One of my cousins passed away recently. It was quite a shock, for several reasons. He had been ill for a couple of years with diabetes, but no one expected him to die so suddenly. We took him to dinner for his birthday on a Friday and two days later he slipped away, all alone in his room.
I have a very large extended family so deaths are not unusual. I've almost gotten used to one or two occurring every year. Aunts and uncles have been passing one by one. Their deaths are expected and, though I grieve for them, I adjust, because they are old and I know they can't live forever. But Ronnie was my generation and just three years older than I am. He should have had many years yet. That makes it much harder. His passing feels like a brush with my own mortality - a reminder that we all need to be ready. Life is a fragile gift that comes with no guarantees and no expiration date.
Ronnie and I were actually double cousins, since my mother and his father were siblings, and his mother and my father were siblings. Clear as mud, right? The close relationship between our two families meant that Ronnie and I grew up practically like siblings ourselves. His family lived just an hour from us, and throughout my childhood we all spent at least one weekend a month together at our house or theirs.
As adults, we went our separate ways. He joined the military; I went away to college. Careers and marriages took us in different directions and kept us apart most of our adult lives. But three years ago, Ronnie moved in right across the street from me. Even so, we didn't spend a lot of time together; it just seemed inconvenient. I got used to seeing him come and go. I'd wave as his little blue car pulled out, or I'd stop to chat a moment when I saw him out in the yard. And on holidays we'd usually both wind up at my mother's house, or at the home of our aunt, who also lives on the same street.
But now everything is different. This year, he won't be there to share the Thanksgiving turkey or exchange gifts on Christmas Eve. And I am left with an empty feeling.
I should have spent more time with him. There were memories we should have recounted together, childhood games and pranks we should have relived together, and years ahead we should have had to just be together.
This week Ronnie's obituary was in the newspaper. I read it, but it seemed to be about someone else. It said he was a truck driver, but not that he had also been a bus driver and had barely survived a deadly accident leaving him with injuries that bothered him the rest of his life. The obit listed his "survivors," but they are only a few of the more than 100 relatives who will miss him for the rest of our lives. Why can't an obituary be about the real person and his real life, not just the statistics of his existence?
Ronnie's memorial service has been postponed two weeks so relatives from across the country can arrange to gather here. And it has been decided that it will be a celebration of his life rather than a ritual of mourning his death. That's good.
But I still have that empty feeling. I guess it's regret. I can't help thinking that maybe if I had gone over to see him more I might have realized just how ill he was, and maybe I could have done something to help him manage his diabetes better, or helped him find a new doctor, or just made his last days a bit happier.
Of course, if I had spent more time with him I'd be missing him even more ... if that's possible.