"I have no idea what to do about JD," I told my father. His first name also starts with a J. Maybe initials aren't the best way to refer to my family members - both my mom and her girlfriend are Js as well.
"What, staying out in Ohio for Christmas? He'll be fine."
"That's not what I'm talking about. I mean his fixations. Look at the pattern his life is taking: shacking up with church friends, no job, all his dreams just around the corner, but he's depending on everyone else to make them come true. Nothing that goes wrong is ever his fault. Does any of that sound familiar to you?" My father nods and sighs. "Did he ever get that application in to whatever university he had his sights set on?"
"He's already been accepted."
"JD seems to do just fine when he doesn't know what he's doing. Then he can be just as rational, independent, and practically-minded as you. It's when he settles into a routine that things get hairy. He has trouble with interruptions, with switching gears, just like E." I think on that for a bit. Dad's right.
"Hm. I guess you're right. Still - this victimization thing bothers me. The way he can't accept that he might need to do things differently because of - well, becaue of reality." My father nods thoughtfully again. We're both thinking about a conversation weeks past, when JD dropped his wallet in the YMCA locker room and had $120 stolen from him. I called him for a completely unrelated reason, to negotiate the delivery of $200 I promised him at Thanksgiving so he could buy Christmas presents for the rest of the family. All he did was go on about how angry and upset he was, and when I got sick of hearing it, I told him that what happened to him really did suck, but he could have avoided the whole situation by simply checking for his wallet when he left the locker room.
That turned out to be exactly the wrong thing to say. The conversation immediately transformed into him repeatedly insisting that his inattention made the theft OK in my mind, and me repeatedly insisting that I was pointing out JD's causal role in the event irrespectful of the morality of the situation (on which we already agreed). He refused to acknowledge the distinction at all costs, and when I tried to agree to disagree and move on to financial matters, he told me to keep my money and hung up on me.
"JD is emotionally retarded, just like you, because of how he was raised. But you had to be tough, and so you became tough, even though it also made you distant. He was coddled by your mother any time he showed weakness, and she fed that weakness."
"She continues to feed it. She doesn't want to lose him, and so she feeds his need for her, and he in turn feeds her need to do the mothering thing, even though she's smothering him." Another sigh. Another nod. "But can't he see that this is bad for him?! Doesn't he know how much she's holding him back?!"
"At some level, he probably does. But he can't ignore his emotions like you can. He can't see past what's going on in his own head." I think on this for a moment. It's my turn to nod and sigh.
"This fuckin' sucks."
"Have you ever seen Unforgiven?"
"Yeah, I own it. Hell, you're the one who tipped me off to it." My father puts on his best Little Bill and says,
"I don't deserve this - to die like this." Then he does a damn fine Clint Eastwood: "Desserts got nothin' to do with it."
A week later and it's New Year's Day. I'm up at my father's place in rural Wisconsin. E & CJ are over, we're having homemade sushi and chocolate fondue with what's left from my birthday the previous night. I'm cleaning up dinner dishes when all of a sudden, E screams at the top of his lungs. I hurry into the kitchen and set the dishes down on the island where E & CJ are loading up their dessert plates with chocolate covered whatevers.
"What happened, buddy?"
"I stabbed myself with this stupid... piece of... CRAP!" He throws my father's fondue fork. I almost throw him. I remember that he's only eleven, and rub his shoulder instead. Dad picks up the fork and rinses it off.
"Calm down, kiddo. You'll be OK. Let me see it." He holds up his hand to me. There's a half-inch gash along the inside of his middle finger, but no blood. That sort of thing stings like a motherfucker, but it's only pain. "Hey, now. You'll be all right, just try to be more careful."
"No! I'm done with this!" He jerks his hand out of mine and starts crying. He's working himself into a snit, and I tell him to get a hold of himself. He runs out of the room instead. Once he's locked into a tailspin like this, he's going to crash, and all I can do is be ready with a smile when he's burned out and ready to re-join the rest of the world.
Five minutes later and he's still crying, talking to himself in the living room. We can hear him, but we ignore him - he needs to experience solitude, even if he doesn't actually have it. At some point, he mumbles something about bleeding all over the place. I go out to check on him.
"Are you really bleeding, E-man?" He could lose a lot of blood from a cut like that.
"Yes! Look!" He holds up his hand. I can see red blood vessels through the gash, but no blood is coming out.
"Hey, you're OK, you're not bleeding at all."
"Yes I am! I cut myself!"
"But no blood is coming out. That's what 'bleeding' means." I haven't seen this kind of insistent reality-denial outside of religion and conspiracy theorists. Not in person, anyway.
"Just - just shut up and leave me alone." He's not shouting, just whimpering. I want to help - I really do - but there's nothing to be done. He can't suck it up, so I do, and I walk away. I tell him that we'll save some fondue for him if he wants it later. "You can have it - I don't deserve fondue right now."
I stop in my tracks. Something is seriously wrong here. What happened to the entitlement of youth? This isn't normal. Memories rise up from the depths, and I recall having such ideas beaten into me as a child - but I needed to have them beaten into me in order to believe them. What's E's problem?
I start walking again. I don't know whether it's OCD, or an inferiority complex, or if he just misused the word "deserve." I can't fix his problem, anyway - not right now. But he's got family to help him out, and there will be fondue for him no matter how low he feels. Desserts got nothin' to do with it.
The next day, my father drives me to the train station. We talk about family history, about religious psychology, about plans for the future. At some point, he tells me that adversity is a blessing, the Universe's way of giving us opportunities to improve ourselves. I don't have a snappy rebuttal for this, and don't feel like yelling at him for trivializing the suffering of billions around the globe and throughout history who have suffered greatly for no good reason. Then again, he's also spouted such deepities as, "No doubt the Universe is unfolding as it should." Causally should? Fuckin' duh. Morally should? No fuckin' way!
Whatever. I'm lucky enough to have handled what has come my way so far, and maybe I can use that to help some of the people I care about. Well, I sure as hell hope I can, 'cuz there's no stopping the attempt, whether anyone deserves anything or not.