As with my post that followed the Syrian dad teaching his daughter to laugh at bombs, this post follows an interaction I had with a writer who is largely unaware of her ability to write. I worked on this post and didn’t post it. It’s been sitting in my draft folder for a long time, like undiscovered poison. Later the other day, I discovered that the writer had visited my blog and read about my cousin who died of cancer. It was an odd coincidence, one which prompts me to share it now, long after I was inspired to write it.
A few years ago, my cousin was dying of cancer. He’d been in remission for a while but as often happens, the cancer returned, vengeful and malicious. There was more than sufficient time for everyone to see him during his first round and in the interim intermission. While he was still a little wild and still a fan of drinking, he’d transformed from the person he’d been five, ten, or fifteen years prior. My cousin realized that anyone who really wanted to see him had more than enough time during his life and during the last couple of years. All else was an excuse. He recognized that he had been guilty of the same dismissive immortality with some of his friends and family.
My cousin became withdrawn. Daily life was a struggle for him, and his moments became both agonizing and precious. He wanted to reduce the drag on his spirit from visitors and ghosts from his past, especially those who brought with them the accompanying demons wrestling inside them. I tried to inform people politely that he wanted peace, to not take offense to unreturned calls, declined visits, and to honor the requests some of us were passing along on my cousin’s behalf.
To preface, there were people who were gloriously helpful, compassionate, and of unimaginable help. We all know people like this. They embrace, reach out, sit by the bedside, scrub the floor, and know when to be quiet or smile. They light us up with joy. Those people were around, too.
All of us who’ve lost someone, though, have stories of despair that sometimes overtip the balance of good vs. dark.
I was ignorantly unprepared for the backlash of anger, resentment, and hostility from some of my cousin’s friends and acquaintances. I’ve written about this time before.
I almost had a nervous breakdown due to another family member. Unbelievable as it may sound, I also became convinced that the family member was going to kill me, someone trained and capable of doing so. Though I discarded most of this sort of hateful memory, I have a couple of voicemails from the guilty party, ones in which he laid out his plan to kill me, and kill anyone who dared interfere with what he wanted to do. He also made sure that I understood that his knowledge of the system would not only allow him easy access to others to help him exact his will but also to avoid being held accountable for it. I can’t listen to them without despairing for humanity. It’s some of the ugliest things I’ve ever heard in life. This episode ruptured my connection to the family member in a way I didn’t believe was possible. Addiction or not, it was profoundly evil. It didn’t help that the family member gaslighted me and everyone around him about it, either. I still struggle with the aftermath of the anger and hate that came from that period.
There were other people like him, but most were amateurs on the fringes. Through it all, I felt horribly sorry for both my cousin and his wife. The angels among us helped my cousin’s wife get through to the end.
Really, though, the last part prompted this post.
Someone else who knew my cousin well, someone I knew in passing due to overlapping schools and geography, told me I was the worst #$%^ing human being in history, was gay, probably half-black, and that he hoped that I died of the worst form of cancer imaginable. I’ll call him Fred. He said these things because I asked him to treat my cousin’s wife in the same way he wanted others to treat his own wife. My cousin loved the moments he’d shared with Fred, but couldn’t find the energy to wax nostalgic with someone who would only make him feel worse. Fred loved drinking and hitting people, male or female. He couldn’t imagine a world in which someone might not want his anger and alcoholism around someone trying to find a few days of peace in his dwindling life. He doubled down and called my cousin’s wife every name in the book. In the most sincere way I could muster, I told him that I hoped he’d find a way to get past the anger in his soul. That only made him angrier. Because he needed to hear it, I told him that it was my cousin’s wish to be buffered from people who weren’t in control of themselves. Fred kept screaming, “I hope you get cancer X, you and that b@#$% he’s with.” He was fixated on it. He finished off his tirade by saying that my cousin deserved the cancer.
I recently found out that Fred has cancer.
I’m not sure how I feel. Fred continued to have anger and addiction issues in the years after my cousin’s death. I’ve heard stories. I’ve watched Fred use a combination of anger and bullying on other people. He’s deserved a multitude of plates of crow and humble pie. I infrequently drop in, so to speak, and look for indications that someone is calling him out for his misbehavior. Now that he has cancer, it is impossible for anyone to call him out for his previous hatefulness.
He’ll pass away, and the world will continue to spin. I’ll feel a little pang of relief to know he’s gone. It’s not nice for me to say it, even if I’ve admitting it while not callously naming names.
My conflicting feelings don’t paint me in a flattering light. I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone. Much of my aversion to Fred in all honesty stems in part from the poison of hate and addiction that my parents spewed into my life. My other family member, the one I was certain was going to kill me, mixes into the same karma that befell Fred. They are inseparable because they both contain equal parts of hate and addiction.
We all want justice and to see that “what goes around, comes around” has teeth. We don’t want the suffering, if we’re good people, but that sense of things being set right can’t be denied, not if we are honest with ourselves.
If Fred’s wife could feel even a tiny bit of the hurt that her husband inflicted on me a few years ago, she would collapse into a deep pit of anger and despair. Imagine if someone talked about her like her husband did about my cousin’s wife. I would hope that Fred himself would recognize how vicious and inhuman he was a few years when my cousin just wanted a peaceful death. He doesn’t though. His close family members are bigots and the opposite of what I consider to be good, compassionate human beings. They won’t see the irony of applauding this man’s life.
I sit with this little piece of recognition of myself. It poisons my life a little. But I protect it.
I’m not comfortable with myself. My threatening family member and Fred share the fact that they lived their lives roughshod over those they quarreled with; their anger was their first line of attack. They saw no need to withdraw from anger and even less a need to apologize or make amends.
Time cures them. But they’re quickly replaced with people who share their lack of humanity.