Breast Cancer: no redemption, no comeuppance

It’s a very unpleasant thing to realize that you are a villain in someone’s story. I find it even more unpleasant to know that former friends, as well as people I’ve never met, may hear this story about me, with no other perspective. Several years ago, I dated someone. It was, in my memory, at least, a good relationship. I loved this girl, even though she was too young for me to date (not legally; just, kind of, socially). It’s tempting to minimize my feelings so I don’t seem like the pathetic old guy wrapped around the young woman’s finger, but that’s probably who I was. Many people disliked the fact that we were dating. Her sister, for instance, though I never heard it from her own mouth. Her sister’s husband, with whom I had previously been friends, became cold and unfriendly, and told me more than once that he considered my pursuit of the relationship to be tantamount to a sin, or an overt act of aggression. Her parents–well. They were, perhaps, the theoretical maximum on the disapproval scale.

Despite my digressions to the contrary, this is about her sister. I liked her. I knew her sister first, actually. She was a very entertaining woman, and, well, I just thought she was fun, when she wasn’t on the opposite side of the relationship divide. She had her flaws, which were shown off in various ways in the brief time I knew her, but who doesn’t? Somewhere in the family, I came to believe (much later, after an initially amiable end to the relationship turned ugly), there was something really weird happening with information: I started to wonder, from subsequent events, whether my ex-girlfriend’s family (including her sister) had ever heard the story of our relationship as I knew it, as she and I seemed to live it, and as she narrated it to me. I started to doubt what seemed unarguable for a year: that the two of us were mutually concerned with each other’s welfare despite being beset by some well-meaning but ultimately irrational family members. Every part of that scenario seemed to come into question, after a while. I came to doubt, after a few nasty events, whether even the most fundamental things she had told me about her family’s words and actions were true at all, or whether she had represented our relationship to them in the way she told me she had. But that’s a cauterized, left-in-the-past mess, as much as such things ever are.

Back to her sister. Well. She died. I found out so recently that the time is best counted in hours, not days. She died of breast cancer and is survived by the husband mentioned above and at least two children. It seems inconceivable that I could have not known this was happening. Shoot, I still don’t even know how many children they had.

I have, in the past years, repeated a few dinner-party-style stories about the sister, most of which are about her more flamboyant excesses in the LDS undergrad dating-and-marriage scene, as I witnessed them or heard of them (mostly from her sister…). They were not unkindly meant, but they weren’t particularly kind, either. When I knew her, she wasn’t a particularly kind person. I suspect she was my ex-girlfriend’s accomplice in one of the more cruel acts I, personally have ever experienced (my wife was affected, as well, which still makes me angry when I remember it). I can’t fully blame the sister, though, assuming she was involved; I have thought many times that the narrative she heard about our relationship, from her sister, may have led her to believe this was all justified.

I never considered this person an enemy, though I did think of her as petty and inconsiderate in some of her dealings. But even with that, even with my own customary lack of insight in these things, I have realized that she was very young when I knew her, and that people change, and that I never knew all there was to know about her–perhaps not the most important things. While she lived in my dialogue with others principally as a few pieces of occasional amusement, she was living a life, having children, getting breast cancer, and dying. Her husband was living through the waking nightmare that a dying spouse must represent while trying to guide their children through the tragedy. Her children were on their way to growing up with a mother who died way back when they were X years old, leaving who knows what marks on their development. While she existed as light comedy in my head, she was living the most serious reality.

It seems petty to worry, now, that–with her death and all that represents–nobody in her family will ever hear the story (I think of it as “the real story”) of my relationship with her sister. There’s no reason they should ever care enough about such a small, unpleasant episode in the family’s shared past to reexamine it, especially after this family-defining event has passed. And if, through some improbable set of events, I should ever meet any of them, the possibility of plausibly having any kind of conversation about this, formerly so remote as to be essentially nil, will be absolutely zero. My story, in whatever form it assumed for the family, is frozen that way. In that story, I suspect I’m an a**hole, and I can never dispute the charges.

I feel a deep sadness, despite how little real closeness I had to my former friend, for all that it looked for a while like we were going to be, well, buddies. But we never were. We were superficial friends, a decade and a half ago, before dating her sister seemed to make us enemies. That has always bothered me, and now it does even more. I can never have the chat that has occasionally flitted through my what-if social fantasies, in which I ask her what she was really thinking during the ridiculous but compelling-at-the-time melodrama. I don’t think I’ll ever know what kind of person she turned into, over these years.

I guess there is, in the case of people who have hurt me in the past, or whom I have hurt, an implicit belief that they’ll be around forever; the assumption of an indefinite time frame in which to right the wrongs and mend the bridges. I guess I imagined, even if not quite consciously, that someday we might meet each other again and put the past into the perspective of the complex weight of everything that had come since. Those assumptions were, obviously, foolish. We will never have that conversation. I will never be redeemed in her eyes, her husband’s, or her parents’. Despite the strong pressure to whitewash everything about a person once they’ve died, she will never be redeemed for me, either. This isn’t to say that I’ll think ill of her from now on–I didn’t think particularly ill of her previously–I just mean that, now she’s gone, the only kind of reckoning that can take place is hypothetical. The real events in my memory will be, in some sense, balanced by whatever I now learn (and I intend to, within the limits of polite internet stalking) about who she became since 2000. In other words, not balanced at all, since I didn’t witness any of that. I didn’t talk to her about any of it.

Maybe all I’m saying is that I’ve come to realize that friendship is not easily come by in my life, and maybe what I’m mourning, in addition to the massive (but removed from me) fact that a husband and children have been left without their wife and mother, is the fact that I’ll never have a chance to fix the small thing that our friendship was–something that seemed of little value until recent years, when such small things seem more important. That possibility was never more than pipe-dream-sized, but now it’s infinitely smaller.