Thursday, May 12, 2005
One night, I can’t sleep. I don’t know if I will ever be able to sleep peacefully again. If I can’t sleep through this and I was – am your cousin then how in the world is your mom feeling? I bet she won’t be able to sleep ever again without being completely haunted. Why? Why did you have to go? I can’t help but wonder what we did or didn’t do to help. There are so many what ifs. It’s too late now. All I can do is sob into my pillow and hold onto your memory. 22 years is too young. Why?
One day, I think back to the first time I heard about you. My mom said she was watching you while Aunt Kim was taking care of things. You were just a few weeks old and my mom tells me she hadn’t craved to have a baby until she held you in her arms. She said she was overcome with desire to have a baby of her own and little did she know at the time that she was pregnant with me. We were just over 8 months apart.
One day, we played together. Remember when we used to play at Mary’s with William? You were born in April, William was born in September, and I was in January. We were the best three musketeers. Remember when we cooked hamburgers on the Fisher Price grill? I loved baking those little cakes and donuts that smelled like strawberries. William had a checkered tablecloth for our lavish picnic of Fisher Price food. William had all the cool toys. Do you remember getting filthy in the giant turtle sandbox? We ate real lunch at the kids table and laughed and talked. This was our weekly ritual. Ya’ll were my first friends even though you were my cousins.
One day, when we were a little bit older we went to your apartment. I lived in an apartment too, but your apartment scared me. There were lots of holes in the wall. You whispered and said your dad got mad and hit your mom and the wall. I asked if he hit you and you got silent. You changed the subject and we played in your room. When it was time for dinner, we went and Aunt Kim opened the cupboard. There was another hole in the cupboard, but it looked different. I whispered, “Did he do that too?” You said, “No, that’s the rat.” I shivered. I also noticed you didn’t have a lot of food in your cupboard. Just some crackers and a box of hamburger helper. Maybe it was because of the rat. Maybe it was because you didn’t have enough food.
One day, our families decided to get together at Granny’s during the holiday seasons. Remember the time we were like six years old and went to Granny’s and she got us all of us girl cousins Daisy Duck and all the boys cousins got Donald Duck? She hadn’t wrapped our presents until we were all there and then she disappeared FOREVER to wrap all the ducks? We had fun playing, but you seemed distant. You didn’t seem very happy. Your mom said you didn’t sleep well. Your hair was always a mess and it looked like you just woke up from a nap.
One time, we lost contact with you for a few years. You guys moved to Oklahoma and we didn’t hear from you for a while. Your mom divorced your dad and you were a little sad and relieved. You liked your new step-dad okay, but still went to stay with your dad on the weekends. Until one time you came home with bruises again and your mom said no more visits with your dad. You were sad. You were angry. You were hurt.
One day, it happened again when we lost contact again for a few more years. In a world of no cell phones, it was hard to keep track of where you were. You traveled in and out of our lives. When you turned 18 you decided to join the Army. William decided to go to college for engineering and I enrolled at a local university pursuing a business degree. We all went our separate ways and started our own lives. Then we got news that you were being deployed for Operation Enduring Freedom.
One day, I found out you were going to Afghanistan. My heart hurt when I heard that you would be leaving. I was proud of you, but scared. I hated the name of the war. To have freedom meant that others were captive by violence. We didn’t discuss our thoughts of the war in front of you. We had a party to say farewell and we were proud of you. We hugged you goodbye fearing it might be the last goodbye. But it wasn’t. You came back just over a year later. Your body was with us, but your mind was elsewhere. You seemed listless. Your eyes were tired. We hoped you just needed some rest and being around the familiar in order to regain your normal self.
One day, you called me and asked if you could go to church with me. I said sure and you picked me up and we went to church. After the service, you told another cousin your goal was to find a good woman at church and start a new life together. One of our other cousins heard you say that wasn’t the most tactful when he told you that you should get your life back on track before pursuing a marriage with anyone. You were hurt. You were angry. I didn’t blame you. I was irritated that our cousin spoke so bluntly. I told you I was sorry and we should get some lunch.
One day, you showed up at our house to say hi. I’d just finished studying for some classes. You asked how college was going and I told you it was difficult, but I was glad I was there. You said that maybe you would like to take classes, but school was rough for you. I thought back to the time when my mom said that your mom had been drinking and doing drugs when she got pregnant with you. My mom said she was scared you were going to be born without a limb or something, but you seemed fine. It just took you a bit longer to process things. You had a hard time reading and writing, but you were dedicated. I was proud of you for your service to our country.
One day, you showed up at the bookstore where I worked. You asked if you could put some Christmas presents on layaway. I said sure and helped you get everything set up. We were in the gift section and your eyes landed on a painting with eagles. There was a verse at the bottom of the painting that said, “Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah 40:31” Your eyes teared up and you said, “I need that.” It was a large, framed painting so you helped me carry it to the stockroom and you put a deposit on it. You came in every few weeks and made a payments on it.
One day, it was May 4th. I found my mom sobbing so hard she wasn’t breathing properly. She said you were gone. You took your life in your hands and now you are no more. My eyes widened. My heart pounded. My ears started ringing like that time I almost passed out. I was still. I hugged my mom, but I was in shock. I told her I was so sorry, but I had to leave to take my finals. I drove to college and as I walked into the buildings, a professor saw me. Always teasing, he said, “You look terrified. It’s just finals. You’ll be fine.” If he only knew. I halfheartedly smiled and walked into the classroom. As I sat there I willed myself to calm. I had to take this exam and do well because it was 20% of my grade and I had an A. As I held the pencil in my hand, I noticed I was shaking. I took a few deep breaths and began filling in the circles on the scan-tron. When I finished, I headed to another building where I knew there was a more private bathroom. I let the tears fall in torrents. It all seemed so unreal. All the whys began to torment my mind. I still had a few more final exams so I washed my face, reapplied my makeup and carried on. As I headed to the other building, I was angry at the sun. Why in the world did the sun dare to shine on days like these? The heavens needed to cry with me.
One day, it was today. May 12th. The day we said goodbye – kind of. You are only ashes. I can’t even see your face again. I guess you decided fire would cleanse the hurt you felt. I cried. This past Sunday was Mother’s Day. I can’t imagine the grief my aunt is experiencing not having you here anymore. Her firstborn. My first cousin. I wish you would have reached out. I wish you would have gone to counseling. I wish I would have done a million things differently. I knew you had a hard life. I knew you’d been abused. I knew you saw the terrors of Afghanistan. I didn’t know what was going on in your mind. I didn't know it was this bad.
One night, I lay here trying to find sleep. Tonight. I can't make sense of it all. I decided to journal and write my memories of you. I don't want them to fade. Suddenly, I remembered the painting at my bookstore. I'll make the final payments on it and give it to your mom. I hope you found your wings like the eagle. I miss you. I love you. I wish you wouldn’t have burned your semicolon.