Well, hell. Lately, I write mostly about death.
However, before launching into yet another mournfest, I must declare my gratitude that the fears in my last post have been vanquished. Sis 3’s operation results are completely clean, and this disease is not taking her. Even greater than this news is her incredible joyful spirit. She continues to inspire me, and I am crazy about her.
Today I found out that my first husband’s father and brother are, as of Thanksgiving of last year, both dead. My former mother-in-law calls me about every 9 months or so. She is a lovely woman and has always treated me with great kindness. She remains my sole contact with Karl’s family, who I otherwise am interested in primarily as people I used to know.
As the news sinks in, I’m mildly but not hugely surprised by all the emotions that it’s kicking up. For about a year of our lives, Karl’s father, brother, and the father’s second wife were the people I saw most regularly besides Karl’s doctor and my aerobics students.
Karl got sick while we were living in New York. From there, we headed to Boston where his older sister, who’d married well, had found us an apartment so I could take care of Karl and he could see the best doctors she could find (AIDS, unfortunately, was still such a new disease in 1986 that the best didn’t know a whole lot more than the not-best). Anyone who’s spent time in Boston can attest that the climate isn’t exactly health-friendly. Karl also hated the Red Sox. Given 6 months or less to live, he decided he wanted to move to Florida to reconcile if possible with his father after what was, at the time, 36 years of a rocky and unloving relationship.
I detested Karl’s father as soon as I met him. He was labelled “charming” by people who, I think, were trying to give themselves an excuse for being suckered by his boorish manipulation at one point or another. He was a petty, cruel man who never passed up an opportunity to get in a dig at Karl, and who I think always harbored the idea that Karl, dark, slender, and the spitting image of his black-eyed Portuguese mother, was not the son of his stocky Aryan loins. (We always had to leave for plane trips early in those days of Qaddafi, as Karl looked, in his own words, like a terrorist and we could count on him getting held up by security about half the time.) Karl had run away from home in Connecticut to New York when he was 16, headed to Portugal to dodge the draft (his maternal grandfather was there) when he was 17, and had never had a relationship with his father that had any positive aspect that I could see.
It is true that between K’s mother, father, and sister, an adequate if frugal allowance was provided for us, and his sister handled all the medical bills. For that, I’m grateful. I understand that it was hard on them financially, and I know their son was dying and that that sucked. A lot of things sucked for all of us.
I think Karl hoped for a while for his father’s respect, but I don’t think he expected to get it. He looked me in the eye about 9 months before he died and said, very matter-of-factly, “Kid, I hate my father.” He seemed resigned to it. He’d tried. I remember one particularly horrible fight where the father said, “Your whole problem with this AIDS thing is that you didn’t go off like my brother and become a war hero,” and Karl spat back, “Yeah, your fucking vegetable brother.” It went downhill from there.
That was the fight that tipped me from dislike to hatred. From then on, I had as little contact with the old man as possible.
Apparently, the brother died just 2 days after the father, and perhaps literally, according to the autopsy report (filtered to me through the mom) of a broken heart. Johnny was one of those men who, unlike Karl, desperately wanted his father’s love. He moved to Florida the same time that we did, worked for the old man, who seemed to dote on him, but prior to his death, had no love or sign of it to give to the kid. An addict like his brother (and unbeknownst to us at the time, me), Johnny fairly often harassed me to give him some of Karl’s drugs, got petulant and nasty when I wouldn’t, and generally was insanely confusing. He acted his age, which pissed me off because I could never act mine.
Johnny did have a sweet side, which was much more in evidence once Karl and I cut loose of West Palm Beach – he’d given up all hope of any type of reconciliation after a year – and headed to Key West. J came down to see us a few times, and once saw me through an insane amount of alcohol and the subsequent killer hangover with the non-judgment that only a fellow addict has in that situation. One year minus 3 days younger than me (and thus 11 years minus 4 days younger than Karl), he wanted a family that behaved something like families are supposed to, at least on TV and in movies. He never got one.
The last time I saw either the father or brother was when we all met in Miami after Karl died. Key West didn’t have a crematorium, so K’s body had to be sent to Miami. We all met in a hotel room. I was in one of the most bizarre emotional places I would ever be in. It is a terrible thing to feel tremendous relief after someone dies, but anyone who’s nursed someone through a long and gruelling illness can understand it, I think. My mother was there, and had been with Karl and me when he died, at home in Key West. I felt terrible that his mother last saw Karl in basically a cardboard box, which is how the mortician sent the body to Miami. I didn’t know that you had to order a pine box, and they didn’t say anything to anyone, apparently. That was how his parents and siblings last saw him; a cardboard box. His mother, sister and brother didn’t deserve that.
But his father did.
I don’t love the fact that still, to this day, the thought of that little bastard can make me feel so dark and stormy. Clearly, I hate his petty cruelty because it brings out my own. I am not glad that he’s dead. It’s been too long, 20 years, in fact. I would have been glad if it had happened sooner. That’s ugly of me. It’s probably uglier still that I feel no guilt over it, just a self-righteous anger that still feels good.
Anyway, it beats the uneasy sadness that I feel about his brother.
I had hoped, in the last couple of years, after hearing from his mom (of course) how, after yet another stint at rehab, J was getting his feet under him, that I’d see him again, or at least talk to him. Now that that’s impossible….I don’t know how I feel. Mostly detached. I wonder what happened to both of them after they died.
The thought of John and Karl being reunited is not so comforting as I would hope but rather seems just odd, especially with the old man bumping around somewhere nearby. I truly hope John found peace, but I have no such kind wishes for the old man. That’s a gross feeling, and hopefully I’ll work my through it and have a little more grace at some point. Ugh.
I remember John wrote me a letter, clearly anguished, not long before Karl died, where he asked me to ask Karl to say he was sorry to some kid he knew who had died, a death to which J was somehow connected, but I’m not sure how. I read the letter to Karl, but I think he was pretty drugged at that point, perpetually. I don’t remember him having much of a response.
One thing I know: The Good Death is a myth. I feel peace about Karl because he had a Good Life. Tons of bad decisions, not enough time, but for 5 years we had each other and we didn’t waste it. And of course, before he met me, he Lived; as he would have said, he didn’t fuck around. HE LIVED. When there were things to enjoy, he ran headlong into them. When it was finally time for him to die, he ran into the light.
I don’t think that’s how it worked for either his father or brother. I hope, in the years that I lost touch, that his brother experienced crazy, unspeakable joy and love at some point, like I did with Karl, and like I’ve been blessed to have with so many people in my life, from the spouse and the kids to my parents and sibs and some friends.
In time, maybe I can even wish that for the old man.
But I’ll never know now if it happened.