What Would Buddha Do?

a muddy road

The state of things in Taos, amply illustrated here

My brother Bill has cancer in both lungs. My siblings and I are at least mildly surprised he’s lasted this long, given his decades-long history of methamphetamine addiction and smoking cigarettes to boot. But I know little about him, really. My natural sympathies are tempered by the fact that I’ve been far too close to the violent behavior he exhibits when he’s “tweaking,” some of which is still quite unforgivable.

There are a few good memories—a very few—and I’d never say he didn’t try, but dealing with him at all is a difficult, crazy-making enterprise at best. For most of his life, he’s been what psychologists call a “social idiot,” incapable of making the kind of judgements that allow one to function normally in human society. He does the most astoundingly stupid things as a matter of course. One could go on, but why? This isn’t the time for cataloging his sins, most of which are of the cringeworthy or self-destructive variety rather than pure evil, although there may be things I don’t know about that could have put him away forever. At any rate, his life was never something that invited close inspection by his siblings, and mostly we ignored him. My late sister would have nothing to do with him, and I personally intervened to keep him away from her memorial celebration in Austin, to the great relief of all concerned, especially her grieving husband.

On those occasions when he seems to be straight, there’s a modicum of social awareness and decency that one seizes with a starving heart—at last, an actual brother!—until the inevitable truth swings by again to reinforce the same old narrative. He seems to have some friends, though most of them are surely felons. (The ones who burned down his trailer after he admitted to the police that he’d let them build a meth lab on the property come to mind.) This is a sixty-three-yeard-old man who’s probably never been invited to dinner in a nice home with real people. I doubt he’s ever eaten in a decent restaurant. I’d hesitate to take him anywhere, and yet he’s capable of being spontaneously kind.

His one endearing (?) habit is to sign off most phone calls with, “I love you, Johnny,” often after relating a rambling collection of nonsense and lies. What makes this so confusing is that there isn’t any obvious manipulation involved, and I have to consider that after all, it’s just Bill and he’s out of his mind. In the past, I’ve either screamed myself hoarse or just walked away quietly, grateful that no further interaction was necessary.

That was then and this is now, of course.

His condition aside, through legal arrangement with my late aunt’s estate, I’ve been entrusted with a small inheritance—just four figures now—to dole out to him on a yearly basis for five years. (She knew of his tendencies and instructed her lawyer accordingly.) I’m even supposed to have him tested for drugs each year before writing a check. That and every other rule has gone out the window in the face of his cancer, as well it should.

The problem, if there is one, has to do with the amoral social idiot side of the equation. He has no concept of money other than to spend it immediately and then expect more, a process complicated by repeated lies. For example, I sent him his entire 2015 allotment in early December—almost three thousand dollars—after he told me he needed to get the gas turned back on and pay his property tax. A few nights ago he called me again, or rather one of his entourage did, then handed the phone to Bill: another thousand dollars, please…to help get the gas turned back on and pay his property tax!

I won’t send it, though.

The picture, then, is complicated. My brother is a man without a moral compass who nonetheless elicits sympathy when glimpses of what could have been break through. (This almost always sways my sister, even my own wife, and I’m left looking like an ogre.) At this point I’ve long since given up all hope of “fixing” anything, much less his finances and the shady circumstances of his life. But by taking responsibility for his remaining cash, I’ve made it easy to become entangled in the same dark world my parents knew too well. He and my late mother lived for years in a perverted symbiotic relationship that probably hastened her own death. Especially where money is involved, the deluge of lies and bullshit never ends.

I need to be free of this. Perhaps the only way is letting go of Bill before he dies. Let go of the anger, let go of Arizona, erase the contact info from my phone. The latest wrinkle is that he may well last longer than we think, and he’s been told the bank is closed for the rest of this year, unless he’s really dying.

I can laugh if I”m not hurting. He can float away.

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  • M.J. January 13, 2015, 10:48 AM

    Sibling guilt is a terrible thing. I know, I’ve been there, done that. I feel for you. You never know how to correct the situation. Tough love is just that “tough” for us sane siblings. I have been known to check into the bills and by pass the sibling and take care of it that way. You just can’t make them be responsible, they aren’t rational people . Sometimes you just can’t fix it no matter what. Sorry this is happening to you after being sick. Hang in there!

  • Rita January 13, 2015, 11:01 AM

    Arrrghhh!!!!!!!!!!

  • Marti Fenton January 13, 2015, 11:07 AM

    Oh my! Sounds like my dilemma with my ex-husband sans the meth. It does seem that we are often given such a being to test everything we think we know. They slip through the tiniest cracks in our defenses. They will totally drain every bit of life out of those around them if allowed to do so and yet it does nothing to help them. I call it the leaky bucket syndrome. Sometimes we have to accept that there is nothing we can do. Such beings seem to carry the craziness for their entire family and function as a focus of how not to live. In my case, I don’t have any money anymore so my personal leaky bucket has had to learn how to work the system better and has become somewhat more functional. I’ll admit bi-polar is probably better than meth in the long run. So sorry.

