Twenty-five years ago, my mother was raped and beaten to death by a teenaged neighbor on drugs. My mother was 70 years old and had been his friend since the time he was a small child. For a long time, I didn’t talk much about it except in private situations. This was not to keep it a secret, but to compartmentalize my life so I could function. At first, it was too difficult and then, as the years passed, I refused to let this single incident be the defining experience of my life. Recently, however, I have felt inspired to use my own experience of survival and healing to speak out against the death penalty. I don’t write this to convince you one way or another on that particular issue, but to try to illuminate how the two issues are related for me.
My mother’s murder was a spectacularly brutal, headline-banner crime, but it was only part of a larger tragedy, for the perpetrator’s family had suffered the murder of his older brother some years before. I knew this, but for a long time it didn’t matter. My own pain and rage took center stage. But with time and much hard work in recovery, I came to the place of being able to listen to the stories of other people.
We all lose people we love. Tolstoy wrote that happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. I would interpret that to mean that each loss, each set of relationships and circumstances is unique, but there are things we share.
What might it be like if one family member were murdered — and another family member had killed someone? What does it feel like to watch the weeks and days pass while the execution of someone you dearly love draws ever nearer? How can we wrap our minds around loving someone and accepting that they have caused such anguish to another family? I’ve had a chance to talk with people in all these circumstances. It’s been a humbling experience.
One thing I have learned over the years is that grief isn’t fungible; you can’t compare or exchange one person’s experience with another’s or say, This one’s pain is two-thirds the value of that one’s. Grief is grief; loss is loss. We cannot truly understand what another’s loss is like, especially when it is as devastating and life-altering as the violent death of someone we love. But we can say, “Even though I don’t know what you’re going through, my heart goes out to you.” Whatever our personal story, we can be allies, for surely there is enough compassion, enough tears, enough rage and enough mending of hearts to go around.
I’ve been on both sides. I believe we have something deep and essential in common — our broken hearts. Our mending hearts. Our resilient spirits. Our capacity for healing. Our journey through the darkness. I know that I would never, ever want to be part of inflicting what I have endured on another family. I know that life is filled with awful things, and I have faith that kindness lightens grief. I believe all these things are true whether we are the survivors of a murder, victims ourselves, loved ones of perpetrators, or the families of the executed.
What this has to do with cancer is that right now, by the inexplicable way life unfolds, a number of friends — some of them very close to me — have been battling various forms of cancer. Here there is no human malice or sudden tragedy, one moment you’re fully alive and the next, everything is over. The breakdown of order and health is internal and continues over time. Even in cases where the end comes soon after the diagnosis, it is not instantaneous. You have time, if even a small stretch, to consider your own mortality. And so do those who care for you.
I find I am as angry about the possibility of my friends dying from cancer as I am about losing a loved one to violence. I want to rage at the universe at the unfairness and unfeelingness of it all. I wish there were an old man with a long white beard up in the sky so I could grab him by that beard and let him have a piece of my mind.
I look for someone or something to blame.
In the case of a murder conviction, there is someone to blame. The jury said so or the person admitted it in pleading guilty. In the case of cancer, I don’t believe in blaming the victim — he smoked, she didn’t exercise, he ate too many charbroiled steaks and not enough broccoli, she lived near a cellphone tower. Justice demands that we hold those who commit crimes accountable. What do we do with the craving for revenge in our hearts? Or, in the case of cancer, the need to point a finger of blame — at the patient, at the doctors, at the pharmaceutical companies, at the health insurance carriers.
In neither case will my retaliation bring a loved one back to life or affect the course of a friend’s disease. In both cases, I myself become a victim. The impulse to lash out at the responsible person or institution is universal and human. Adrenaline helps us through the early stages of shock and helpless immobility. When it goes on too long, however, it consumes us from within and prevents us from being present in the moment.
I could spend 25 years dedicating my life to ending that of the man who killed my mother. Or I could spend 25 years healing, connecting to life, making the world a better place, writing wonderful stories…being the person she would have wanted me to be.
I could spend the months and years of my friend’s cancer in expectant grief and one crusade after another against anything and anyone who isn’t finding a cure fast enough. Or I could be present with her, each of us alive at this moment.
Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight, also available as an omnibus edition, Other Doorways: Early Novels and short story “The Casket of Brass” are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe.