When the Butcher came home yesterday, he asked, “Were you crying on the phone when you told me about our cousin? Why would you cry for him?”
I was, but I denied it.
The Butcher has no love lost. I don’t blame him. The Butcher’s whole life, my cousin has been borrowing from death a few dollars at a time. I remember, though, when he was young and healthy and strong, when he could grab the edge of my grandma’s porch roof and lift himself on two strong arms to take a look and see what balls or Frisbees were stuck up there.
He was not the oldest cousin, but he was the oldest male cousin, and in my family, that mattered.
Like the rest of us, he could sell anything. He could make you feel special and noticed. He made you feel like something, anything, was about to happen.
Those weren’t skills he developed in order to be a con artist; he was a good con artist because we all have those skills.
When my grandma died, he was in rehab yet again, and so none of us expected him at the funeral. And yet, there he was, going from table to table at the dinner afterwards, asking the youngest cousins if he could borrow their car keys just for a second, just to go out and have some space to collect his head.
Bless their hearts, we didn’t warn them–because there are just some things you don’t talk about, don’t put it in writing, don’t say it out loud, just pretend like it’ll be different than how it is–and so each of them lost all the change in their cars. To him. He stole what he could find from his own family.
As if it would be enough. Whatever paltry amount they had in their cars.
He was a great con artist.
It was hard on my uncle, the phone calls from some new pastor at some new church trying to talk my uncle into… well, into giving my cousin access to my family again, though the new pastors at the new churches didn’t know that. They thought they were mending hearts, rebuilding bridges. They took my cousin at his word and set out to fix the problems he told them he had.
Which were all lies, or half-lies, designed, of course, to give him one more shot at both the money to keep using and the hope that this time he really could clean up.
Jesus says that no one can serve two masters.
I’m certain my cousin died trying. I think both things were true–that he desperately wanted to clean up and that he never had the least intention of cleaning up. I think he didn’t like what using drugs was doing to his life, but he never fell out of love with doing them. And I think he thought that there would be some way that he could find a way of continuing to do drug without them ruining his life. I don’t think he ever gave up on that.
I am sitting here tonight thinking of a conversation I had with my dad a year or so ago. He’d just talked to my cousin on the phone, my cousin had called him begging for money and my dad was so upset because he’d refused to give it to him. Even though it was the right thing, the only thing, to do.
You hold out hope.
That’s the problem.
You hold out hope that this time it’s really him on the phone, really him standing before you really asking for help, and that the help he wants is the help he needs. If all it takes is money, then let us find a way to throw money at you.
But it never is him, not really. It’s the monster that needs fed, putting on the corpse of your loved one to tug at your heart one more time. The wolf in boy’s skin.
I don’t know that we’ll go to the funeral. It’s not just the weather or the distance or the time of year.
It’s the sound of handcuffs clicking into place against the Butcher’s wrists. Or the muffled cry that sat in the back of our throats when the recalcitrant brother disappeared for six brimstoned weeks and we were certain, though we never spoke it out loud, that the oldest nephew’s family would find him dead some place and call us and tell us to come bring our boy home.
It’s the way, even now, I can’t look either of them in the eye very long, especially the recalcitrant brother. If there’s something lupine and evil lurking there, I can’t bear to see it.
I would rather hold out my own foolish hope, that we are luckier, that we’ve escaped the full brunt of that family trait.
But all you can do is hope. You can’t put any faith in it. I don’t think.
Whitman, in my favorite poem, says, “I have said that the soul is not more than the body, / and I have said that the body is not more than the soul, / And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is, / And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral dressed in his shroud.” A second later, he says, “And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel’d universe, / and I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”
On my best days, I read Whitman and just want to call someone up and speak him out loud to them; there’s such good truth in there.
And there are other days, when I want to curl up next to him, his big white beard spread across us both, and ask him how an object as soft as each of us, as frail and fucked up and prone to messes, can be a hub for the wheel’d universe and not be crushed under the weight?