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-year-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.