There are photos of me and my cousins lined up in our strollers. From the time I was born I had an instant extended family of aunts and uncles whose children became like extra brothers and sisters to me. Every Friday evening my mother took me and my brothers to visit with my grandmother and her siblings brought their kids as well. While our parents played cards or just chatted, we youngsters played together inventing games and adventures that none of us would ever forget. Friday nights were heavenly and filled with laughter and love. We were a motley crew devoid of any rivalry, a perfect pairing of different personalities.
On the day that my father died all of my cousins came with their parents to rally around my mother and me and my brothers. I was a sad and confused child at that moment, but somehow I felt that my family and I would make it because the support system that surfaced that day was built on so much love that it would never falter. My great big extended family would be there for us on Friday nights and at any other time that we needed bolstering. They were a presence on birthdays, holidays, graduations, ballgames and even when we were sick.
I grew up with my cousins. I was so close to them that we might as well have come of age in the same house or on a huge commune. We went to the beach together every Sunday when the weather became warm. We played roles in each other’s weddings and served as godparents for each other’s babies. Our almost spiritual connection to each other never left us. I always knew that as long as any of my cousins were still around I would never be alone.
We have lost a few of my sweet cousins along the way. The first was one of the girls, a beautiful soul who was born in the same year as my youngest brother. Her sudden death at the age of sixteen almost put me in my own grave. I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten over the loss. It was the first time that I realized that my beloved cousins were not immune to tragedy and death. Somehow I had always felt, or maybe wished, that we would all be immortal.
The next cousin to go was one of my closest and most favorite. He and I were only months apart in age and we had spent so much time together that we could almost read each other’s minds. We joked and teased like brothers and sisters might do. We took dance classes together and hurled berries from a tallow tree at each other while pretending to be soldiers at war. He grew to be a very good man who dedicated himself to family. On the day my mother died he drove over a hundred miles to bring his mother to the hospital to say her final goodbyes. He inspired all of us with his love and devotion and goodness and somehow our world still seems a bit incomplete without his impish grin and silly jokes.
Another cousin died just last year around this time. He was a true intellect, a kind of renaissance man whose life had been incredible. We all admired his successes, but he was always humble all that he had achieved. He enjoyed talking about books he had read, quoting passages from a memory that remained sharp through all of his days. He was the cousin old enough to remember our grandfather who died before most of us ever met him. He made our patriarch come alive with his vivid descriptions. He also liked telling me about his interactions with my father. I revelled in just sitting with him like a student, soaking in all of his greatness.
It has been difficult losing my brother and sister cousins. Now we are all growing older and some are dealing with life changing illnesses. One among us had developed dementia rather suddenly. He has always been the sweetest of our lot. He seemed to inherited great kindness and patience from his father. Even when we were little he was the one who nurtured us and gave us soothing advice. He was so calm and loving that just being around him was always good.
Now his mind is in a fog. When we visit he has long moments of confusion and his verbal responses to us are short and repetitive, but he still seems to have some idea of who we are. It is difficult to see him this way, bent and shuffling as he walks. I remember racing with him at my grandmother’s house and riding the waves with him at the beach on Sundays. I marveled at his tales of long walks in the park next to his home. I liked the way he told such wonderful stories and the glint of humor that lit up his eyes. Now it feels as though we are saying a long goodbye and that one day we will remember all of the glorious days that we shared and he will not. It breaks our hearts. In meaning ways we have already begun the grieving process for him.
My mother and all of my aunts and uncles are gone now. My grandmother died when I was a young adult. My cousins have been my lifeline, the people who have loved me unconditionally for every moment of of my life. These days we seem to be meeting more and more often at funerals or in hospital rooms. We call and text each other and come to life when we hear each other’s voices but somehow that is never enough. Losing them one by one is like losing a tiny bit of myself. The person that I am today is tied up intimately with that motley crew of cousins. I still have the memories to make me smile, but I am beginning to better understand the fragility of even the strongest relationships. Somehow it had never really dawned on me that I might begin to lose the very people who had always been my anchor. I hate to admit that I have often taken for granted that my cousins would always be with me.
I have a vivid picture in my mind of all of us running and laughing and loving. We are young and beautiful and ready to take on the world with nary a thought of ever losing each other. To our good fortune we have been as stuck together throughout our lives as if someone had joined us with super glue. How wonderful it has been to be able to count on my motley crew of cousins!