A cousin of mine died this week.
Reading the email my mom sent Monday morning was a shock — but not a huge surprise.
She was the daughter of one of my mom’s cousins, a couple years younger than me. I don’t see enough of that side of my family — I haven’t since my grandmother died more than two decades ago. But everyone got together two years ago when my parents hosted a reunion at their house; at that point, she was in pretty good shape.
And it might have been the last time. For years, she struggled with more demons than anyone should have to contend with; it made it tough for the people who were close to her, including her ex-husbands, her partner, her daughters, her brother and the family friends who became surrogate parents after her own folks passed away.
There were years when we were really close, exchanging visits in Athens, where I was in school, and Oxford, when she was a student at Miami. There was erratic behavior even then, but not to the degree I thought it was a problem.
(Note: I didn’t think it was much of a problem for me, either, which led to the necessity of me interrupting my scholastic career for a couple years in the Army.)
Somewhere along the line — after we lost touch — what had been partying became a problem, one that kept her from holding a job, maintaining a relationship and, eventually, from simply staying alive. There were some hospitalizations related to drinking and others, like a bout with breast cancer, that had to add to whatever stress she was already feeling.
And so she drank. A lot.
I’ve had other friends face the same struggles. So far, they’ve all come out the other side in good shape, and it seems they’re doing what they need to do to stay that way. I couldn’t be more proud of those folks and what they’ve done to help themselves. I can’t say I know for sure how hard it’s been for them, but I’ve seen them go to the brink and then come back. And they’ve stayed there.
I’m not saying my cousin didn’t try. She knew the problems she had. When things were going well, she worked hard to keep herself out of situations she knew would be risky. But when things weren’t going well, there wasn’t much she could do to keep herself out of trouble.
She seemed to be in good shape when we saw her at the reunion. We laughed and chatted as we looked at old pictures stacked atop the kitchen table. When I asked how she was doing, she turned serious, saying she felt like she had one more chance and that she didn’t want to lose it. She seemed determined to make it this time.
I got her email address and sent her a couple of messages after the reunion. I didn’t hear anything back, at least not directly. We did get an email from her brother a few months later, saying she had relapsed, and that we should probably be prepared to get the news we finally got on Monday.
She was a good person. I don’t know her first daughter but I can say with certainty she loved her second daughter completely, and she was really good with her, as I saw at the reunion at my parents’ house. She was smart, and she had a great spirit, open to music and reading and fun. We had long discussions about Vonnegut and Hemingway through the mail, and we saw a couple Dead shows together back in the mid-80s.
That’s the part of her that’s still alive, and that’s who I’m going to remember. The things that made her drink, that made her body break down … those chains and weights are all gone. That’s a relief to me, and I hope it’s a relief to her brother and the others who did their best to watch out for her in the last couple decades.
She is finally free.
I posted a brief message about this Monday afternoon; and heard from literally dozens of you through the rest of the day. Thanks to each one of you — it means a lot.