finally got the attention, therapy, and even the compassion he had been denied during those first long formative years. Gladly for him, we eventually learned that Abram's disability did not extend to his mental capacities. In fact, he had been fully aware of the life he had been compelled to live. And those of us who had either mistreated or ignored him came to understand that the victim of our neglect had not been so oblivious to our behavior as we might have hoped. Knowing that he had been aware of the indignity of his condition, as well as our apparent lack of caring compassion, has been a lasting shame to me and many others — if only because of what and how we passively witnessed.
Abram lived for another thirty years in Kinston at the facility that had saved him from the indignity he had known as a child and man in the place where he was born. Friends and family who visited him there brought back stories of someone who would have been unrecognizable to most of those who once had belittled him. Thankfully, one of the ways that the Island, and the world of today is far better than the one I knew as a boy is in how we treat and interact with people like Abram Lewis.