freedom.

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.

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home.

This is Ohio. I grew up there. From where I live now, it’s less than an hour’s drive to the west.

This is Columbus. This is where I was born. It’s a pretty cool place. I just spent a weekend back there, seeing a Dead show downtown, seeing high school friends I don’t see enough at a reunion and spending a Fourth of July in a suburb that celebrates it like no other place I’ve ever been. Columbus is a different place than it was when I was growing up — and by that I mean it’s only gotten better.

And this? This is Athens. Yeah, it’s a little college town, but it’s as important to me as any other place on the planet. In the decade I lived there, I met the people who are the best friends I have. It’s where I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. And it’s not only where I met Mrs. Crappy, but it was important enough to both of us that I took her back there in December 1998 so I could ask her to marry me. That’s just a few of the reasons why I’ve always thought of Athens as my spiritual home, a place I can return to and immediately feel centered, no matter what has changed since my last visit.

I lived in Ohio for the first 28 years of my life. That time and those experiences inform everything I am and everything I do. I’m thankful every day to be here in Pittsburgh, to know the people I do and to have the fun I’m having, but am, and I always will be, an Ohioan.

Got a problem with that?

astounded.

My Twitter friend Goob posted a typically cryptic link to this earlier today. We seem to share an eclectic taste in music, so I pulled it right away; when I first listened, I think I hurt my jaw when it hit the top of my desk.

i’m walkin’.

I am surrounded by babies.

This isn’t new. My friends from college had their baby explosion a few years ago. My sister and Mrs. Crappy’s cousins joined them, but I think they’re all about done by now. Now, my Pittsburgh friends and their families — as well as a few co-workers — are doing their best right now to ensure the propagation of the species.

I’m thrilled for all of them, whether they have newborns or whether they’re watching their kids grow up before their eyes.

I have another reason to be thrilled. All those kids? They’ve all been healthy. I’ve had a couple good friends who’ve had to deal with the surprise of a premature birth — and fortunately for them, all they’ve had to deal is the surprise itself.

In that regard, I’ve been lucky.

Not everyone is. Take the Spohrs. They lost their daughter Maddie earlier this month, when she was just 17 months old. Maddie was born prematurely. The Spohrs didn’t want flowers in Maddie’s memory; they asked their friends to make donations to the March of Dimes, and their friends have responded.

You’ve heard me say over and over and over how remarkable my Pittsburgh friends are. They responded as well. Burgh Baby started up a team that will walk on May 9; there are now more than 20 — including the Crappys — signed up for the team. She set a goal of $2,000; the team now has raised more than $2,600, and $3,000 should be pretty easy to reach.

Y’all know we don’t have kids. But it’s still not hard for the childless among us to look around and see how fortunate our friends and families have been. And it’s not hard for us to imagine the horror we all would have experienced if what happened to the Spohrs had happened with one of our friends.

Or, even worse, to my niece or one of my nephews.

We shouldn’t have to worry about this stuff. The March of Dimes is working to make sure we don’t. If you can pitch in a few bucks towards my $200 goal, you can help make sure it won’t happen to your family or friends either.