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I was having trouble getting into my car.

Every time I reached for the door handle, I dropped something. First it was my keys. As I picked them up, my appointment book spilled open, scattering slips of paper into the breeze. As I scrambled to gather them, my purse tipped and my wallet fell out.Behind me, I could hear a man laughing.

I didn't blame him. Some days just go that way.

I wasn't offended; in fact, I shared his amusement. With what I thought was humorous irony, I turned to him and said, "You'll have to excuse me. I've had Dropsy for several months, and I can't seem to shake it."

His laugh ended abruptly, and before I could add something about having always been clumsy, he mumbled an apology and sprinted to his car.

I'm sure he went home and confided to his wife that he was making fun of a person who, it turned out, had some terrible health problem and he felt just awful about it.

He didn't see that I was joking. I didn't see that he might take me seriously.

A few days ago, I listened as the mother of a seriously mentally ill boy told me what their lives are like on a day-to-day basis. She was very candid, admitting that while she loves her teenage son very much, their situation is difficult.

It's also an isolated life. Because his behavior is unpredictable and frequently inexplicable, she said that people tend to look at her with disapproval.

"I feel like I'm wearing a sign that says `Candidate for Bad Parent of the Year,' " she said. "I often explain that my son is mentally ill. But I don't feel I should always have to explain to strangers in supermarkets."

She said things I'd never heard put into words. She doesn't feel sorry for herself, but she's got a very realistic view of her life and his. And of the future.

Medication has not, so far, helped his schizophrenia. So while he's fun-loving and affectionate at times, he's also unpredictable and even frightening at other times. That won't change unless doctors find a combination that will help control his schizophrenia.

It's so hard, she said, to love a child and still, at times, dislike him for things he can't control. I think it's also natural. No honest person would always claim to be patient and understanding with a man-child who occasionally threatens her with a bat or a knife. Just as no honest person could dislike that same man-child knowing that he is sick, has a disease in his brain and is no more responsible for that than a diabetic is for his illness. Especially when there are so many moments that are rich with shared fun and memories and laughter.

The people who glare at her in public because she "can't always control his behavior" don't know any more than the little bit they can see.

They don't see the mother who has slept very little for more than a decade because her son is hyperactive and seldom sleeps himself.

They don't see the woman who has lobbied for services like respite care, residential treatment and employment opportunities to help other parents who also have a mentally ill child.

They don't see the woman who has been on waiting lists for those types of service for more than a year.

They don't see a mother who has at different times grieved for her son's problems and celebrated his role in her life. Who has cried with a daughter who doesn't like to bring friends home because of his erratic behavior. Who has comforted that mentally ill son when other people his age have ridiculed and berated him for the life that he doesn't understand either.

Most of the time, I'm convinced, people just don't see.

We see a poor person but don't see the events that placed him there.

We see a woman on welfare but don't see the steps she's taking to become self-sufficient.

We see a child who is large for his age and expect him to behave like an adult. We see size and translate it into experience and maturity.

We see someone who is physically disabled, and we don't see his capabilities.

And conversely, we see someone who looks good and don't see negative traits: the handsome spouse-beater, the charming con man, the wealthy deviant. In a courtroom, a clean-cut defendant is more likely to be acquitted or to get a lighter sentence if found guilty than one who is sloppy or slouchy. Even if it's the same man.

Our approach may be wrong. Perhaps we should stop trying to see with our eyes.