So my sister dies after The Year of Cancer, the year in and out of Sloane-Kettering, that dreadful place.
The pod of doctors making the rounds daily, faces changing but all unsmiling and unrevealing. The chemo that worked, then didn’t. The radiation, the pain which they never managed to manage in spite of the meds taking her to other worlds. The flying visits from friends and relatives from Chicago, New Mexico, even from London with babies in tow.
Scan followed by scan followed by scan. The good news, the bad news, and then just the bad news.
Then the dark day of signing the DNR form, followed by the 24- hour care-givers (the good ones and The Nightmare) and finally the hospice nurses at home. Three, maybe four good weeks of Marcia being Marcia, back in her own apartment and her own bed and not exactly “pain free”. Witty, quick, funny, sardonic— she was once again my smart and endlessly hospitable New York sister. Entertaining and laughing with friends: the Elvis impersonator at her birthday, the trip out in a wheel chair to see her son’s new apartment (the last she would have alive). The joy of holding her young granddaughters she desperately wanted to see grow up.
“One day this cancer will kill you,” her seeming under-age oncologist had said months before. And on September 6th 2012 at 2:30AM, it did.
A few months after we all walked down Amsterdam to the grim confines of Riverside Memorial Chapel, where we watched her paintings scroll by on video while she lay in oak, with the Mogen-David like a celestial address label inscribed on the lid, my brother-in-law became my former brother-in-law.
He never told anyone, not even Max, his son. From December, he went off air. Not a word.
Then March 12th, an email.
He had met someone at Nice-Matin on 79th Street, just down from my sister’s apartment, and gotten “involved”. That was “a couple of months ago”. He was tired, he explained, of being miserable and why should he be? His silence, someone said, was because he was afraid the news would upset us or we would be angry.
A casual glance at his profile on Facebook revealed he was rather more than involved. He was married.
There was the name of his new wife. There was his big smile, showing the camera the new ring. The new wife? Also an upper west sider, just around the corner in fact, also a painter. He had found a replacement.
Later he told someone they “met” online in December, had their first date on New Year’s Eve, went to City Hall on January 31st and tied the knot. This was followed, he confided nonchalantly, by a “nice, celebratory lunch”. (Chicken? Steak? How was the salad?)
Who knows when he started looking? In the spring I remember a man at the end of his tether, desperate for a way out. On one monthly visit to New York to see her and support him he demanded I ’take over’. It had all become too much. But I’m not her husband, I protested. It’s your job.
He started spending more and more time in Princeton, separate to get back to his science and his job, leaving Marcia with 24-hour caregivers, until only the weekend was left for his wife and her inescapable trajectory.
There had been a lot of talk about him remaining a member of the family. It was her great wish. It was ours too. We thought it was also his. We made a great effort to keep in touch. He deserved our support. He had had a terrible year and initially had nursed her wonderfully. She had said so.
And anyway we liked him. There was no reason not to.
He wasn’t what you would call domesticated. He needed things doing for him. But he was boyish, charming, a free spirit, fun to be with, and as a scientist he opened up a different world to us. Most of all, he made Marcia happy. We were grateful he came into her life when he did.
So after the funeral we made plans.
Come to England for Christmas, we said, we’re renting a farmhouse in Suffolk with all the kids. You’ll be in Germany?
Come to London, we said in January. It will be crowded but fun. No answer.
In March: We’re coming to New York to see you. You’ll be in Paris? (“For a little R&R”.)
Then silence. And since then, silence.
So my sister died and then their life together also ended, in secretive, furtive dissembling: the gauchness of a not-so-grown-up man feeling guilty and only his own needs. Marcia’s memory and his putative family shoved aside.
Somehow we and she had become the enemy. The cancer and that terrible year were not something that happened to her, but something done to him. He was the victim. As such, he found other injuries. We had never accepted him into the family. She had not given him enough closet space in the apartment after they were married. Resentment and anger poured out in defensive emails, a boil lanced.
And if he had to have enemies. he had to forget kindnesses. The many visits, weddings as part of the family, the meals, the intangible support through that year. And the material support so he wouldn’t have to worry about money.
He took his revenge. Without telling her children he cleared the family apartment of 35 years of memories. Art books that had belonged to my father. Her paintings disappeared. Furniture was taken. Two sets of china, one from my parents, were delivered to the new wife’s country house, along with the refrigerator, ripped from the wall. Neighbors reported a string of people leaving the building with our family’s things, all price-tagged.
The new wife and her daughters oversaw the dispersal of my sister’s life.
We found her wedding ring at the back of a drawer.
Grief is not for someone who is “tired of being miserable” three months after his wife dies. Miserable is the hand you are dealt because your are alive and are a man and have loved. That love is the cause of grief, and if you can’t or won’t grieve, that’s an absence, or rejection, of love.
And maybe, for some people, the past doesn’t matter. It’s about “me” and “me” needed to move on, fast.
He always needed looking after. She said he’d soon find someone. Marcia predicted it. Perhaps not that soon.
At the beginning he had been good to her and for her. But at the end his boyish charm had become an unmanly embarrassment. He had legal rights but no moral compass. He did great emotional damage: to us and her dear friends, but most of all, weirdly, to her memory. Laid to rest, he disturbed her peace. None of us deserved the sneaking around, the subterfuge and self-pity. We all suffered in that terrible time.
But he should remember who died.