When I was so young that my parents were still together, but so old that we had already moved out west, I got to meet my mother’s sister’s sons for the first time. Back east, the cousins on my dad’s side looked like me: white blonde, with a spattering of tiny freckles. In summer, we played outside constantly — this was the time before sunscreen, mind you — and we still looked like underdone toast. My boy cousins there all had buzz cuts or high’n’tights thanks to the triple influence of military, poverty, and the South.
We moved to one of the big square states in the West and my folks enrolled in college. I went to Head Start and married one of the boys in a single-ring (pop can pull-ring) ceremony behind the colored block bin. Meanwhile, my folks split up and Mom headed even farther west to live with her mother and stepfather. Dad caught up and they tried to make a go of it again. Mom and Dad divorced for the final time close to when my aunt’s marriage ended. Aunt moved two towns over from us, bringing the two boys she and her ex had adopted off different reservations. They bracketed me in age, and they were my best and most consistent friends over years of local relocations.
They blew my mind. Their mom was a college-educated liberal, and it was the 70s. She let them wear their hair very long, and fought the school to keep it that way to respect their families of origin. She let them swear, en famille, but not in front of old people or anyone upset by it. They had a regimented daily chore list, where my single mom and I lived with Grandma, who did everything. My aunt kept her menstrual cycle noted on the kitchen calendar so they could be aware of her PMS. It was as unlike my home as you could get. In childhood we had occasional visits, and I lived for them — I was in a highly rural home with no kid neighbors — but around junior high we ended up in the same school district.
The older cousin was the one I was most like, and I spent a lot of time with him. He was bright and funny and chubby and always laughing, very outgoing, infinitely curious. His mother took a close interest in him and helped him in every way. She got him a job for pocket money, bought him books and study tools, got him music lessons, and made sure he learned about his Native American heritage. He got straight As in all the hardest classes, played in jazz band competitions. He became a diehard Christian, and this brought him even more praise and approval.
His brother, two years younger, was the exact opposite. Slim, quiet, prone to anger (but always eager to laugh) with a short attention span and no interest in school or books or learning. He was often left out of conversations between his mother and brother, even asked to leave, because he was not able to talk about (or interested in) the subject at hand. He fought for his mother’s regard, but he didn’t try to imitate his brother to get it. He loved sports, but not school sports; he was a pool lifeguard in summer and a ski lifeguard in winter. He made good money once, posing for a painting, but that was the extent of his modeling career. He was unambitious, and always hungry for attention.
I trailed my older cousin like a comet, joining his group of friends whenever I could. They were intelligent, witty, fun, and came from good families. Aunt even let me come to one of their sleepovers (although she required me to sleep in her bed alongside her, which was not my preference but more than fair.) I followed them, and I had great conversations with my older cousin, but we weren’t close in an emotional sense. We could talk about very emotional things, but we didn’t feel them together.
My time with my younger cousin was again the opposite. He would drop by and say, “Hey, Cuz, how’s it going?” and we’d make pointless small talk. Sometimes he would tease me for being soft (I was anorexic at the time, but had no muscle tone) and flex his muscles at me, or he would ask if any of my friends would go out with him. Very brotherly. I would roll my eyes and shrug it off and see ya next week. But on a regular basis, he would show up and say, “Here, sit down, just listen to this, tell me what you think.”
I remember sitting next to him, both of us still and quiet, listening to Robert Plant singing, “Sea of Love,” just blown away. He came over once and asked me to cut his hair, which thrilled me — he was wearing his hair short and this was a very trusting request. I gingerly cut his hair, a few strands at a time, while we listened to Robert Palmer sing, “Lonely Tonight,” a song that still runs through my head. He gave me his Julie Brown tape, and “Goddess in Progress” became anthematic to me. He would show up when my boyfriends came over, trying to top dog them a little, before giving me a hug and going off to his own fun.
One time he brought me a rose. Just a single bouquet rose, not a long-stem — a dollar a pop at my favorite florist, with a little ming fern and a stem of babies’ breath. It was out of the blue, and I was touched. I fully understood that it was not a big investment, and that it may have been purchased for a date who stood him up. And he knew that it would not be a sweeping moment for me, since I had been dating a boy for months who brought me a dozen roses every weekend and the dead bouquets were strung to dry all over the house. This only happened one time, but it was typical: he would make a gesture, and I would be receptive. He never had a steady girlfriend, and he had been progressively more alienated from his mother. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I might have been the only supportive female in his life, the only girl he was close to.
