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On March 27th, my nephew lost his father, and my sister-in-law became a widow.  It’s ironic really, to think of her adding yet another unwanted title to her identity.  The day she married her husband, her in laws hosted an informal reception on their back deck.  We ate sandwiches and the newlyweds opened gifts from their families.  I distinctly recall my sister-in-law yelling at her mother, “Don’t call him my husband.”  It’s no family secret that it was a shotgun wedding, held in a judge’s chambers, a week or two before my nephew was born.  It doesn’t take a lot of guessing to learn that my nephew was conceived when his parents “weren’t even trying” to get pregnant, and that it was my mother-in-law who was a driving force behind the rushed nuptials.


My sister-in-law wasn’t shy about her plans to divorce her husband as soon as their son hit school-age and she would no longer “need” him for child care.


For me, it was all a source of ridiculousness, of incredulity at the antics I was now a part of, by marriage.  There is bile between my husband’s sister and me.  Ever since she received her invitation to our wedding a day later than her sister did, and concluded that we didn’t therefore want her at our wedding, I have made only requisite socially appropriate overtures toward her.  I hear only stories about her teenage screaming matches with my mother-in-law, her alleged theft of family jewelry, about how she broke my husband’s arm, and the time she literally locked him in a suitcase.  Beyond the family tales, I had firsthand experience of her selfishness — how she cancels plans with others on a whim and orders her father and sister to do her bidding – sell her car, fax her resume, find her a house, fix her toilet, walk her dog, etc.  The list is as long as the stories.  Each time my husband would come home from a well intentioned visit with her, he’d spew his own venom, seething about her self-centeredness, and unloading whatever ludicrous thing she’d said that time.  She would regularly tear him down, deriding his choices and values.  In defense of my best friend, I cannot stand my sister-in-law.


When her husband was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer, and given a year to live, I focused mainly on how long it was taking to get a diagnosis or prognosis.  No one seemed to know anything, and as much as we were technically kept in the loop via text messages, I just kept feeling like no real information was being transmitted.  It took 2 weeks to get the diagnosis of the primary cancer type.  The staging I never really found out.  It frustrated me, personally, because I wanted to understand in the way I cope with medical tragedies – by reading and researching.  Without the tumor staging, I knew very little.  I was critical of the doctors and my in-laws for their ignorance.  They wrote things like “legions” for “lesions” and described his tumors as “the big one” and “the little ones”, rather than telling where in the brain they were, that I might understand what kind of deficits he might have.  It took several meetings with the oncologists for my sister- and brother-in-law to realize the gravity of the situation.  When the doctor told him it wouldn’t be a quick or easy treatment, he replied, “Oh, so you mean I’m going to have this when I’m 80?” The doc told him he wouldn’t live to be 80.


And then my nephew went to live with his grandparents.  Even though his father was tolerating the treatments very well at first, and he was getting around well and staying at home, my nephew was torn from his home, his routine, and his parents.  My parents-in-law’s lives were upended, and I was angry at my sister-in-law, again, for dumping her kid off.  My mother-in-law reduced her work hours drastically; my father-in-law started working entire weekends (instead of just Saturday mornings) so he could watch my nephew more during the week.  And with both of them orbiting around my nephew, no one had time for us.


My brother-in-law went into the hospital for the first time when my children were two weeks old.  His cancer has sadly eclipsed the familial joy of new babies, and deprived us of some much-needed support during the first weeks of their lives.  Selfish, yes, but factual.  I felt frazzled; they felt guilty and stretched thin.


As for my own reactions to the entire debacle, I’ve mostly been callous.  I’m angry at others for taking attention away from my family, yes, but it’s been hard to summon sympathy for a woman I have a “toxic relationship” with.  She never wanted to marry the guy, or to have his child.  He had nothing going for him, a real loser.  Still worked at the same sandwich shop he did in high school, still lived with his parents (until the impregnation).  He had poor credit, and let the mother of his other child dictate unreasonable amounts of child support because he just had no clue.  I couldn’t decide whom to feel more sorry for – my sister-in-law, or her husband.  Mostly, I felt bad for my nephew, with his distant and/or clueless parents.


The viewing.  The funeral.  I had to miss half of my first day back at work to go the funeral.  I was planning on working, but my father-in-law pressured me into going.  First we went to the wrong cemetery.  Next we were early, and sat with my in-laws in a growing car line, waiting for the limo with the family and the ashes.  I sat there fuming at the wasted morning.  Then, we stood at the gravesite in the whipping wind while my husband’s uncle made tacky remarks about what a nice site they had chosen.  And finally, I saw my sister-in-law dissolving into tears, her shoulders hunched, her eyes pressed shut, as she said good bye to her husband.  I saw her as human for the first time.  The wall of defenses I had built up – my distaste for her, my indifference towards her husband, the entire family’s naïveté of the cancer – crumbled, and I, too, wept.  I wept for my nephew, I wept for my brother-in-law’s parents.  I wept for my sister-in-law, for she was human.  It didn’t matter if she felt guilty for being so mean to him, for threatening to divorce him, for saying what a loser he was, for driving him to drink.  He was gone, all of him.  I wept, too, for my own children.  If a 35-year-old can live 3 months after  his initial diagnosis, cancer can deprive anyone of their parents, their children, their partners, their family.  I wept for my husband, standing beside me.  I wept for our humanity.


It was much easier to cloak my mourning in callous scientific facts, and impatience with others’ ignorance.  At the end of the day, he’s still dead.  In wrapping ourselves up in our own lives, with our newborn children, we had allowed ourselves a respite from not only seeing him grow sicker and sicker, but in having to face seeing my sister-in-law grow human.  It’s easier to vilify her, to criticize her choices and her lifestyle.  In attending the funeral – a 15-minute graveside operation with no clergy, and only a brief eulogy by his father about some football game 20 years ago – I had to face reality, and let my sister-in-law, and myself in turn, hurt.

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April 2012