BEL MOONEY: Must I let my wicked but frail brother visit me?


Dear Bel, 

I’m nearly 70, my brother nearly 77. We live about 25 miles away from each other.

When I was a teenager he was an insurance agent, married with two children. Our neighbour died from cancer and my brother was dealing with it, but instead of paying out to the widower, he stole the money and spent it on a girlfriend. The widower called the police and he was sent to Strangeways prison.

Mum was ostracised by the neighbours and it broke her heart.

Thought of the day 

What am I now that I was then?

May memory restore again and again

The smallest color of the smallest day:

Time is the school in which we learn,

Time is the fire in which we burn.

From Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day by Delmore Schwartz (U.S. poet 1913-1966) 

I was 16 and went once with Mum to visit him. It was awful; I never went again.

His wife left with the children and he never saw them again. When he was released, Mum cashed in a policy and gave him the money to allow him to get a flat.

He went away for a week with a girlfriend. The money all spent, he came home to live with us. I hated him for what he had done to Mum and could barely speak to him. He carried on with different girls, and got one pregnant and married her.

Forty years later, they don’t get on, but have two daughters, both married. I see very little of them and don’t interact with my nieces, but do have a good relationship with his wife, who’s a saint for putting up with him.

Meanwhile, I got married, divorced, met a lovely man at work and married again, was widowed 30 years ago and survived breast cancer. I’ve been self-sufficient since 2008, speak to my brother occasionally on the phone but rarely see him.

He has been diagnosed with vascular dementia — accelerating rapidly — and he’s asked to come to stay with me for a weekend at the coast while he can still remember things.

I know I have to do this one thing for him, even if only to give my sister-in-law a break. But I just cannot face even two days with him. I know I have to and know I will regret it if I don’t. I can’t remember when I was last alone with him.

I know you should forgive, but I just can’t. Despite tragedy, I’ve had a lovely life, been to some amazing places, met some lovely people, and am contented alone.

I know he has stolen from his kids, his wife, and they lost their home because of him.

Any advice will be helpful, even though I know what you will say, and what I have to do. It just feels better writing it down.

SALLY

This week Bel advises a reader who asks whether she should let her wicked but frail brother visit her

Time after time I hear from readers that the act of writing a problem down is cathartic, so it’s good to know you feel better, Sally, for telling me this sad (and originally much longer) story.

Reading the problems of other people on this page may chime within your own heart.

Your problem with this brother is not at all unusual — in fact, I was discussing a similar issue with my mother two days ago. We agreed that sometimes it’s vital to be honest about your own feelings concerning a family member who has caused great damage in the past.

We can’t always play ‘nice guy’ and make excuses for inexcusable behaviour. We don’t have to give unconditional love to blood relatives who have hurt those we love.

Sometimes it’s a relief to say, ‘He’s always been a s***.’

So we can agree on that one. Then, interestingly, you write, ‘I know what you will say, and what I have to do’ — and yes, you’re correct. I believe you should give him those two or three days, even though you really don’t want to.

This is not a question of forgiving your brother for all the wrongs he has done to so many people — because another tough truth is that some behaviour remains unforgivable. But (and there is always the ‘but’) it does depend on whether the sinner is sorry. In my Christian faith, repentance is crucial, and a decent justice system also acknowledges the importance of remorse, as well as reparation.

At this stage in his life, because of the dementia, he will be changing — who knows how?

Perhaps even now he is recalling the past (so much easier to remember than the present for somebody with dementia) and feeling real regrets. Is he sorry for what he did then?

Perhaps it will be good for you to ask him outright. This might be a chance to settle some things between you, especially when you talk about your mother.

With suitable reticence I just want to share with you here the fact that I, too, had a problematic brother for whom I had incredibly complicated and often hostile feelings.

But towards the end of his life I also believed I had a duty (in spite of my darker emotions) to do what I could to help him. That’s all. It wasn’t what I wanted, but (like you) I knew that I would feel worse if I didn’t do what I knew to be the right thing.

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre would have called my personal story acting in ‘bad faith’. But those philosophers tended to think themselves above the rules which motivate normal human beings.

I believe we can try to do good things, even if we act through gritted teeth.

I believe we can hold out a hand to help, even if the other hand would like to give the sinner a good whack.

I’m 54 and desperate to have some fun 

Dear Bel

A few years ago I was in a long-term, emotionally abusive relationship (plus three children and two dogs!) that I got out of.

It was traumatic, but I say a prayer of thanks every day that I could make a new start just before lockdown last year.

Others were not so lucky. I’m grateful for health and happiness during these hard times, but I’ve turned 54 and think I’m going through a mid-life crisis!

