Today is January 6, 2021. That means a few things. First, I somehow survived 2020. Despite all odds, despite the world throwing everything in my way, I’m still breathing. Whether I want to be, well, that’s the question, isn’t it? And 9 months into the two weeks to “flatten the curve” has me wondering what the answer really is.
Second, it’s the day the electoral votes are supposed to be counted. (I’m actually writing this post the night of the 4th, so I don’t know what’s going to happen.) That’s a whole other story, one for a different post. Suffice to say, this is one of the last chances to stop the coup against our great nation, to stand up for liberty and against oppression.
But today also marks an anniversary, of sorts. More of a commemoration, actually. Seven years ago, my cousin passed away. And that changed my life for the worse, in ways that still reverberate to this day.
It was a Monday. As is often the case after Christmas, my sleeping schedule was horribly out of balance. I can’t remember the exact times, but I had stayed up through the night before, and I was ready to fall asleep around 4 PM. I’d just climbed into bed, in fact, when my grandmother called. She was talking to my mom, and my brother suddenly ran into my bedroom.
As a quick digression, my aunt is a mother of one and a huge animal lover. Her only son was named Joey. Her dog was named Zoë. (Yes, the dots are necessary. She insisted.) The rhyming was intentional, and it stemmed from an incident whose details I can’t quite recall. Whatever it was, it happened as she was bringing the dog home, all the way back in 2005.
Anyway, back to the story. As I was getting comfortable, my brother burst into my room and said, “Zoë’s dead!”
I was shocked for a moment, because it’s always sad to hear about a family pet dying. But it’s only a dog, not a human being. So I made a little joke, we laughed, and I shrugged it off. A few seconds later, I hear a bloodcurdling scream from my mom downstairs. “No!” she wailed. And I do mean wailed. I had never heard a sound like that out of my own mother. I didn’t know she was capable of it.
Well, I had to find out what was up. Surely she wouldn’t be doing that over a dog. As I’m coming down the stairs, I hear her crying and saying, “He can’t be!”
Zoë was female, so there went that theory. What really happened was that my grandmother (ten days shy of her 91st birthday) had misheard “Joey” as “Zoë” at precisely the wrong time. The one who had died was not, in fact, the dog, but the man.
That Monday was awful already. It was the coldest day of the year, with a temperature that never got out of the 20s and ended up somewhere around 0° Fahrenheit. Bitterly cold for Tennessee, and actually the coldest January day for my small town since the 1980s. The doors of my mom’s car were frozen shut. The pipes running to my upstairs bathroom burst in the night. And we would have to brave this frigid evening, because my cousin really did die.
We met at my grandmother’s house. Trailer, rather, the same one where she passed away a little over a year later, and the same where my uncle did the same in 2020. My brother and I rode with my mom and stepdad. Another of my aunts, who lived next door, had come down, along with her youngest daughter. Everyone was on the verge of tears, if not openly weeping. We hugged, shared words of consolation, and generally settled into a kind of vigil, waiting for more news.
That came soon enough. Joey had been sick. I recall that very well. He’d had the flu at Christmas Eve; I caught it from him. Influenza rarely kills someone 35 years old, but it can happen, and it’s even more likely than a person the same age dying to the Wuhan virus. Especially if that person is, to put it bluntly, morbidly obese. He wasn’t one of those people you see on TLC, eating everything in sight and never moving from their beds. No, he was a very active, very energetic man who just happened to have some kind of medical problem that left him almost totally unable to lose weight. So he was probably north of 400 pounds at the time of his death. (A lot of it was muscle, to be fair. And he was tall: 6’5″, the tallest in our family by a good 5 inches over second place, which happened to be me.)
In his later years, he’d had problems with his heart, stemming from his weight. He also had some kind of spider bite (I think?) on his leg that never properly healed—his treatment was on hold until he recovered from the flu. So he was by no means in perfect or even good health, but death always comes as a shock in someone so young.
I didn’t see him until the funeral. I couldn’t. While everyone else went to my aunt’s house, about a quarter of a mile up the road, I stayed with my grandmother. Except I didn’t so much stay with her as lock myself in her room where she couldn’t see me cry.
And cry I did. Pretty much constantly.
I’ve often mentioned my emotional attachment to music. On this occasion, I listened to Black Eye Galaxy, an album by blues rock musician Anders Osborne. I’d never played the whole album in one sitting before then, and I haven’t since. It’s just too powerful, too poignant. No set of songs has ever, in my opinion, encapsulated such pure, undiluted anguish. That was exactly what I needed at the time. I needed someone to tell me that they had felt something like what I was feeling.
