I’m Here for You Even Though You’re Gone: Reflections on Closing Out a Cousins’ Life

My cousin Anna is in my trunk. Her cremains anyway.

Cousin Dick and I had hoped to place her beside her long-gone parents, but we didn’t find them at the nearby cemetery where we thought they’d be.  So, she’s in my trunk until we figure it out. Or flip a coin.

Anna, who had almost two decades on me, was an unmarried only child with no children.

She was also a devout Jehovah Witness and a bit of a recluse, so I didn’t see her much.

But she came to my house for brunch last month after we spread my mom’s ashes, and at sixty-nine, looked robust enough for me to assume she still had a quarter-tank left. Normally quiet, she entertained with colorful stories of her father, my favorite uncle and surrogate father to many of the cousins gathered around my table, and it was the best time we’d ever had together.

She inspected my herb garden, lending some pointers and drove home to the small one-lane-road town where she lived most of her life. Where you can still drive down Main Street, pass an antique store, feed store, family drugstore, quilting shop, diner, and hang a left and be in farm country.

Then two weeks later she had a heart attack, and the only bright spot about that was that she went quickly.

As one of two “functional” local cousins, I barely had time to recover from the shock of JUST HAVING SEEN HER ALIVE before I had to get my butt in gear and get her cremated.

At the funeral home as Cousin Dick and I helped fill out the death certificate, I shared Anna’s smiling brunch pictures on my smartphone while we rehashed favorite memories, and the funeral director’s head swung back and forth like he was enjoying a tennis match instead of two people trying to distract themselves from the gloomy task at hand.

At her house—a house that was home for me too for a year as a kid when it was a working farm with hogs, chickens, plump fruit trees and a field ripe with lush vegetables and my Uncle Franks’ booming laugh—I expected a flood of flashbacks. Instead, what hit me square in the gut was that a whole branch of my family tree had fallen off.

Anna’s sweetheart of a neighbor shed tears for her too, wishing he’d known her better. He tried to, he said, especially after his wife of fifty years died. Anna mostly kept him at a distance, refusing his offers to cut her overgrown grass, make home repairs, or anything more than quick greetings here and there.

I wish I’d known her better too, but she was private, and the Jehovah thing, in general, didn’t lend itself to much non-Jehovah interaction.

But I’d like to think I got to know her more by taking out her trash, sorting through her papers, albums and other possessions, and writing her obituary.

So much of this process, some dampened with bad days, has simply been taking the next step I’d want taken in my behalf, and a conviction that I’m taking care of Anna, just in a different way.

There have been surprises. Despite having almost two decades on me, her entertainment collection, like mine, was dotted with Kevin James movies and Marvin Gaye CDs.

And, opposite me, she was a bit of a hoarder, although I suppose most people strike that chord with a wannabe minimalist. Apparently, I don’t have issues tossing somebody else’s stuff—living or dead—so I ditched the fuzzy, too-far-away and scenery-only photos, and the ones with people I didn’t recognize. I shredded what seemed like every paycheck stub and bank statement she ever had, and the elementary school report cards too. Out went three decades of National Geographic, all manner of clothes, the wisdom-teeth envelope, a gazillion knickknacks.

The cremains in my trunk don’t creep me out anymore either although I plan to get rid of them soon. My beach chair, yoga mat, Nikes and night-out high heels add balance and remind me that I am still busy living.

Been blaring that Tim McGraw song Live Like You Were Dying, reviewing my bucket list and recommitting to being ALL IN because life is a short gig. It really is.

To Anna,

N. Shami

4 thoughts on “I’m Here for You Even Though You’re Gone: Reflections on Closing Out a Cousins’ Life

  1. Anna was a lucky woman to have a cousin like you. You’ve done what you could do, and the best homage we can give to someone is to remember them fondly and learn what we can from them.

    My condolences for your losses.

    • Thank you…I believe she would have done the same for me. Plus, I learned so much from the experience–sacred and ridiculous–and that’s always worth the journey. Ciao for now.

  2. Sorry to hear for your loss. Burying a relative is never easy. I’ve given the eulogy at some relatives funerals and I hated doing it.

    Sometimes though when you go through another persons residence like that, it makes you look at your own material possessions and wonder if people could understand you just by looking at them?

    I tend to blow everything in my life out every couple of years. I just purge and only keep the basics. Some past love letters from ex’s, some old journals, family photos (which I’m digitizing currently).. the rest, it goes.

    Good for you for being such a caring relative. I’m sure that Anna would have appreciated it.

    • Yes, I do sometimes wonder what story people would come up with about my life digging through my stuff. Which is why I’ve decided to shred my journals, post haste.

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