When hospitals host family reunions: More about how racism destroys families

by Anti-Racist Parent Columnist Michelle Myers

A month ago, my uncle tried to kill my aunt by shooting her in the head with a shotgun, and then he killed himself with it. It happened the day after I had emailed my last post to Carmen, and she had told me it would go up at the end of that same week. When my mom called me to tell me what had happened, I almost emailed Carmen to tell her to hold my post.

See, the aunt and uncle involved in this incident were the very same ones I mentioned in my poem from the previous post. If you read it, you know that when I was a teenager, I ran away from home and lived with an aunt and uncle who later kicked me out of their house and called me a “Nigger lover” for wanting to date a black guy at school. I had been thinking about them for the first time in a long time because I had decided to include that poem in my post. Then when I heard the news about the attempted murder-suicide, I felt guilty—in the days before while writing my post, I had conjured all the old anger and hatred and now suddenly my aunt was fighting for her life, a victim of unspeakable violence that no woman should have to experience. And I wondered if I had wished it on her, that somehow my anger had descended on them and erupted into this tragic upheaval of hate. But I suppose that’s crazy talk.

Obviously, I decided not to ask Carmen to hold my post. After some serious thought, I felt that no matter how tragic this event was, it didn’t change what they had done or said to me. It didn’t change that the white side of my family was raised to have racist views and that my father and his siblings—including my severely injured aunt—had attempted to raise us with similar views. It didn’t change that I hadn’t spoken to this aunt and uncle since they kicked me out of their house. It didn’t change all the old, bad feelings. So I let the post go up.

Now as I write the present post, I imagine some of you are wondering why I’m writing about this incident. Admittedly, I’ve been struggling with whether I should—perhaps an incident such as this should be kept private, out of respect for the family. But I also think I should be honest about how racism works on people—on me in particular as I struggled with such decisions as whether or not I should go to the hospital, should call my cousins, should try to pretend we were family, should let bygones be bygones. It’s sad that when racism inserts itself within a family, it transforms these no-brainer questions into nerve-wracking indecision—and it can readily facilitate the descent of cold indifference between family members even in the most tragic of circumstances.

I think a fear of adopting an attitude of cold indifference about what has happened to my aunt has been my biggest concern. For I’ve often felt that the danger of harboring such feelings of anger and resentment over a long period of time is that I would be completely apathetic if not smugly pleased if something horrible happened to someone I believed had committed a transgression against me. And I have to say that in this situation, such feelings have been about half-and-half. For instance, I’m not really sorry that my uncle took his own life. There’s even a part of me that thinks he should have been wiped off the face of the earth a long time ago. Then I go back-and-forth about my aunt. Although in most of my memories of her she is generally a nice and giving person, the fact that she supported my uncle in kicking me out of the house and treated me as if I had betrayed them is still a sore point for me. Not to mention that while growing up, I was privy to a whole slew of instances in which my dad’s entire family talked about my mom horribly behind-her-back then practically shunned her and made her feel so uncomfortable that she eventually wouldn’t attend family events or holiday get-togethers. I hold my dad responsible for this as much as the rest of the then-adult members of my family. So when this tragedy happened, I wasn’t sure if I cared or not—or even if I should care about it. And if I didn’t, did that make me a bad and heartless person?

I’ve really examined my conscience over this one. My husband told me he thought that since the last time I saw my aunt was when my uncle was screaming “nigger-lover” at me, I didn’t owe her any sympathy (Perhaps at this point I should mention that, ironically, my cousin—my aunt’s oldest daughter—began having an intimate relationship with a black guy when she was about 18 and now has two mixed race sons. Thus, my aunt is a grandmother to 2 half-black children. I don’t know how the race issue has been resolved in their immediate family; I only know my aunt does have a grandmotherly relationship with the children). My brother’s perspective was that he had cut his ties to those family members a long time ago, and even though he thought what had happened was horrible, he didn’t feel this incident changed anything. But as I keep saying, I didn’t want to be cold-hearted. Plus, I felt my younger cousin, my aunt’s youngest daughter who is 8 years younger than me and was too young to be responsible for what I experienced while growing up, was largely innocent and maybe I should show some concern for her feelings, especially since she found my aunt and uncle’s bodies and, on top of all that, was 8 months pregnant. Again, would I be a terrible, heartless person if I wasn’t concerned and didn’t show some family support?

It’s amazing just how difficult forgiveness can be. It’s equally regrettable that tragedy is often necessary for forgiveness to slip on over angry memories, numbing bitterness like a glove blunts our sense of touch while it protects our fingers from going cold. I went to the hospital twice with my parents to visit my aunt; the last time, we also visited my cousin who gave birth to her new daughter 2 floors from my aunt’s room in the same hospital and on the same day as my youngest daughter’s birthday. I was overwhelmed by a heavy feeling of wasted years, for at first I couldn’t reconcile this grown woman before me as the 8-year-old cousin I last saw when I was 15 and running from shouts of “Nigger-lover!” I also couldn’t believe this other woman who looked so much like my dead grandmother was my aunt. She looked so shell-shocked. She seemed defensive. Yet even after the awkward silences and the hurried excuses to leave, I couldn’t help but cry. And she cried as we left. And even while I held one of her hands and told her, “Everything will be fine,” I wasn’t sure it ever really would. But that we could cry together—that told me that moving on is sometimes the best that forgiveness can be.

I’m not going to pretend this is some magical story of forgiveness and reconciliation. I have no idea what the future will hold or how things may change although I have told my parents that I will continue to go with them when they visit my aunt as she starts rehabilitation/physical therapy. If anything, the whole incident has made me want to work more on my own relationship with my parents because none of us are getting any younger. Even they seem to want this because they have been calling more often to talk to me and expressing a desire to see more of their grandchildren. They even ask how my husband is doing, which is something they don’t usually do. For the readers of this blog, I hope what I’ve done by sharing this is to offer a cautionary tale of how racism can irreparably destroy families to the point that hospitals sadly may host family reunions in the wake of tragedy. I hope it never happens to any of you.

Michelle Myers holds a Ph.D. in English from Temple University, specializing in Asian American Literature. She is a founding member of the spoken word poetry group Yellow Rage, which was featured on HBO’s RUSSELL SIMMONS PRESENTS DEF POETRY, and which recently released its second CD: HANDLE WITH CARE, VOL. 2. She is also a founding member of the performance collective Asians Misbehavin’. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Community College of Philadelphia and Grants Coordinator at SEAMAAC (Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition). Michelle lives in NJ with her husband, Tyrone, and their three children: Myong, Victor, and Vanessa.

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