Tuesday, August 2, 2011

aloha, cousin

This is my cousin, Christopher.
We were at the beach in Hawaii, so the shaka sign is very appropriate. He was probably taking a break between surfing and skimboarding, hanging out in the shade for a little while. I think this photo is from our family vacation when I was about 8, which means he was about 16.
That vacation was pretty awesome, as you might expect. I don't remember a whole lot of details from it, just little snippets here and there... swimming and splashing in the warm ocean water... eating shave ice... collecting macadamia nuts and avocado pits from the ground... walking around downtown and buying shell necklaces... drinking big glasses of POG and playing cards or charades....

My family lived pretty far away from Chris's while we were growing up, so vacations and visits were pretty much the only times we saw each other. Chris would tease me and goof around, in a big brotherly sort of way (or at least that's what I imagine, having never had a brother). Since I was so much younger than everyone else I was treated like a baby a lot of the time. But not by Chris-- he was somehow always able to make me feel included and special.

Seven years ago we all flew out to Hawaii for Chris's wedding.
Six years ago we all flew out to Hawaii for Chris's funeral.

There's not much else I can tell you about Chris. I'd love to talk about his music and his jokes and his beautiful wife, but those stories aren't mine to share. And there are so many things about him that I don't know myself, that I'll never know and I can't ask.
I'll never truly know him. I'll never understand what was going through his mind the night he walked into his garage and ended his life. I can't tell you about his struggles, his pain, or his anguish because I never knew about any of it.
The last time I saw him he seemed like the same old Chris, lighthearted and laid-back. Joking. Smiling. Happy.

After his memorial, we buried Chris's ashes on a hill overlooking the a sugar cane field and the sea. We cried and laughed and told our favorite stories about him. No one asked those difficult questions that I'm sure we were all pondering.
and How could he...?
and How could we not have...?

When I tell people about Chris, they sometimes ask me if we were close. It happens more often than you'd think."I was really shaken up-- my cousin committed suicide."
"Oh... were you close?"

They say it sympathetically, like it is meant as a condolence, but the words catch in my ears and infuriate me.
Was I close? To my cousin whose death makes me physically ill?

Also: It's complicated.
To say that Chris and I were close would not be true. But to say that we weren't doesn't acknowledge what he meant to me, what he still means to me.

He was my cousin.
He was the only boy amongst a whole mess of girls.
He was our grandmother's clear favorite.
He was a jokester, a buddy, a nomad.
He was a musician and an artist and a surfer.
He was... different. I remember knowing that he was different before I knew what that meant or how hard it could be to be different from your family. He was unique and unapologetically himself.

Our family is loving and supportive, but Chris was someone who truly accepted and, for lack of a better word, celebrated people and their individual choices. I don't know how to say this without making the rest of my family sound like a crew of jerks, so let me be clear: I love my family dearly and I know they love me and are very proud of me. But Chris was, as I said, different. I don't think he would have cared that I have tattoos or that I've made some mistakes and done things of which I am not proud. Even if I had done something like quit school, I think he would have been nothing but accepting and supportive.

I remember that while all of us were getting caught up and stressed out about the little things, Chris was always there to see the bigger picture, the important piece.
Until, one day, he wasn't.

So, I feel like Chris and I could have been close. But of course I'll never know.