  • Bob January 13, 2015, 11:44 AM

    I speak with some experience when I say that you can’t change a person (you knew that) and you can’t go down the toilet with them.
    Your aunt, however well intentioned she was, left you with a burden that no one should have to bear under these circumstances. Give him the last of his money, change your phone number and be happy. It doesn’t sound to me that you and he have a relationship other than some DNA and that alone shouldn’t support the agony you’ve gone through.
    Some time ago I had responsibility in my church for our welfare program. The hardest thing for me to learn was that we sustained lives, not lifestyles. There were times when I had to tell people that I was sorry but that we couldn’t help them any longer because they had resources but had made no effort to help themselves. Each time it tore my heart out.
    Sometimes the best thing you can do to help a person is to not help them at all. I went through that with my son and some years later he said, “Dad, you made me so mad but I now know it was the best thing you could have done for me.” He now has no debt and though his family struggles from time to time they’re now getting by on their own.
    Unshackle yourself, John.

    • Marti Fenton January 13, 2015, 12:47 PM

      Yes, Bob you are correct. Your son had youth on his side and thus the possibility of regrouping for a different life. It seems like John’s brother is past this possibility. Perhaps the hardest part is accepting that some people will finish their life with negative progress, fucked up from beginning to end. At a certain point, so much mental and physical energy is gone that there is no real chance of change. Then you just have to accept that their life chances have collapsed and protect yourself from falling debris.

    • JHF January 15, 2015, 8:53 PM

      A few days have passed since I posted this. I’m cutting him off completely for the rest of 2015. He’s had his yearly allotment, and that’s all she wrote.

  • terri January 13, 2015, 6:55 PM

    You pretty much lost me when I read he’d beaten and raped a neighbor. A violent psychopath of a brother, I have one too. Why is he not in jail? I know, he has cancer and all–but how on earth did he escape justice for what he did to the woman across the street? Sorry but this to me, is the absolute worst thing a man can do, next to murder. It murders us anyway-and takes a life away, day by day hour by hour.

    • JHF January 13, 2015, 7:06 PM

      I’ve been informed that may not be correct and have removed it. I do believe it’s true, myself, and never would have mentioned it without a sense of certainty. He would have escaped punishment because it happened when he was a juvenile and no one ever knew. What happens in a shrink’s office stays there, at any rate. The attempted abduction story is quite reliable, however, as well as other history I will not mention. The outright violence I have witnessed first-hand, though, and anything is possible. I’d never leave a wife or child alone with him, and more than once I feared he’d do something to our mother.

      I hope you don’t mind that I removed your second comment. I very much agree, of course, but after my edits, it just didn’t fit.

  • toh January 13, 2015, 7:29 PM

    I understand. No problem, it’s your page, after all.

  • judyinboston January 15, 2015, 8:39 PM

    So sorry for all your troubles with this. Best to hang on to the remaining money for when you have to go down there. Being manipulated sucks, but at least you tried and were the good Samaritan. That counts for a lot.

    • JHF January 15, 2015, 8:51 PM

      That’s my current position. Not another cent. Have you read The HELEN CHRONICLES? There’s quite a bit of background on this in there.

  • Bob January 16, 2015, 2:19 PM

    It’s a hard deal, John, but for whatever my opinion is worth, you’re doing the right thing.

    • JHF January 16, 2015, 3:02 PM

      Well, it’s really very simple, and one can be objective without assigning blame or getting tied up in anger. That’s what I realized.

      He’s already had what the terms of my aunt’s trust instructed me to give him for this year, and that’s gone. His Social Security is more than enough to pay the negligible expenses he’d have if he weren’t buying buying meth, visiting casinos, or paying for sex. I know he has cancer and is probably doomed. He’s just incapable of giving any thought to the future, however, much less his condition. Incapable, I say. Giving money to him, regardless of the source, is like tossing it into the wood stove. This isn’t a moral issue. More like physics, actually!

      There will be end-of-life expenses: cremation, the taxes he’s never paid, unpaid bills, legal help to evict his squatter friends and facilitate probate, transportation and lodging so I can go to Tucson, clean-up help to get the property ready for sale, and who knows what. He isn’t making any provision for these expenses, which means it comes down to me and my siblings, and we can’t afford it. The bottom line is, I have to protect the living and be able to clean up after he’s gone. This is also the only way we can see him off, so to speak, without more crises or resentment.

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