Saturday, December 29, 2012

First Cousin

It was a cold night near the end of 1991. I'd finished berating myself for being a chickenshit wimp, done with giving myself a pass because my dad had died just a few months earlier. I showered, dressed, and drove away from home into the night to Saint John's Hospital in Oxnard, California. I was born there. But for the next few nights, I would keep my cousin Jimmy company. Jimmy was my closest cousin on my mom's side, so it was only right that I would join him at the hospital to watch his dad die.

My uncle Owen was fast losing his fight against prostate cancer. A big, tough man, he'd ignored symptoms until the cancer spread.

I hadn't seen Jimmy in over a decade.  He'd moved to Houston and had nearly severed ties with the family. It didn't feel the same at first; that old cousin bond seemed gone forever, but in the next few nights, it came back.

When my Uncle Owen took his last breath, I stood next to Jimmy. I didn't know what to say, so I just hugged him. My aunt Wanda, Owen's sister, and my uncle Marvin, a retired Navy chaplain, stood weeping in the room with us.

Jimmy left to go home to Texas soon after Owen passed. He didn't offer an address or a phone number. It seemed obvious that he intended to disengage himself from family ties once again. I didn't know why. I still don't.

Jimmy called the night before he left. When I asked him for an address or a phone number, he just changed the subject. But, before he hung up, he said, "Dude, I love you. You've helped me more than you know."

It would be the last time I spoke to Jimmy. My mom told me a couple of years later that she thought he might be in prison, but that the news was sketchy.

I learned yesterday that Jimmy died six years ago, at the age of fifty. No word about the cause of death, or whether he'd left a wife or children behind. Darkness always seemed to rest on Jimmy's shoulder, and I wondered if light had left him for good.

I felt like I halfway grew up with Jimmy. He was my cousin, the same age, and my friend. We did lots of crazy, stupid stuff together. But at the end, he died a stranger, wrapped in mystery.