On One Hand

October 16, 2006

The Funeral

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 11:09 pm

One of my cousin’s 3-month-old twin sons was found dead in bed in October 2006. The diagnosis was sudden infant death syndrome. The twins had been born premature in June, deliveries filled with complications and worry, much like my cousin’s own birth twenty-one years earlier when he came into the world months early and weighing less than two pounds. My cousin is just five days older than me – though we were never close, in age we are practically twins ourselves. I have a close family, but my cousin is somewhat estranged from the rest of us, always invited but associating more with his mother’s family. The twins, meanwhile, were closer to the family of their mother – my cousins girlfriend – and I never met the baby who died.

I didn’t know how to feel about the death. It’s hard to mourn someone you knew almost nothing about, and though I could sympathize with my relatives as parents suffering a terrible loss, it was hard to picture my cousin as a father, especially without meeting his sons. I didn’t know much of his girlfriend either – he first introduced her to the family during a past Christmas as his fiance, and soon after we learned she was pregnant. I had seen her a total of maybe four times.

Robert was raised Catholic like the rest of us, and Cassie was “Pagan,” a vague self-description few know how to interpret; the funeral was in a Unitarian Universalist church. For the first time after four years calling myself Unitarian in principle, I stepped into an actual church and attended a service for the funeral.

Also for the first time I saw photographs of the babies, and in the small, glossy images they became real. The surviving brother now seemed incomplete, squirming, small and fragile, without a companion. Another cousin, just thirteen years old, who had only met the twins once was crying; at the most callous and insensitive age a boy will ever pass through, he was sensitive. He always cries at the funerals even if he doesn’t know the people who died.

In general I don’t know how to conduct myself in funerals. That was compounded by the fact that I didn’t know how to conduct myself around my cousin, the father, either. It was easy when we were children – we were rivals, being so close in age, and not knowing what else to do, we mostly fought – and years of that awkwardness had left residue.

Sometimes Robert and I had casual conversation, and sometimes he would rouse bursts of intense affection that I didn’t know how to respond to. Tonight he stood at the church door stoically as we all arrived, his thin, small frame wrapped inside a black jacket, long hair pulled back, and inspite of the recent tragedy he was composed and friendly. Robert and I looked at each other for a minute without talking. He said hey, I said what’s up, we extended our hands to shake and then Robert hugged me instead. I hugged back. The moment lasted a few seconds. Then we went back to not talking, which is how it had been since we were teenagers.

My sister was better with these things. She bubbly and affectionate, using using her flowing femininity to soothe wounds. Angela and I are not like that with each other so I’m always surprised when I see her bring it out. She asked Robert how he was doing, hugged him for a long time, and was respectful and sweet.

I wanted to explain why I wasn’t like that. It would be something to say, I grew up as a sensitive child going to school where showing too much emotion ended in black eyes and bruises, and years of fear has bled that energy out of me. I am not affectionate with people unless it’s trivial. Not with family, not at funerals. The urge to show love may be there but it rarely comes out. In truth I long for connection – which is why I smother my boyfriends until they gasp for air and hate me, them being the only people I know how to show that side of me to. That night I was left standing beside my cousin and sister, wanting to say please understand that I’m not a dick, or at least I don’t mean to be.

My cousin never finished high school, and he was having a hard time getting by. He is intelligent but grew up tossed between two drug-addicted, neglectful parents who were never married and, since Robert was born, never got along. Meanwhile I was a high school honors student and was in college, where I was successful, and sometimes I felt it weave a subtle tension between Robert and I. I wanted to tell Robert I didn’t think I was any better than he was and I thought it was incredible that he was a father. Consider: I was toiling away because someday, in the future, it could be meaningful if things work out. If I got lucky. All stakes were on the future – the job I could get – years of investment were mounting and still I’d given little back to the world. Was all I had to show a few lousy published articles in the campus paper? Robert’s life was meaningful then – he’d created life by fathering children – he had a family – and even if he died that day he would have a purpose in his surviving son. I was jealous that he was in a relationship with someone who loved him. I couldn’t make relationships work that way. I put too much weight on them and they fell apart.

The ride back to my parents’ house was full of bad spirits. My sister was picking apart the family, saying how Cassie was a good mother and why, explaining how Robert was a better father than his own father and why, and I was cringing at the fact that, though she was offering compliments, Angela had no way of knowing anything she judged to be true. I was needlessly but genuinely annoyed, biting my tongue to avoid a fight but in the end starting one anyway.

The funeral was awkward for all of us. We, most of my mom’s family, hadn’t seen the children, so assumed the babies were confined to bed or something, sick and vulnerable since they were born premature. We learned at the funeral that they were being seen and held and coddled and visited by their mother’s family, while we were out of the loop. We found out that babies were named after Robert’s other grandparents on his maternal side.

The twins had been born within two days of deaths of two older relatives in the family, and I know that my grandmother, a devout Catholic but superstitious anyway, was thinking it was reincarnation, that her cousin and brother-in-law died when they did because they wanted to come back and stay with us as the twins. At the funeral my grandmother’s whole theory was destroyed.

My grandmother sat thoughtful during the service, which must have been awkard for her. A Unitarian service is just about the farthest thing possible from the ritualistic Catholic mass she is used to. And though she was surrounded by people in their chairs, my grandmother looked more alone in thought than I had ever seen her before. My whole family was looking awkward and alone among each other during the Unitarain sermon. This is the religion I have chosen for myself – left theirs for – and it works because, for me, talking to God has been awkward and solitary for a long time.

OK, nobody’s perfect. I don’t idealize my family but I find myself putting a lot of weight in them anyway. I like to picture myself fitting nicely in their perfict niche, but I don’t always. I do what I can to find my own, bring my family to the world, the world to my family, but I am young and it never seems to work. Instead I’m watching my cousin struggle to do the same thing, to get everything,but now he’s sitting and bowing his head and being a diplomat, hunched alone and holding hands with his mourning girlfriend at his infant son’s funeral.

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