We hadn’t seen each other for about twenty years. Truth be told, I hadn’t really thought about you many times either. Life and circumstances separated us and kept us apart.
I remember hanging out during Christmas. You introduced me to 80s hair bands and we would rock out in your room, smug within our teen self-importance, to Poison and White Snake. Then, we’d become small children again and dive out of shadowy rooms with my sister and your brothers to “tackle” the legs of any uncle who dared to walk to the bathroom. I remember walking through the woods around Grandpa’s, blazing trails and exploring nature. I remember your best friend whom I had a crush on, though I don’t remember her name.
And I remember sitting between you and her during Grandpa’s funeral, listening to the song Grandpa, while you both cried on my shoulders. I remember how I put my arms around you both, and held in my own tears, to say in as strong a voice as a dorky teenage goofball could manage, “It’s okay to cry… he loved us.”
When he was gone, our two sides of the family drifted apart. I’m not sure why. Perhaps my father didn’t feel a strong connection with his step-family. Grandpa’s death hit my dad hard, and maybe he didn’t want to be reminded of him by visiting. It doesn’t matter in the long run. If it hadn’t been families drifting apart, it would have been your constant teen pregnancies and my slow crawl through college (courtesy of weed). We were good cousins for that moment in time, but we weren’t meant to be important parts of each others’ lives.
At least, that’s how I justify never even being curious about how your life turned out. The part of myself that doesn’t much like who I am, the part which tells me that I could be a success if only I had talent or drive, tells me that my young ego looked down on you. I thought I was smarter… better… than you. In my mind, I called you and your family rednecks and addicts and people too dumb to properly use contraception. It made me feel better about myself.
So when my mom called and gave me the news that you had died in your sleep somewhere in South Dakota, I just brushed it aside. It didn’t matter. You were just a step-cousin. You were someone I used to know and care about, not someone who mattered to me now. “Thanks for telling me, Mom. Yea that’s sad. I’m driving right now so I’ve gotta go.”
I’m an asshole, Melissa. The cousin who tried to be an emotional rock to two young girls, who would play Truth or Dare and not immediately go to sexually motivated dares for your friends, and who would chat with you about boys and give you a glimpse into how we think… that cousin heard the news of your death and treated it like he was hearing who won the Amazing Race. It was a curiosity, but non-vital to the task of being at a two-year old’s birthday party.
And the asshole in me made it through the entire party without giving your death another thought. Played with nephews, ate some cake, and watched a mom open the presents for an interested toddler. It was a good day.
Then, at 10:30 in the evening, while stuck in a check-out line behind an old woman who was paying by check but became confused by the amount shown on the screen and began a fifteen minute argument that came down to, “When I started writing the check, the total was $67, and now you want $68,” the asshole took a bathroom break. And finally, instantly, painfully… I cried. I cried for those memories. And I cried for the lost opportunity… because someday maybe I would’ve gotten over my undeserved ego and reached out to you to just say, “How’s it going?”
Melissa, it’s been a hard year. So as I cried for you, I cried for all the other shit that has happened. I cried for Helen, and money issues, and car issues, and losing Sabrina, and disappointing Denise, and being stuck in a fucking grocery line because the dumbass cashier swiped my food onto her other “lane” while Old McDonald’s wife chicken scratched her check so now I can’t even pack up and just go to another checker to get out of the god damn store! It snowballed, Melissa, and all the crap that I have been trying to hold up just started to crush my spirit next to the gum and People Magazine.
And just as I was about to walk out… leave the groceries… walk away from the store… not even to my car, just down the street in a random direction… into the night… until collapsing exhausted at some random spot… essentially give up on everything… at that moment, I thought, “What would Melissa give to have one more day?” Dead at the age of forty-two, grieving kids, grand-kids of your own… what would you give to have that one more day to say good-bye? To feel the sun? To deal with these shitty little problems I am letting crush me?
So I want to thank you, Melissa. And I want to apologize. And I’m going to pull myself together and say in the strongest voice a dorky overweight middle-aged man can manage, “It’s okay to cry… and I love you.” And whoever hears it, or reads it, can rest assured that it is true. Even the asshole who hates himself… even he is loved. And that will be your legacy in my life, cousin.
May your soul be in peace.