First a father, now laughter stolen by crippling MS


I was 10 or 11 when my father came home from work one day with a cane to help him walk.

Because he was my father and because fathers don't need help, especially walking, I ran away from home. I ran away because I was embarrassed.

Not for me.

For him.

I knew -- or thought I knew -- that he wouldn't want me to see him like that. Weak. Vulnerable. Somehow less than perfect.

It was 1960, and that was how we thought. It's almost funny, looking back at it. In that time, even in a progressive family like mine, men could be heroes in ways that women still could not.

My father, as I understood him, was strong, brilliant, funny, wildly competitive and macho in the best possible sense. He embodied everything I wanted to be.

And then he came home with the cane.

I had to get away. I walked for hours -- walked and cried and railed at the gods and tried to understand what had happened. When I finally returned, my mother explained to my sister and me that our father had multiple sclerosis, a nerve disease. She said it affected his walking and his sight, but that, often with MS, patients had remissions and he could be much better quite soon.

And yet, he never got any better. MS is a degenerative disease that attacks the protective sheath surrounding the nerves. You've heard the fund-raising campaign ads -- MS, the crippler of young adults. My father was in his 30s, and he had an unusually virulent case.

Soon he would become completely blind. Quickly he moved from cane to wheelchair.

But he and I never talked about it. I'd read him the newspaper, although he never quite said he couldn't see. When I would help my mother lift him and the wheelchair up the front-porch steps of our house, he'd thank me. But I couldn't answer. I'd gulp. That was the best I could do.

And as his condition eventually worsened to the point that he was forced to move from a wheelchair to a bed, he and I simply pretended it had never happened.

That was how I lived my adolescence, watching my father grow increasingly fragile in body and mind. And all the while, I never learned how to deal with it. When I was 23, he died.

Which brings me to Richard Pryor. Pryor is another of my heroes. I now see heroes through grown-up eyes, however, and recognize fully his flaws. If you know his comedy, you know the long list.

I forgive the flaws, for Pryor is a comic genius whose great gift is turning his pain into the brilliant flame of self-recognition while all we have to do is laugh.

Not incidentally, Pryor has MS.

Recently, I saw him on TV. You're taken aback by his frailty. He speaks in a whisper, and his mouth often can't give voice to the words his brain is relaying. That's another symptom of this truly horrible disease. As he has said about MS: "It's the stuff God hits your ass with when He doesn't want to kill ya -- just slow ya down."

If he is frail and weak and much slowed, he's still out there trying to fight the disease with humor. Although I try to laugh, I end up crying.

He was scheduled to play at Pier Six tomorrow. And I couldn't decide whether I could bear to see him.

In the early '80s, I had attended his comeback concert on Sunset Strip. That particular comeback, one of many, was from the burns, physical and psychological, he had endured when his house caught fire. Pryor, at his most self-destructive, had caused the blaze while free-basing cocaine.

In the concert, he was hilarious even as he talked about finally giving up drugs and coming clean. But about three-fourths of the way through the show, he walked off the stage in what would later be described as a crisis of confidence. He didn't understand that the audience, convulsing with laughter, loved him.

I had made my decision to see him at Pier Six, only to learn that the show had been canceled. Presumably, Pryor is too ill to go on.

They still don't know what causes MS. And they still have no cure. I just know that each morning when I wake up, I hold my breath for just the slightest moment until I swing my legs off the bed and begin to walk.

Knowing that Pryor is now a stand-up comic who can't stand up, I had to see him. I had to see him as he is -- a fighter.

I wanted to do it for him.

And for me.

And, especially, for my dad.

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