One of the men who raped me, W., is dying from cancer, and I’m watching it happen via Facebook. The man who raped me is married to my aunt and is the father of my cousin, who was, at one time, my closest friend in a family in which friends and love were rare. He is not the only man who raped me, but he is the only one who raped me and refused to leave because he was stitched into my life like an ugly scar from a wound healed wrong.
It has been strange to watch him die after wishing for his death for so long, to see it unfold through the lens of my cousin’s pain, so at odds with the frustration and fear I felt watching my own mother die. I have watched his face suck in and his enormous gut dwindle at first to a flat surface and then concave. There are no pictures of him looking directly into the camera—I don’t think I could bear them anyway. He always seems to be looking away or up or down, at the periphery even when at the center of things. There are no direct details about his cancer, his impending death, or his treatment. There are no specifics. It’s all hazy and soft, the way things are on the internet with the strangers we imagine we know.
W.’s brother died of cancer. They were twins, their bodies made of the same parts, and so in one way, it doesn’t surprise me. There are times when I cough, and I think this is it, this is when my body betrays me and reverts to my mother’s body. I imagine that there are ways in which our bodies never really stop being our mothers’ bodies. In the bath, I trace my fingers along the lines of myself like a person following a river to its source. When I laugh like her or when I’m mean like her or when I go cold and distant like her, I can feel her lingering, ready to claim what is hers and has always been hers.
If her body could betray her, my body could certainly betray me. There are certain risk factors. I grew up in a family of smokers and breathed secondhand smoke every day for eighteen years. I now have a family history because cancer has slammed into my life like an asteroid striking the earth, leaving behind a crater where my mother once stood. I live in an urban area and breathe the particulate that accumulates in such places. I do not have my mother’s chronic cough, but the summer of her diagnosis, we had very similar symptoms: painful swallowing, trouble breathing, sensitivity to acids and cold liquids. There was a moment, fleeting as these moments often are, when I thought the worst, when I feared the absolute worst. But the moment passed—for me.
A month before my mother died, I got on a plane and went down to Alabama. I had been told that this would bring some measure of peace to her, but in retrospect, I can’t help but to think of how cruel a thing it was to do. After all, when she saw me and I saw her, we wouldn’t be able to hide from the fact that the whole thing was ending. There is a kind of magic to distance. As long as I stayed away, she could go on thinking that things weren’t as bad as they were, and I could go on thinking that I was doing something good for her by doing nothing, by not talking about it or seeing it.
My uncle was having a birthday barbecue in the middle of August, and by some random chance, the party would fall on the third day of my five-day trip. My mother was very tired. She found my presence irritating, which was flattering in a way—she wasn’t putting on a show of wanting me around. I thought to myself that things might not be so bad after all. At least she wasn’t trying to love on me as she had started to do with my brother.
There were a lot of white gnats fluttering in the air like snowflakes with their own minds, so many of them pouring out of the pecan trees that the food had to be whisked directly from the grill and into the house. I was given the task of standing behind my mother and waving away the bugs from her. She leaned forward in her chair, swaying occasionally if she heard a song that she liked or felt a rhythm that moved her. People kept stopping by her chair on their way to grab beers from the cooler to say a kind word to her. She was loved by them.
I stood behind her for about half an hour, and then I went up the back stairs to use the bathroom in my grandmother’s house. I needed to be away from her and done with the impossibly tender act of fanning white gnats from her cropped hair. I stuck my head in the fridge and counted to ten, letting the cool air settle against my face and neck. Two of my young cousins came bounding into the house, laughing. They saw me, waved, and went directly to the backroom. I leaned back against the fridge and closed my eyes. The air was so warm, so thick. It was a miserable day for a party. The music was loud—a kind of up-tempo blues—and omnipresent. I looked through the back door down the long stairs and saw my mother surrounded by her sisters and some of our distant cousins. It was familiar to me, this act of looking on from the back stairs. When I was younger, I used to do it all of the time with my cousins when we were banished from the party as the sun went down. “Grown folks only,” our mothers said, shooing us into the house. “Go play.”
How strange to be back there. How strange to be watching it all unfold from a distance. I was grown now, wasn’t I? I was old enough to join them, to be amongst the adults and to bear their burdens. When I was little, all I ever wanted was to be down there dancing with them, laughing and talking to them as equals, and now that I had permission, which is to say that I had grown past the age of needing to ask permission, all I wanted to do was sit in the house and not have to fan bugs from my mother’s hair.
I saw someone pick up the small hand towel I had been using. They looked around in confusion. It was my aunt Arleane, the mean one with the waspy hand and stinging pinches. She’d turn me inside out if she caught me. So I took another breath and pushed open the door and descended the stairs. She met me at the bottom with a firm look.
“Bathroom,” I said. She popped my thigh with the towel and pointed me back to my mother.
“Get,” she said.
There is a picture of my mother at this party. She’s flanked by relatives, peace signs up, smiling. It was the first time I realized that death had brought out in her an almost uncanny resemblance to my brother and my grandfather. Someone uploaded this picture to my mother’s Facebook wall, and on the day she died, people streamed in to say how terribly sorry and sad they were that she was gone.
