I read the news of my nephew’s death on Facebook.
I knew it was coming but I didn’t in the way that anyone older finds it so hard to believe that a younger person would die first. We think dying will be linear and orderly with people lined up by age, everyone waiting their turn. Only they don’t. Some people take cuts in line. Others stand patiently for years, eyeing the progress of the line, being ignored by fate, watching others move on, having nothing but happenstance to blame for their long, long wait.
In the comments box, I wrote, “He was my sister’s beautiful boy.” Even though it was nearly a half century ago, I remember him sitting on my sister’s lap, a beautiful blond boy with brown eyes. He fidgeted and squirmed, always wanting something, to be somewhere else, to change what was happening. And she seemed that way, too, uncomfortable, stressed, like so many of us were when the reality of having babies sank in. How long will I be a hostage? we thought. It was a clammy, frightful feeling. Will I ever feel free again? Will I ever shed this skin, this second skin that is stuck to mine like plaster?
She wore her hair in a french twist. It was perfect and very Hollywood. She was thin and blond with hip bones that flared just below her waist. She was older than me by six years, sophisticated, enigmatic. She divulged nothing, sat curled up in an overstuffed chair after her beautiful boy went to bed, smoking long cigarettes and drinking beer. She and her husband had struck out for L.A. on their own a few years before. They’d sold their tiny house in Detroit and packed their silver Corvette with their clothes and favorite records. They moved into an apartment with a carport and she worked at the gas company while he sold cash registers to stores. They lived the California life and became orphans.
For a long time no one went to see them. It was too far. And then people went to see them but they stopped. It became too far again.
My nephew grew up. And I would see him every several years and it would always seem as if he thought I knew more than I did about his life, he wanted me to be wise when I wasn’t, to intervene in a lifetime tangle of his family’s knot, to free the hostage and supervise the new peace. But I never did what he wanted. Because I didn’t know how. His hostage was, after all, my big sister. She was impervious. Varnished many layers. Impenetrable. So I left it there. Left it. Dropped it. No. Set it gently on the grass. And then I disappeared.
When I saw the photo of my nephew’s son on Facebook, his young adolescent face in profile, I wanted to touch his cheek with my fingers. His was the face of my nephew and my sister and of a hundred relatives in scrapbooks and picnics. But I’d never seen him in person nor his brother nor his sister. And now their father was dead. If there had been a rope connecting me to this boy and his brother and sister, it had fallen in a pile the day he died.
Oh. I think. This is the collateral damage of family discord, these children lost to me is the price I should pay. And then I think. No. I should go there and pick up the rope. I can be the kind of person who picks up the rope.
That is the person I want to be now.
Originally published in 2016