My cousin died a few days ago. Death has been in the air quite a lot recently, at least in my family. For all the people I’ve known to die -a high school friend, my mom, my uncle, and now my cousin- this is probably the most complicated to deal with.
Because, on some level, I am glad that he is dead.
Not in a malicious sense. I never wished that he would die and I was sad to hear that he had; but he’s been in and out of the hospital his entire life. Bipolar disorder and childhood onset diabetes don’t mix, to say the least. For the last three or four years he’s been in the hospital at least once a month, sometimes for months at a time. His stomach was paralyzed but he still insisted on eating full meals, which only worsened his condition.
And, I am sad to say… he alienated most of the people in his life. In the last few years, his own mother had said she wanted nothing to do with him. None of his friends would take him in. He’d been living in an un-airconditioned garage -and this is Texas, mind you- when our grandparents were kind enough to take him in. He repayed their kindness by disrespecting them and trashing their guest bedroom. And these people are the kindest, most warm-hearted people on earth.
I lived for a year or so in a very filthy house, riddled with cats and boxes upon boxes of who knows what. It was home for me, but it was also disgusting and painful, and living there as long as I did pushed me closer to suicide than I have ever been in my life. That house was filthy in the sense that the corners hadn’t been touched in years; you could clean it and make it look nice, but you’d have to burn it down to make it all right again.
My cousin made the guest bedroom more of a disaster in a few months than that house ever was at its worst. And my poor grandmother, who complains when you so much as suggest carrying a cup of grape juice over the carpet. She’s been in the hospital several times in the last year; the most recent was from a stroke, to which I have no doubt my cousin was a contributing factor.
But I don’t hate him. I never hated him. As time wore on I certainly lost a great deal of my sympathy for him, lost patience with my grandparent’s kindness. But as someone who lives four hundred miles away and speaks to the parties involved maybe once a month, I have the liberty to feel however I may, and not worry that it might impact the quality of our relationship. These are things I only write now because I need to, and the only parties I might worry about reading this either never will, or will never get a chance to.
When I was much younger, I thought he was great. My mom and I lived mostly by ourselves since 2001, with little enough extended family involvement that a visiting uncle was an exciting treat. And this particular uncle was a gamer at the time, and his son even more so. They were both spectacular to me for that reason, that I could prattle on about video games and they could keep up.
There was one particular visit, my uncle and cousin were staying with us… but my cousin frequently vanished. At some point I asked my mom where he went to all the time, and she told me “He’s going to smoke, but he doesn’t want you to see him do it. He doesn’t even want you to know he smokes.”
My mom and dad both smoked in front of me all the time, in fact most of my family smokes and doesn’t give a damn that I might be influenced one way or another. But my cousin cared, and he never let me see him smoke until I was much older. That meant a lot to me.
He was rebellious and, in his way, wise; he had some new-age beliefs I never inquired into at length, perhaps because my own new-age obsessions were very easily influenced and I was happy with the balance I had at that particular moment. I wish I had inquired. I never knew about his condition until things had progressed beyond a point where I cared what he had to say.
It hurts because my cousin was nothing but a product of his situation, the sum total of medical, social, and psychological decisions that he really had no control over. In this way, I cannot blame him for the harm he caused, the stress and the heartache. But at the same time, I absolutely can.
I mourn the loss of someone only a few years older than me, the loss of a cousin I never knew as well as I liked (and, at the same time, knew better than I wish I had done), the loss of tremendous potential energy. And especially I mourn the loss of my uncle’s son. I haven’t cried about this yet, but I know when I talk to my uncle, I will.
We like to pretend that all life has meaning, that each and every one of us is a special gem who is destined for great things. We build up the narratives of our lives and try to tease a good story out of it at every turn. But the truth is, who you are, what you believe, where you’ll probably end up, how healthy you are; it’s all a matter of luck. Some people do great things; others do ordinary things. Some simply wait to die, and then they do.
I don’t claim to know which combination of those things my cousin was. If this seems like an indelicate writing, well, it is. You can’t rose-color this particular life, and maybe you can’t rose-color any life. It’s a complicated mess that hurts all the worse because it’s complicated.
All I can say is that I am sorry… sorry he’s gone, sorry he had the life he had, sorry it wasn’t better, sorry that we as a family failed to turn him into the person he might have been; sorry that he never fought to become that person himself. Unless of course he did, in which case we’ll never know.
For better or worse, it’s done. We are all granted a life; we all owe a death. That is the only universal truth.
I hope that there is peace waiting for him.