I didn’t say anything on social media, though relatives tried to tag me in supportive status updates, which I did my best to untag myself from. I didn’t want to be a part of their mourning. I didn’t want to be involved in someone else’s grief when I knew so little about how to deal with my own.
My brother’s wife recently posted a video of my brother crying at our mother’s grave. He was in a low crouch over the plain gray slab, his hand pressed against it for balance. He was wearing glasses that he must have purchased from the drug store because he’s never been to an eye doctor in his life. There was the argyle sweater vest and lilac button-down shirt of some kind, and ugly brown slacks, and huge shoes. Sunday clothes. Crying on a grainy, blurry video taken with a cheap to-go phone down in Alabama, crying like a baby, crying like someone full of softness and heart. The audio crackled, broke open, and his crying turned to a soft wail, and then the video shut off.
I do not know what to do with such mourning or such grief. The world in which my brother is not only moved to emotion but to open tears at the grave of our mother is a world that I don’t know how I came to inhabit. Watching the video, I felt as if I had slipped out of my life and into some gray replica tucked behind the real thing, a life glimpsed at the corner of the eye, where anything is possible.
Cancer is a disease of proliferation, a disease of abundance. The body consumes itself to make cancer cells, so in one sense, it is a disease of success run wild, turning to ruin. I feel a measure of pain for my cousin as she watches her father, W., die in this way. My cousin and I were brought up together; my father watched her while my aunt worked, and we spent almost every moment of every day in each other’s company. Before she was born, I was the baby of the family, and so her mother had doted and loved on me. Sometimes it felt as though we shared a mother and a father, though our parents were brother and sister. In a way, my cousin is my little sister. But she has her own father, and I my own mother, dying and dead respectively. I check her social media pages frequently for updates on her father, and though I am not sorry he is dying, it hurts to watch her suffer and grieve.
When I moved away from home to go to college, I spoke to my parents once every two months because it was all I could bear. The shape of our conversation was the same every time: hello, yes, how are you, fine, guess who died . It was a never-ending stream of names, some old, some not, but all mostly too young to have died. Second cousins, third cousins, neighbors, friends of my parents, each passing out of this world and into whatever hangs behind this world like a second eyelid.
My mother was placed on a ventilator, and later I was alerted that she had died via text message. I don’t mean to imply that I feel angry about this. It was by choice that I refused to speak on the phone to people who thought I needed comfort. The text message was from another cousin, a different cousin, not the daughter of my rapist. I found out my grandfather died by browsing Facebook one morning before a biochemistry exam. I imagine I’ll find out that W. died via Facebook—it must be what I keep looking for, that final update, that final confirmation that he is gone out of the world.
Sometimes I wonder if my cousin knows that I am hanging around her Facebook like a ghost, like a fiend. Technology lets us believe we are living parallel lives, both in and out of the world, both here and there. I can skim the facts of other people’s lives from their posts like foam from boiled milk.
How many people, when my mother died, came to my page to wish me love and light? How many returned time and again looking for some clue of my pain or anguish or grief? Isn’t that what we do? We scent a tragedy in the air and we try to trace it—not to its source, but to those most affected. We try to make sense of it by watching them grapple with it. In this way, we aren’t living parallel lives at all. We’re leeches, proliferating in a still pool of light. Spectating isn’t living, after all; it’s consumption. Grist for the mill.
Yet I cannot look away from my cousin’s page. There is a point at which the glimpsed becomes the central, becomes the whole of the thing. I turn my head and look, I stare because I know how to watch a person wither from abundance. I know how to read status updates like a person reads the air to discern the chance of rain. There are the upbeat messages, the ones about the fight: At chemo with this guy! He’s so strong! He’s a fighter! When things are looking grim, there are more vague messages about God and the meaningfulness of His plan: God will always make a way! It’s not over until God says it’s over!
I find it difficult to imagine how anyone could even feign sadness at W.’s state, though to understand I need only look back at my journals from the time that my mother was sick. It’s not that I was mournful or sad exactly, but rather that I didn’t want her to die. I wanted her to go on living in the strictest sense of the word; to be standing on this side of death, not even perfectly healed, just not dead. And if I could come to such a place with my own mother, who was in every way poorly suited for the task of motherhood, then I suppose it need not be impossible to imagine that W. could have people in his life, like his daughter, who want him to live.
My brother once called me a hard person. I think he meant that I am a person who does not forgive. This is true. I find it difficult to forgive people who have done harm to me. I am this way out of necessity, because if I do not remember the harm done to me, then no one will, and the boy that I was will have no one to look out for him. If I do not remember and do not hold people accountable for that boy’s pain, then no one will remember it, and no one will remember that it was not acceptable for him to be treated that way. If I forgive all of the things done to me, done to the boy that I was, then I will betray everything I promised that boy when we endured those things. The only way through all of it was to promise that I would remember it and that at some point, I would make it known what happened there.
I am a hard person because hardness is what comes from a life lived underground. The hard part of me would like nothing more than to keep refreshing, waiting for the moment when my cousin’s grief is obvious and clear, because that will mean that I no longer have to live my life like a clenched fist. At the same time, the fact that my freedom can come only with my cousin’s suffering is something nearly unbearable to me. Spectating isn’t free. No one gets something for nothing.