Because Joey might have been my cousin, but he was more than that to me. He was closer to a big brother. I looked up to him. After my father left, I did so even more, using him as inspiration for my own big-brother nature. He was a friend to everyone, a big, cuddly teddy bear of a man who could still get angry if you crossed him or his family.
Most of all, he respected me like no one else in my life. When I spoke, he listened. If he needed advice on anything from computers to music to stereo modding to growing peppers, he turned to me, and he wasn’t afraid to tell anyone why. That’s what I lost. Seven years ago today, I lost not only my cousin, but my best friend, my mentor, my biggest fan.
I haven’t been the same since.
Two days after he died, I dreamed of him. We were out shopping with our respective mothers, and I followed him to the games aisle. Our family has a tradition of game night, and the two of us often talked about new games to get. (Settlers of Catan was the one I wish we’d had a chance to play.) In the dream, we were browsing the shelves when I suddenly looked over at him and said, “I guess we don’t get to play games anymore, do we?” If anyone ever tells you that your heart can’t break in a dream, they’re lying.
I was a pallbearer for the first time in my life, as I had been the odd man out for my grandfather’s funeral in 2012. I was also the music director for the service, and I still have the list of tracks I used:
- Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Simple Man”
- Randy Travis, “He Walked On Water”
- Brad Paisley, “When I Get Where I’m Going”
- Vince Gill, “Go Rest High On That Mountain”
Not all my kind of music, I’ll admit, but it served its purpose well. And I only cried for one of the songs, but I dare anybody to listen to Vince Gill without getting at least a little misty. It’s just impossible.
The days that followed were the hardest for everyone. My aunt refused to take down her Christmas decorations, because he was the one who put them up. She still takes weekly visits to the cemetery where he was buried, and she was very upset a couple of weeks ago, when the road was blocked due to a suspicious vehicle scare. (This was right after the Christmas bombing a hundred miles away in Nashville.)
We all had to adapt to life without one of us, without the natural leader and protector we had lost. Our family parties are a lot…less now. Smaller, less raucous, and I’m the one leading all the games. Before, that was an honor: Joey, first of anyone else, declared me the permanent game master. If we were playing any kind of trivia game, he said, I had to be the one asking the questions. Otherwise, nobody else could win! Since he left this world, that position became a necessity, as we just don’t have enough people to balance out my, ah, wide body of trivia knowledge.
Most of all, I lost one of the very few people I felt I could trust to stand beside me through thick and thin. My uncle’s health was growing worse, my mom was spending more and more time taking care of him and my grandmother, and I just didn’t have anyone older to talk to. Not in the same way I could talk to him. Just as when my father left, I became the older one, the man in charge. I wasn’t ready for that when I was 12, and being 30 didn’t make it any easier.
The loss, and the responsibility that came in its wake, sent my depression to a level where I could no longer ignore that it existed. For seven years I’ve lived with it, dealt with it in whatever way I could. Two years ago, I realized I would be older than Joey had been at the time of his death. Something about that resonated in me. Call it survivor’s guilt, because I honestly felt like I didn’t deserve to outlive him. I didn’t actively consider ending my own life, but I did passively accept that, if it did happen, it wouldn’t be unjust. After all, I wasn’t half the man he was.
I still feel that way. He never married, never had children. Given the state of the world and my life, I doubt I’ll have the chance to outdo him in either respect. But he had a decent job, a number of loyal friends, and a generally positive attitude that, in my seemingly eternal depths of despair, I outright envy.
Seven years have gone by. In one sense, that’s nothing. In another, it’s forever. So much has changed that he’d probably find the world almost unrecognizable. He’d be asking me for help to navigate some of the strangeness we have to face today that just wasn’t there even as late as 2014. Or we might have found ourselves on different sides of this great divide that is taking over every aspect of life. I can’t say for certain. I do know that there are times I miss him more than ever, and times when I would gladly give my own life if it would bring him back.
“Family comes first” is a motto I use in all my books. The first novel I released, Before I Wake, was my way of illustrating that. It was in a lot of ways, for him. The protagonist, Jay, is so named because those were my cousin’s initials. And I’ve added small nods to him in other works, as well. The Soulstone Sorcerer has as Ian’s boss a very…large man named Joseph, who recently had gastric bypass surgery; my cousin had been considering that for some time. The Endless Forms series has a number of references. As his mother was the one who pitched it, I felt it would be a good place to toss in as many as I could fit.
But those are only small reminders, my way of coping with a tragedy. After seven years, the memory remains. So does the wound. Oh, it’s no longer fresh, but it left a scar on my very soul, one that will never truly heal.