Why him? Why me?

OK, so maybe there's no real answer. Still, I'm haunted by the question.

Published October 5, 2005 5:14PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

About the question published Sept. 26: The writer said she was beyond "why me, why her." What if you can't get beyond that point?

My father was diagnosed with kidney cancer earlier this year, and the surgery to remove the humongous tumor from his kidney almost killed him. (He developed pneumonia while in the hospital and couldn't breathe.) He is doing OK now; we are just waiting to see if the cancer will come back.

But for my father, this is just the latest trial that he has had to endure in life. He was born the youngest of five children, the only boy. Most of his sisters were already on their own when he was growing up, except one who was mentally handicapped and whom he wound up taking care of most of the time. Both his parents were alcoholics, and they did things like leave him and his sister in the car on Christmas Eve so they could keep drinking in the bar. His mom died when he was 13, and his dad took to leaving him and his sister places with no money and no food to find their way back home. My dad joined the Marine Corps when he turned 17. As a graduate of a technical high school, he was trained to fly airplanes, but when the Corps gave him a physical, it turned out that he was colorblind and would never fly. He wound up as part of the infantry in Da Nang in Vietnam. Needless to say, he saw a lot of awful things, including the death of his close friend and commander.

Although there have been a lot of good things in his life too (well, really just my mother and us two kids), he has battled alcoholism and PTSD. He finally got his life together 10 years ago -- stopped drinking completely, and has held a steady job that entire time. I am really proud of him and have told him so.

Was he only entitled to 10 good years? He is 55 years old, and this is it? He doesn't ever get to see his daughters married off, grandchildren, or time to enjoy with his wife, who stuck with him during 10 years of Jack Daniel's?

Why Me? Why Him?

Dear Why Me,

Yes, why indeed? We have little to go on scientifically. Whether biased toward faith or toward reason, we utter equally meaningless trifles.

Does it sound superstitious to say that nature's propensity for evil mischief is of such a high order that it often seems to be guided by a malicious intelligence? Is it superstitious to say that random misfortune often seems tinged with macabre and sordid wit? Is it perverse to call attention to that wit, however gruesome its expression?

It sounds benighted to say, "The devil did it" -- doesn't it? But is it not worth questioning why we suppress our primitive but deserved anger at whatever force it is that blithely, and at times, it seems, with glee, piles misfortune upon misfortune upon our fellow man? Perhaps it is helpful to make concrete in our minds this devil, this baffling evil that nature hatches after long incubation, this devil that torments a man and toys with him and then as if out of boredom and ennui, just as the victim is dusting himself off once again, snuffs out his life. What are we to make of that?

Yes, and then there is that terrible, savage, relentless spirit that grinds people down day by day with bureaucratic efficiency, as though following detailed instructions in an employee manual from the Department of Infernal Resources. There is truly something in the world that seems to enjoy grinding, slashing, burning, destroying. What is that spirit and why do we seem to have trouble accepting its presence and acknowledging it when it walks into a room?

What are we to make of evil in all its guises?

This is not a question for science. This is religion.

In the Hindu religion there is Shiva, god of destruction. Out of this god's destruction arises creation. That's not so hard to understand; the same principle operates in capitalism, and in revolution, and in the atomic bomb: Destruction releases energy. But again there is that tendency to make of this a scientific inquiry, and it is not a scientific question. It is a question of how we deal with knowledge that does not submit to science.

We do not talk about the devil; it sounds foolish to do so. But what do we call what we see in the minds of murderers and in the eyes of hurricanes, in the monstrous, the inconceivable, the cunningly cruel and devilish, and the brutish?

It attacks. It attacks us and we fight it. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. We call it adversity, circumstance, as if to neuter it, to rob it of its full volitional terror. That does nothing to change the facts. It still strews havoc across the land.

What we refuse to say out loud, above all, is that there seems to be a mind at work in our misfortune. Disease: Why does it choose with sinister intent those who had just begun to live, or had just recovered? Why, in exactly the manner of a horror movie in which, just as you think you're out of the swamp, the monster attacks again, this time from the trees above! Holy shit, it can fly, too! Now what do we do?

When the plot line of adversity is clear enough, as in natural disasters and war, we easily say this person battled like a hero. And these days, as you have probably noticed, we have made a wartime enemy of cancer. One does not simply die of cancer, one battles bravely and then succumbs. But where the plot line is not so clear, as in the battle with chance each one of us wages every day, we do not use such language. We do not say that so-and-so, after a brave battle with cruel fate, was killed in an auto accident. We do not say that after cleverly escaping the odds of accidental death for many, many years, so-and-so finally drew a losing hand by falling into an open manhole ...

How would it change the way you view your father's life if you saw it as a battle? If you could eulogize him as a warrior, would that give meaning to his terrible ordeal? Would that be an answer you could live with?

You might say that your father not only heroically overcame the deadly conditions of war -- which is a monstrous evil we bring upon ourselves much as cancer turns the body against itself! -- but lived a hero's life, that, greatly outnumbered, with great risk to his own life and perhaps even while disagreeing in principle with the rationale for the war itself, he nevertheless undertook first to fight an unpopular war in a foreign land and then to return home and raise kids and then (and those who love to revel in such stuff would say that this was the biggest battle of all) battled the big daddy of moral opponents, alcohol!

All the while he was fighting. He was fighting his own past. He was fighting fate. He was fighting the Vietnamese. He was fighting to fly and was brought back to earth. This guy has been fighting his whole life.

You say, "Was he only entitled to 10 good years?" No, of course not. No, of course it would have been better if he had been granted more years. But many of us are granted many more years and we waste them, such is our perversity in the face of grace. So it is a terrible and perverse situation.

People say, "Life's not fair." What do they mean? Do they mean to indicate, indirectly, the presence of this grand, terrible perversity that floats about us, randomly choosing victims? Ah, that one: Smallpox! That one: AIDS! That one: Let's make his limbs misshapen! Ha ha ha. And that one: Let's promise him things and snatch them away his whole life, just to watch him shrivel and grow bitter until finally, if we're lucky, fellow devils, he'll create a self-sustaining franchise of misfortune all his own!

When we think like that, we make of evil a cartoon. We know, in some intuitive way, that this rapacious force of mayhem is bigger and more complex than our caricatures of it.

These things are unanswerable, but sobering to consider. So your question is a good one. Why you, indeed, and why your father?

I hope it will help to simply honor, by considering in this way, the power of the forces arrayed against him. Those forces are awesome. We honor them with poetry and song. We honor them with words. And we honor his struggle. What comes for him comes for all of us. We are comrades. He is a comrade. He is a father, but he is also a comrade. As his friend and commander died beside him in Vietnam, so perhaps he will die beside you, still fighting -- not fighting stupidly, in denial of the inevitable, but fighting because it is his nature to fight, as it is nature's nature to lay us low, to cut us down, to scatter us to the wind.

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