Yesterday my oldest cousin died. He was twenty-seven, he had a baby, his wife had an affair with his best friend, and after living for the last couple years as an alcoholic, he broke out of the cocoon and turned into a junkie.
It’s been more than five years since I saw him in the flesh, or even talked to him, so I had no idea he was riding the Oxycontin dragon. I’m sad, but not surprised. There were subterranean rumblings of his imminent self-destruction: He’d been a hard core booze hound for years.
And self-destruction runs in the blood, generations back, but that’s a topic for another time.
When I was a kid we’d all meet on Christmas at my Grandma’s house in Sacramento. On a day just like today we’d all sit in a dimly lit living room that smelled like fresh pine and my Grandpa’s chewing tobacco and my Grandma’s cooking.
There we are, I see us now, tearing into glittering paper excited and grinning from ear to ear, the whole thing caught in grainy and uneven perfection on one of those clunky early camcorders. Those tapes still exist, and I watch them every once in awhile.
Ryan always smiled first and he never stopped moving. While I’d sit in a corner watching the world go by, he’d be wading through the deepest part of the river, going head first into the strongest current. When we were kids anyway, he was one of the most genuinely generous people I knew.
As the years went on I saw him less and less. My family moved to Washington State, his stayed in California. Our moms would trade Christmas letters and family pictures. Each year, his smile wasn’t quite as big, and his eyes got harder.
The last time I saw him, it was a photograph. Him and his wife at their wedding, standing in Hawaii with the ocean in the background as the sun went down. He looked confused.
His father went to Hawaii, where my cousin lived for the last seven years of his life, to rescue him. He brought his son back to the United States, and it was at eleven o’clock at night after he returned to where they hoped he’d be safe, when he was probably strung out and crashing and desperate to score a hit at the truck stop on the other side that he took a mad dash across the highway.
Maybe he wanted to end it all. I wouldn’t be surprised. He tossed his fate at the mercy of timing and he wasn’t one of the lucky ones. In the last lane, before his feet pounded onto the opposite shoulder, a car hit him.
It makes it less painful to believe that the last thing he thought — what I’d be thinking if I were in his shoes — as the fender smashed into him and he sailed and bounced down the asphalt, before losing consciousness for the last time on the wings of the only high that never ends, it was: Finally, it’s over.
I wish it could have been anyone but you, Ryan.
Even more tragic than your death, it’s the last couple years of your life that I grieve for. That is a pain so intense that seconds feel like days, so ravenous and raging that it feels as if the world is opening up under your feet with every step and swallowing all the hope and light in the world before it has even been generated. Your soul feels like a hall of mirrors that has been frozen in time and space at the exact moment that it is smashed into a million pieces by the supersonic scream of a jet, and you are left to wander with bleeding ears through an enervated wasteland that cuts to the bone at every wrong turn.
You weren’t one of the lucky ones, Ryan, but I was, and I feel guilty about that. Because that’s all it is, more than gravity or anything that’s ascribable to science, that’s keeping us glued to this rock, free to breathe one more second, one more hour, one more day.
If I believed in god I’d say I’ll see you on the other side, but I won’t. So rest in peace, Rye’. We’ll all be joining you sooner we ever thought we would.
NOTE: This is a re-post from the blog I used to keep on my website. I had to discontinue keeping it there, as every time my hard drive crashed or required reformatting, I had to start from scratch recreating all the entries (even though I had the text backed up), because iWeb sucks. Since I moved my blog here I've been in the slow process of reposting all my old entries, and wanted to make sure this eulogy made it onto the new space.