A cousin of mine died of esophageal cancer last year. For anyone who is not familiar, it is an absolutely horrific way to die. Even for those who survive, life can become an unbearable routine of nausea, severe gastric reflux, and a struggle to eat enough to maintain their weight. So, when Danny died, it was a shocking event for almost everyone in the family. His cancer diagnosis itself wasn’t terribly surprising. His father—my uncle—had died a few years prior of an aggressive form of head and neck cancer. So, after Danny died, all of my other cousins within that family have been making appointments for regular screenings in the hope that cancer doesn’t burn through them like a brush fire. The shock for my family came in the manner of his death. Nobody could understand why it went down the way it did. Well…nobody but me. Because I know the reality is that Danny died of suicide.
No, he didn’t find a way to end his life before the cancer took him. He simply went to the doctor, got tested, got his results, and…did nothing about it. When I say he did nothing about it, I don’t mean that he decided that his prognosis was hopeless and spent the rest of his days making arrangements. I mean he did nothing. He didn’t tell anyone—not his wife or kids or his mother or his siblings. He simply went about his days as if nothing was wrong. At least, that is, until his cancer had progressed to the point where he couldn’t hide it anymore and by that time it was actually too late to do anything about it.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “you can’t possibly know what was in your cousin’s head, or why he decided to keep his cancer a secret.” To that point, I can concede that I do not have the ability to read minds—but what I do know is that Danny saw the cancer as his way out of an incredibly abusive marriage and decades of misery. How do I know this? Simple: while I was in my own abusive marriage I often thought about this exact same scenario.
Danny and I both encountered many of the same things as abused spouses. The isolation from friends and family, using the children as a means of control and leverage, and verbal and emotional abuse are just a few of the parallels. These things were all evident to everyone in the family. I don’t know if Danny was physically abused like I was but considering that his widow behaved so similarly to my ex-wife, I would not be surprised at all if he, too, was beaten.
The isolation that Danny experienced was almost total, to the point that only one of his brothers knew about it just before he died—and that brother was sworn to secrecy. Everyone else—including his mother—wasn’t made aware of his condition until after he died. Nobody went to the funeral because they were afraid of his widow going after them for attending.
Danny’s death was tragic and pointless. Unfortunately, Danny’s life was likewise tragic and pointless. His was the family that had everything together. The parents were really good people, who appeared to be devoid of any serious neuroses. The brothers got along surprisingly well—certainly better than my brother and I, who got along almost as well as Cain and Abel.
I’m not privy to the details, because by the time Danny had gotten together with Karen my family had already moved across the country, but I do recall hearing rumblings about the relationship. Karen was reported to be standoffish, rude, selfish and controlling. Things that would have certainly rang bells with me if I hadn’t still been several blessed years away from my parallel relationship. I had a few opportunities over the ensuing years to meet her and get an eyeful firsthand. She was…unpleasant.
Eventually, things boiled over. Karen’s overtly bad behavior toward Danny’s brothers and their respective wives resulted in a major blowup that created a rift that would never heal. It was so bad that the only times all the brothers were in the same place, at the same time, was for the funerals of our two shared grandparents. Other than that, all the holiday gatherings involved Danny’s family visiting his parents separately from everyone else.
It got worse. When Danny’s father was in at-home hospice, he’d asked for all his sons to come to visit him together. Whether by his own initiative—fueled by his own resentments—or by Karen’s demands, Danny refused. He did visit just before his father’s death, but he did it on his own. Danny’s father was the sweetest man I’d ever known. He was born in Poland and, as a baby, had been smuggled across the Iron Curtain by his grandparents who then emigrated here. He never knew his parents and his childhood must have been difficult, but he somehow managed to avoid having any of those things screw him up. My grandfather said he was more “son” than “son-in-law.” This was the guy that, as a child I had desperately wished could have been my father instead. This was also the guy for which Danny couldn’t bring himself to honor a dying wish.
After that, it got even worse. Eventually, Danny’s two kids (who, when I knew them as toddlers were just the most charming kids you’d ever met) had turned into a couple of entitled shitheads who, through coaching from their mother, told Danny’s mother—their own grandmother—that they never wanted to see her again. Again, I want to be clear here: his mother is a very nice woman. She’s probably a wee bit too self-centered for my taste, but her own parents raised her right. She’s a safe person who makes other people feel safe. I cannot imagine the amount of venom it took to turn those kids against her. So, from that point forward, there were no other visits of any kind for Danny. His isolation was complete.
So, watching him get dragged down by an abusive partner to the point where, when given the choice between seven months of severe weight loss, inability to swallow, labored breathing and vomiting blood before dying essentially alone; and an unknown number of years living with his abuser—and then choosing the cancer—tells you everything you need to know.
I was lucky. Not just because I haven’t died of cancer, but because I am no longer in a position to have to consider the choice that Danny made. My first marriage ended 30 years ago—but the scars from the abuse I received are still evident in my recent diagnosis of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Still, I’m lucky because I have better options today. The past few years of therapy, and the more understanding approach from my wife, have helped me to quiet those suicidal thoughts, and actually be less ambivalent about the prospect of living in general. Instead of wishing for a terminal disease or fighting the urge to slam my car into a bridge abutment, or jump off Hoover Dam, I have a life that is finally worth living.
I just wish Danny was as lucky as me.