I came across an Irish proverb once that read that is the imperfect, not the perfect, that are in need of love. "Perfection" is a subjective term. So is moral perfection, but to a somewhat lesser degree. There are amongst us people who are closer to the asymptote of "perfection;" people who are able to distinguish that which is morally right from wrong, and bear the most essential capacity to learn from their past mistakes. Others, sadly, wander listlessly, aimlessly – swayed and swallowed by life's rough tides and torrents.
And inside this pool, there are those who are sucked into the vortex of death. This is my understanding of suicide.
This is a preface to this story of the life and death of an uncle of mine (my mother's cousin) who passed away from AIDS over a year ago. Although death is always tragic, nothing to me is more baffling and stirring than suicide.
Every visit to Ethiopia brought me closer to a man obliviously committing suicide. Thus when we witnessed a relative committing suicide, to what extent should his family have bent for him? Is it just or understandable for his family to feel frustrated by his reckless behavior and incorrigible attitude and let go? Or was it their familial duty to be sympathetic and hence involved in any way possible until he inevitably met death? What, if anything or everything, comes with the territory of family? This thread of questions will hopefully bring me to an understanding of the role family.
My uncle came from, what was at his time, a noble family. His father was a distinguished Jegna Arbegna. Born in Bahar Dar, my uncle moved to a bal abat school early in his childhood and commuted to the Bete Mengist during the weekends. A rowdy and disruptive child, he quit school after completing 9th grade. His father died shortly after that, and his mother moved to Addis from Gojam with her daughter to accommodate for my young uncle.
Little did he appreciate her concern or feel threatened by her presence. An increasingly unruly young adult, he was rarely at home unless he needed money to buy, and sadly, be bought, into the glamour of "women and wine." I never knew how this whole shebang, which is so deceptively intoxicating when you do not have to worry about the source of your spending; how it could transform one into such a violent, pleasure-thirsty individual; how it could slowly erode one's conscience.
He became physically aggressive and dictatorial towards his mother. Ah, the most remarkable aspect of family – the defensive mother. I do not know if this is characteristically Ethiopian, but I've witnessed this before. Is it second nature for a mother to always defend her child when he is being antagonized? I was told about a family get-together when the entire family was criticizing her child's behavior, and she reacted furiously by declaring that as long she was alive, she would be as provident as possible, and her son would be happy. In a heated argument, she became unforgivably insulting and this marked her seclusion from the extended family. I am puzzled as to whether this was a noble act of love and loyalty to her son, or a cowardice manifestation of her insecurity and denial. Who am I judge, however? Regardless of her reaction, I can imagine how painful it must be to hear the ignominious truth about your son being voiced by your own family.
The pain escalated, and his mother's health was in jeopardy. My uncle resorted to thievery even in his own home. He became uncontrollable so his mother sold their numerous houses, leaving one for her son to reside in after she left home to become a nun. She wanted to at least establish her daughter so she married her off when she was but a young adolescent. Now without a home and children to nurse her while her health was decaying, she died not in a family, but in a friend's house.
My family is convinced that my uncle was indirectly responsible for her death. I never knew if he internally mourned his mother's death. My uncle did, however, praise his mother in an intimate discussion I once had with him after her death. He told me that if only his mother were alive, he would have been much better off. Perhaps he feared that reflecting and lamenting would induce a guilty "conscience" in him. But since he had already turned his face away from conscience, he wasn't prepared to turn back. What could he turn to?
His extended family. A helpless alcoholic, he sold the house he inherited from his mother. His sister, who was also abused by him, left for the US. Despite her precarious life, she never failed to send portions of her income to her older brother, and his two children, among other relatives; she still does. After all her brother had inflicted on her and her mother, and even on himself, she is still admirably supportive and loving of her family. In her I see the epitome of filial devotion.
Even then, however, money sublimated into thin air, and despite his careless spending habits, he was still welcome in the homes of his family for meals. That was of course, until he began stealing from some of them, or being excessively rude if he wasn't satisfied with the amount of money he was given when he left. He often came to us – my immediate family - during our visits to Ethiopia for the same purpose. I was too young to understand his situation then and what was best for him.
Looking back, I recognize that there was something flawed about the manner in which the family dealt with him. The way I see it, bearing in mind that some of my relatives would object to my view, the only "charity" that he was given, besides occasional meals, was in the form of money; even this eventually ceased for personal reasons. I never once saw them attempt to better his situation in a long-term respect; or help him change by introducing him to religion for example. I certainly don't know what the exact remedy would have been, but can aver that there was a remedy.
He could have been redeemed if his family had shown him unwavering concern and unconditional love. By giving him money and feeding him once in a while, they probably felt as though they were fulfilling their duty as family and thus momentarily relieved their conscience. In retrospect, I feel that they were only delaying, or perhaps even accelerating, his death. This, I have found, is the underlining difference between familial love and duty. One's sense of duty can be relinquished, but familial love is unconditional and absolute.
Inscrutability is a beautiful thing. I saw this through my uncle. I could never deduce whether the stories he told us to receive money were entirely fabricated, or a slight distortion of the truth. Moreover, I was always anxious to know for how long remorse would delay replacing the withdrawal of his conscience. In other words, when, if ever, would he begin feeling guilty for his state of being and behavior. Maybe he did, and we never knew about it. This makes him all the more mysterious.
My uncle died at the age of 52. The entire family in Ethiopia was present at his funeral, including his sister from the US. I personally was not able to attend the funeral. To me, however, he had committed suicide ages before; before he became HIV positive, and even before his mother's death. The knell sounded when he turned away from his conscience; when he put its hands off harshly.
And hence this is the understanding that I have come to: The role of family in my late uncle's life, or in anyone's life for that matter, should have been and is to conceive that any man can be helpless at some stage in his life, but never hopeless. This notion can only be realized if one's sense of familial duty transcends to familial love.