My cousin, Michael, is dying. It's not a huge surprise. He's had a series of ailments over the past several years, been in and out of hospitals, and has been so ravaged that he has become virtually unrecognizable. Illness, however, is really the least of his hurt. Over the course of his adult life, Mike has been on-again, off-again estranged from his parents, at last call his brother and sister have no contact with him at all, and most of us in the wider family circle haven't seen him for ten years or more. His wife is odd with him, at best. They never had children. He did help his wife raise her nieces after a terrible accident left the girls orphaned. The girls don't speak to him now. Michael, as you may have gathered, is alone. He has always been. He is the kind of person who could be in a crowd of thousands and still be alone. A single drop of water, lost in the sea.
Michael is the oldest of my cousins. He was a beautiful baby with a perfect round head, smooth, pale skin, a swoop of brown hair across his forehead and clear, sweet eyes. In a different time, perhaps, he would have been a golden child, showered with love, affection, pride, joy and the delight of all the adults in his life. The baby pictures I've seen of Mike make him look like the kind of child who's pictures evoke automatic 'awwwwws' - they certainly do in me. And in the very earliest of these pictures, he smiles.
Later, smile-less photo after smile-less photo serves to remind those of us who were there that Michael was not the adored child he should have been, and those soft, sweet eyes have been hardened and unhappy for most of his days. I will not pass judgement on my aunt or my uncle, whose choices would not be my choices, but both of whom I believe did the best they could. I will say, however, that their choices did not land well with Michael and he suffered greatly and quite obviously when we were all children.
By the time I was a young girl, Michael had developed an incapacity for looking people in the eye. He always shuffled his feet and wore an almost physical fret and stutter. He spoke in a soft monotone followed by bursts of nervous laughter attached to some joke played on a loop in his own mind. Mostly, though, he spent his life retreating into himself and never delivering himself into any conversation or any relationship. He was clumsy, prone to becoming red-in-the-face, and slight - the very definition of socially awkward.
When Mike got married, there was a near-audible sigh of relief across the familial countenance. No one particularly liked the woman he was marrying, but the act of getting married was so uncharacteristically normal that everyone hoped it was the start of some new chapter in his life. But just like the hope that existed from the very time he was born, this path didn't take Michael where he might have gone - where we might have hoped.
Instead, his marriage was marked by culture clash, depression, isolation, despondence, anger and disconnect. His wife has been alternately cold and overly possessive. Over the years, Mike has done his part to fill his life with darkness and murk. He has had terrible bouts of temper, both the warranted and the unbeckoned. He has lurched between drinking and food binges that were worn painfully, uncomfortably, but no less so than anything else. And most hard for his parents to watch, he's neglected his health -and then his deteriorating health - to this point of no return. If I had to draw a picture, I'd say Mike is the living definition of the word 'wince'.
For this, and many other reasons, I stopped long ago having any communication with him. Mostly having it and not having it have resulted in virtually the same level of closeness - none.
That said, I have longed more times than I can count, to call Mike and tell him that I love him. I love him for carrying all his burdens so awkardly and still trying to stand - there is great valor in that. I love him for being in so much pain when we were little and surviving for as long as he did - there is a lesson to be learned. I love him because he is owed something that he has never received and he hasn't known how to collect... or how to let go. I think we all do that to some degree.
I love my cousin Mike because he is my family. He is one of the men - whether he knows it or not - who this fatherless young girl looked up to as a child. And when she did, she saw a boy whose eyes were a faultless, flawless blue with a world of promise in them. Today, in her mind's eye, they remain the same. And in her dreams - in my dreams - Michael will not die but be renewed. He will shake away this clouded world and emerge a new man, strong, healthy, tall and full of life. He will hold on his shoulders where pain once rested the hopes and good wishes of those who believe in him. He will not be 'maybe' he will just 'be'. And as such, his promise will be fulfilled and his eyes will shine with the love and joy of a good life. So, Michael, I hope.