Wow, out of the blue, another sucker punch. My daughter called me couple of weeks ago to tell me my cousin Ken had died; he was a year older and my closest relative both chronologically and relationally. Totally unexpected, what a shock, and it is still reverberating. I went to his funeral the next week and, while I was so grateful to be able to attend, being there was really tough. First, a little background, as mentioned, Ken was a first cousin and I’ve read that our cousins are our first friends; Ken was and I will miss him deeply.
Ken and I were together fairly often as youngsters because of my first father’s illness and then death when I was six. My sister and I spent a lot of time at their house, about an hour for our home and despite why we were there, along with his middle brother (just his younger brother back then) had great fun. Ken was interesting, a big type “A” growing up, the oldest in our four cousin cabal. His dad, like my mother, was an 800-pound gorilla and his mom, living the dutiful 50’s wife was subservient, but strong in her own way. We were typical 1950 kids, living in our imagination; enacting elaborate play situations that involved fighting Indians (Davy Crockett), going on adventures (Tarzan), saving the world (Superman), and also reenacting every day life playing bankers or Post Office.
Beginning with college, we began a slow drift apart, devolving to seeing each other quarterly after we both got married and had children, and then when I moved west, maybe yearly. Even though we didn’t see each other as often, when we did I felt the relationship pick back up immediately, as though we had last gotten together no more than a month before. Interestingly, as I am writing this, my adult brain was thinking relationship, however it came out we were still playing together! Thinking back on my time spent with Ken through college he was always the leader whether it was the four of us playing or just the two of us. Then, Ken left the small pond of his hometown and went to Texas A&M University, a really BIG pond, and I never saw him take command between us again, for me it was like maturing from friendship into a brother. Since he had two brothers of his own, he may not have seen it this way; funny how something like a death gets us reflecting and now I can’t ask.
And then in college, my closeness to another best friend morphed over about eight years. Michael and I met as a freshman in college and, while we did things together, did not become friends until after graduation. He and I were two of the earliest in our group to get married and have children; interesting that marriage and children began a growing apart with Ken and coalesced a friendship with Michael. While the frequency that Michael and were able to see each other diminished when I moved away to Taos, unlike with Ken we remained very close. You could say that these two gentlemen were brothers that I never had; one up through college and beyond, the other after college.
In my adult life I have lost two grandmothers, a grandfather, several aunts and uncles, a few acquaintances, and two good friends. It has been interesting to think back on my feelings and emotions surrounding all these funerals. My grandparents passed away when I was still in my former life as an engineer and business owner. Basically I had no emotions; oh that’s quite not true, I cried, and was down, remorseful that I hadn’t spent as much time as I could with them, but didn’t really feel it with the depth that I have felt the more recent losses. Since changing professions to psychology my awareness of my emotions and how they land in my body is off the charts from back then, as is the introspection of memories, they are so much more vivid and present than when I lost my grandparents. However, since grandparents and aunts and uncles are from a different generation, the hole they left in my heart, while deep, wasn’t quite as big as losing Michael and Ken.
When Michael died eight years ago, even though it was the culmination of a long battle with cancer, I was extremely devastated. Having spent 50 years of my life suppressing emotions and choosing to sit in the middle of the emotional road, call it neutral, call it denial; I made a vowel to bring awareness to all my emotions. I wanted to get out of the middle the road, and to experience life’s highs and lows to the fullest extent possible, Michael then died, seemingly to test my resolve. This was probably the lowest of lows I could possibly have experienced, so low that I ended up getting physically sick.
The low was so new and so deep that, while I experienced all my emotions, they were almost on the periphery due to numbness. That said, as the numbness wore off and as I got physically well, I was able to truly sit with my experience and feel all the emotions. I also learned how large my heart was because I quite simply could not imagine it was so large as to enclose the hole left by Michael’s passing. Life does go on, and while I only think of him a couple of times a week, every few months one of those remembrances can still reduce me to tears, as is happening now. Luckily that commitment to really experience the highs and lows of life’s emotional roller coaster ride has also resulted in not only experiencing numerous highs but to raise the mean level of happiness and joy in my life!
Conversely, with Ken’s passing, I don’t know if it’s due to our having grown apart slightly, my emotional maturity, or the experience that I had with Michael, but the hole is not quite as large and the depth not quite as deep; however my presence or awareness surrounding his death was much greater. His was the first funeral that I have been to in a while, as I was unable to make a couple of funerals and the last two to die, interestingly Ken’s parents, only had life celebrations several weeks after the their death.
The one thing that I did notice at the funeral, being able to sit with my emotions to a much greater degree, was my wanting to truly experience all that came up. This is not a judgment on others that needed to vent their anger over Ken’s lifestyle habits that may have contributed to his early passing or to the laughter that accompanied memories of happier times with Ken. I remember doing this around Michael’s funeral, mainly feeling so angry that he died when there was so many, that I judged as not being worthy, still living. This time I found myself not really joining with others in experiencing any other emotion besides sadness. In some ways it’s like being in the desert and appreciating it, really being one with it, and not remembering majestic mountains or other scenery that would take away from the seemingly monotonous desert, which is full of life and variety within its own outwardly monotonous landscape.
Truly experiencing my life in the present moment, it was really interesting these last few weeks to see how much further I have actually come since Michael’s death. I explored being comfortable enough with my emotions to simply experience them, as they are with no cognitive, meaning making narrative. Memories of Ken’s and my childhood together, family parties, the crappy mandate from my former in-laws that kept Ken from being my best man, our children playing together, the dinners and parties we experienced as adults, especially the wonderful fireworks parties they had on the 4th of July, and now his passing. One difference between writing on paper and typing, typing doesn’t show tear stains.