Many of you who frequent WYFP know about the long and bitter family warfare that I found myself in the middle of three years ago, shortly after my mother died. The fault lines fell thus: we two sisters on one side, our brother on the other. A web of ugly lies sparked this war. The lies were his. Now he is dying.
A few of you even read the requiem I wrote for Mom here the morning I got the call. I never did follow up with the full story of what really happened. To do so, I have to go back to the spring of 2005.
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What I found three years ago, after I wrote that requiem, was that several crucial things I knew about my mother's last two years was in reality a lie. The initial story about how she had come to survive her surgery and the first nursing home, in the late winter/early spring of 2005, turned out to be so completely warped and twisted that I wound up doubting my own sanity. She wasn't moved from an insufficient nursing home. She was moved because she wasn't eating, couldn't eat, because she had no awareness at all weeks after her surgery and discharge to rehab. She was transported to a local hospital for intervention -- a feeding tube. This was in violation of her living will. The truth was that my brother, who had her power of attorney and healthcare proxy, forced a fight at that hospital with two gastroenterologists who refused to violate that document. My sister witnessed that fight, for one of those doctors was her own. At my brother's insistence, the hospital's ethics panel was convened. The historical context is that this was all happening about the same time as the Terri Schiavo fight, with all the ugliness, all the viciousness of that very public battle to let a woman die with dignity. Not too surprisingly, the hospital ethics panel agreed with my brother and approved the intubation.
My siblings and I had had a major, nuclear-warfare-style meltdown during her surgery. I was supposed to be in Amsterdam that year, and had actually gone and come back for her surgery. I went back the day after surgery, because I knew there was no place for me, no space for me to help my mother. So I was back in A'dam when I heard from a member of the extended family about the intubation. I didn't hear about the back story, because that wasn't known. I couldn't fathom my brother doing that without my sister's approval, and I assumed, wrongly, that the two of them had made this decision together. I couldn't afford the phone calls to find out, and figured I'd just be hung up on if I did call.
I was there to research a dissertation I never finished. My husband, thankfully, was with me on that trip, and he kept a close watch on me. There were days when I couldn't even go to the archive, let alone make sense of the documents I needed to read. I remember walking those snow-covered cobbled streets along Prinsengracht in the dark, muffled in my overcoat, cap, and shawls against the bitter wind, tears rolling down my face, feeling like an orphan.
Once stabilized, Mom was moved to another longterm care facility. It really was pretty good. The picture I painted of it previously was accurate and fair. But that tube was still there. And she hated it, I know in my heart that she hated it, and she wanted me to to find a way to end her torment. But that would mean finding an attorney, and I couldn't even afford a consultation with one. And I knew, in Florida, with the whole Schiavo mess, that I wouldn't get anywhere if I tried.
Fast forward two years. Late March. Mom was dead, finally, after all that hell. Her funeral was a nightmare for me -- I'm rather allergic to funerals, would rather have the stomach flu than go to one. And the siblings and I were trying to be on our best behavior. My brother, who was living in Mom's house, had tried to patch up a peace the previous year, and I was heartsick enough to trust him one last time, so we were talking at that point. He would tell me about what he was doing to take care of Mom's affairs, and nothing sounded "off" to me, so I didn't question anything. But right before the funeral, things started getting weird. He gave me odd looks, had bitter, rambling diatribes in front of my husband but outside of my hearing. It bothered my husband enough that he told me about what he was hearing, and we left Mom's house for a hotel for a few days. My brother had planned a trip for that period, and he kept to those plans. Before the funeral, my brother told me that he wanted me to start the inventory, so my husband and I began that process once he'd left.
Enter my sister. As it turned out, she had long been suspicious of his motives and actions. I didn't quite believe it, but there was that odd behavior, and I decided a little "sunshine" would be a good thing. The first day, we checked out the house pretty carefully, with my husband's help, looking at cosmetic and structural issues that were never repaired after the twin hurricanes. I was livid over the neglect, because that house, waterfront property, was a major piece of Mom's worth, and if we had had to sell to support her, the condition would have diminished the value substantially. There were pieces of jewelery, really nice stuff, stashed in odd places that we knew should have been in Mom's safe deposit box The second day, my sister hit the motherlode: cancelled checks, hundreds of them, nearly two years of them, in shoeboxes, all for cash, with his signature. It added up to six figures' worth of embezzlement.
Can you imagine the shock? Do you understand what I suspected, what the evidence, the overwhelming evidence led me to conclude?
I've never spoken to my brother since. At first, I simply did not trust myself, and he was never worth my going to jail for assault. I also realized we were never going to have any sort of reconciliation because he would never acknowledge the truth of what he'd done. And there was also the fact that I blamed myself for missing the warning signs. My sister, too, remained estranged from him until recently.
I was surprised when she said she was going to go see him. She actually said she forgave him, and I just about broke my jaw on the floor when she said that. But then she told me why: he has stage four lung cancer. It has metastasized. And he's dying.
I can't do the same. Years before, we had had other difficulties. He had been an alcoholic and drug addict, and was a mean drunk. I caught the brunt of it as a teen, and it strained our relationship well into adulthood, even after he sobered up. He dealt drugs and threw wild parties even when he lived in Mom's house while I was in high school. To please my mother, I had forgiven him over and over again, trusted him over and over again. I can't get past this history.
Last night, I got an email from the same relative who had emailed me about Mom's forced intubation, asking me to reconsider my estrangement. Urging me to make some sort of peace before my brother dies. It won't be long, so I'm told. But I can't do it. I can't go there. Not before he dies, not at his funeral.
It's not that I don't believe that there can be contrition, forgiveness or reconciliation. It's because I have to have answers to the "why's" that have been searing my heart for the last three years. I need that truth first. I know that if I go, I will demand those answers from a man too sick, too doped up on morphine for the unholy physical pain to ever answer, and I am not that lacking in basic compassion. I can manage just that much lovingkindness to not do that. Silence is the only terms for peace I can offer.
Do I grieve for him, for this estrangement, for what happened to my family? Yes, of course I do. There's a mountain of bitterness on my heart, and a deep and abiding sorrow for the familial warfare over the long decades. If only there was a magic formula that could make it all go away, restore my family to something approaching functionality....
But there isn't.
And I still can't go there.