When I went off to college, he started having problem with alcohol and the law. One summer, when I was still skinny and blond and on a break from my school beau, I ran into him while out cruising on Saturday night. I had been flirting with a hot boy who was a year behind me, still in high school and chasing me hard. When my cousin waved and shouted from a passing care, the flirt — who was the son of a very successful local doctor; my grandmother had begged me to date him while I was in school — said, “You know that stinky Indian?” I stared him straight in the eyes and said, “That ‘stinky Indian’ is my cousin, and I love him very much.” My tone was icy. The flirt tried to make up, but didn’t apologize. I let him squirm for a while and then ditched him. This was not the first time something like this happened, but it was probably the last.
I went back to school, and cousin’s behavior got worse. Aunt kicked him out, and my mom let him move into her attic, even gave him the car she originally promised me. But I came home to find his attic room empty, except for some personal items and a forgotten cassette, which I appropriated and listened to on repeat — the first album by the Violent Femmes. I finished school, got depressed, struggled to get my life on track, and didn’t come home for years. I heard from Mom that he went to jail, went to rehab, went into Job Corp. Mom whispered that he was physically and sexually assaulted while in jail, and suffered permanent harm including hepatitis.
My heart broke for him. But there was no way to be in touch. He loved long, pointless, frequent phone conversations, and used to call out of the blue with nothing to say, just hoping for someone to distract and amuse him. I was (am) phone-phobic in the extreme, strongly preferring to write letters — definitely not his strong suit. We had never had a pattern of rich communication anyway. But we had that shared feeling of sadness, and struggle, and support whenever we were together.
Years later I came home for older cousin’s wedding. I knew everything about older cousin, as Aunt’s letters always detailed his latest string of accomplishments, but they never mentioned younger cousin. It was great to reconnect with him. He was happy, working regularly, and had been dating a dark, slender beauty who never left his side. She brought no chaos to his life and handled his bad behavior without drama. I was distracted by my own crumbling marriage and feelings of failure in life, not to mention the ambivalence of visiting my hometown after years away, but I was happy for him. Over the next twenty years, I visited very rarely, but visits always involved a family dinner that he would join. These time-lapse snapshots showed the changes in his life: the pretty girlfriend became a smiling but haggard wife; they became parents of a darling girl he adored; and then gave her a precious baby brother.
Our lives couldn’t have been more different. I got a divorce, stayed away, never had kids; he worshiped his children and saw his wife as a real partner even though his nose was always open to the ladies. Years later, I found the man of my dreams and have been happily monogamous since the day we got together. Cousin stayed home and became a dutiful son; I remained the prodigal child and designated black sheep. We both got fat, drank too much, and struggled to keep the family times positive and friendly rather than bitchy and judgy. He would always leave early (with my mother and sister snorting and huffing and hissing “so he can keep boozing!”) — but he would always give me a long, tight bear hug and say, “Love you, Cuz. You should come home more. And call me sometime, okay?”
The drinking caught up with him. And the hep. I imagine his life of construction work played a role, too, not only in terms of wear and tear, but medication. Every guy I knew who worked in hard physical ways tore through the NSAIDs like candy. And let’s not forget the stress.
After a brief period of abdominal illness, great pain, and repeated hospitalizations, he died on the last Thursday of 2016.
I didn’t go home for the funeral, which was yesterday. I haven’t called his mother or his widow, or written, or sent a card. Wrong of me, but I can’t bear it. If we lived in the same town, I could be present. I could grieve with them and they would know I wasn’t being callous or indifferent. But I don’t have words. The connection I had with him was not like that. It was sitting together, feeling the music, smiling and nodding, and a bear hug at the end. I can hold it together at work, and I can make small talk with friends, but I cry a lot, and when I least suspect it. I never could have made the trip home. I never could have left without that hug.
We never minded the long absences. We were tight. Nothing ever came between us. I just can’t think of this as permanent. It’s just another time apart.