Always quiet and shy, I never wanted to lose my virginity, and waited until I was 22. Well, now I want to rebel! I’ve lost weight, feel attractive, get admiring looks and enjoy it!

I’m dating a wonderful old flame (I broke his heart at 18) who worships the ground I walk on. My family loves him. When he fell on hard times, I helped him out and now he’s so thankful and would spoil me if he could. But I’m finding I want excitement.

One side of me says I should be content, but the other says rebel. I don’t even feel guilty for being unfaithful. I want to be free, but free of what? I don’t know.

I’ve been on a dating site and not had a bad experience — yet. I want to be taken out wined and dined, but feel panicked by all these thoughts.

My daughter is 18 and living with me, so I need to be sensible. But another part of me is saying, hey, it won’t be long before I’m too old to experience these thrills!

Please help me see some sense. My freedom’s getting the better of me and I may get into trouble for it.

CAROLINE  

Your letter is strangely exhilarating — and so my first thought was: ‘You go for it, girlfriend!’ Having endured so many years in a terrible relationship, and then later during the attempts to break free from your ex’s clutches, you want to live life to the full right now.

Who can blame you for noticing those flattering glances and looking in the mirror and realising that the years pass more quickly than ever?

Why shouldn’t you kick over the traces and have fun?

Of course, nothing is ever that easy, for few people can completely cut themselves off from precious obligations.

Two of your children have left home, but you still have an 18-year-old daughter to consider. You also have to be careful not to hurt that ‘wonderful old flame’ who adores you and sounds capable of making you happy.

   

More from Bel Mooney for the Daily Mail…

To be honest, I’m visualising you as the heroine of one of those insightful novels published by Persephone — classics by rediscovered women novelists such as Dorothy Whipple and Elizabeth Jenkins, who wrote about female characters hurt by men who break free, become reckless, cause themselves pain and ultimately grow through the experience.

I’m not trying to write a script for your new life, but do you see what I mean? Many of us will recognise your yearning to be unencumbered, to kickstart the engine and head out on the highway. ‘Gather ye rose-buds while ye may’ is a very old literary theme — and for good reason.

I often used to stay up drinking and smoking until 4am because I thought life too short to be ‘good’. More wine! More music! Not to mention the flirting . . . As Sinatra sang: ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few / But then again, too few to mention.’

But that takes me back to the danger of hurting — not your boyfriend, but yourself.

If you were to chase after every thrill that came your way, you might have a good time, but end up feeling used and miserable.

If you were to hurt your man and annoy or embarrass your daughter, you might be left tormented by guilt as well as (in the worst case) alone.

But you know all this — and that’s why you want to be told to see ‘sense’. As ever, moderation is the way forward. If you have a fling, be very careful and keep it secret.

Don’t let some stranger exploit you in any way at all because that would be a truly expensive ‘thrill’.

And why not rekindle the excitement with your man?

And finally…Why family will always come first

Well, we finally got there. A week ago, my widowed mother moved to live independently in her own cosy and elegant annexe (refurbished by my husband) on our homestead. It’s very stressful, at the great age of 96, to leave the house you’ve lived in for two decades, but Mum is stalwart.

Contact Bel 

Bel answers readers’ questions on emotional and relationship problems each week.

Write to Bel Mooney, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT, or email bel.mooney@dailymail.co.uk.

A pseudonym will be used if you wish.

Bel reads all letters but regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.

Now she has her beloved grandson (co-owner of this property) and his wife right next door, and us just 45 paces away. Mum’s eight-year-old great-grandson visits for a chat (‘Hello, Great-Nan’) and his wee brother makes her smile.

We’ve warned her that it gets pretty noisy here when the other two come over! Ear-plugs might be in order . . .

All this has taken a lot of physical and emotional effort, but I know we’re very fortunate to be able to achieve it. As one of my neighbours remarked the other day, it’s how families once tended to live in the countryside.

Some years ago my husband and I went to Bali for a holiday and were fascinated by family compounds in villages — three or four generations living behind an encircling fence, the young ready to help the old when necessary.

There are many countries where people would find it shocking for elders to be left to fend for themselves, as is so often the case in Britain.

Readers will have realised from all my (controversial to some people) remarks about lockdown rules that my family has always come first — and always will. Is that so strange?

Be sure that I am not romanticising family life. My reply to this week’s lead letter can be seen in this context, and I realise from all the experience of this column that families can be toxic and cause untold damage. At the same time I know the family is the bedrock of a stable society, and believe that sometimes we may have to curb selfishness for the sake of those who gave us life.

Anyway, here we are, four generations on one site — and it feels good.  

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