For most people, their siblings are the first peers they know and the ones they grow up with. For an SBOC (Spoiled Brat Only Child) like me, cousins are the closest family members in the same age group. I was lucky in that my mom’s family, in particular, was very close – so I didn’t lack for contact with the children of her brothers and sister. We played together when we were little, shared teenage secrets as adolescents, attended each other’s weddings and baby showers and started to grow old together. My cousins were and are the closest thing I ever had to brothers and sisters.
Losing two of them in one week was hard, even though neither death was completely unexpected.
Kim was about six years younger than I, and thus one of the “little kids” (to me and those cousins closer to my age). We were never particularly close, but she and her younger brother Kevin were always a constant in my life, and I was always close to their parents, my aunt and uncle with whom I spent a lot of time as a child, before they had any kids of their own. Kim’s life was, in many ways, an ordinary one – but also an extraordinary one.
She grew up in rural Texas, got married soon after high school, had babies, and followed a traditional path. But somewhere along the way, she got a job as a teacher’s aide and decided she wanted to teach. So she went back to school for what seemed like forever, earning her degree and teaching certification one class at a time, at the same time working and raising her two kids. It can’t have been easy, but she hung in there, and she finally realized that dream and was a teacher at her small town high school.
Then, in the summer of 2008, out of the blue came the first scary symptoms that began a nightmare of doctors, hospitals, chemo, and radiation treatments that come with a diagnosis of what her mom still calls “the C word” because she can’t bear to say it. All of us were shocked when we heard that Kim, who had never smoked, had lung cancer. My mom had died of lung cancer and, much as I hated her diagnosis, I understood it; it made sense in light of her fifty years of addiction to cigarettes. In Kim’s case, it just didn’t seem fair.
Worse than the primary cancer itself, by the time she was diagnosed tumors had spread to her bones and brain. But she didn’t let a bad prognosis get her down. She maintained an amazingly positive attitude, relied on her faith, and fought the good fight. And for a while there, it appeared she was winning. Her emails and posts to her online journal brought good news: scans showed the tumors were shrinking, she was feeling good, and the doctors released her to go back to work full time in January 2009. She made it through the spring semester, and took a trip to New York. She stood vigil with her husband through her mother-in-law’s last days. Everything seemed good – until a new scan came back with ominous results: the brain tumors had multiplied and there were “too many to count.” It was about a year after the initial diagnosis, and now the doctors gave her only a couple of months to live.
She still wasn’t ready to give up, and traveled to U.T. Southwestern in Dallas and M.D. Anderson in Houston, but in the end there was just nothing more anyone could do. By the end of July, she had started having seizures and had to be hospitalized again. When she came home, it was to home health care, and by mid-August the doctors were recommending hospice and her condition had deteriorated to the point where she was sleeping most of the time and often didn’t know what was going on even when she was awake. On September 2, she passed away with her husband, her daughter and her mother all gathered around her.
My cousin, Kim Allen,
Keith, on the other hand, was quite a bit older than me, and technically only a “half cousin,” I guess, since his mother was my mom’s older half-sister. But in our family, distinctions like that didn’t matter. If you’re part of the family, you’re family all the way. I didn’t know Keith as well as I knew some of my other cousins, but he was always one of my more “interesting” relatives. A bit of a rebel, he had a touch of that “bad boy” charm that young girls are always drawn to. He never got into any serious trouble, but neither did he live the conventional life of my family’s “older generation” – most of whom married young and stayed married ‘til death did they part, settled into one job or profession and followed it until retirement, and generally lived picture-perfect 1950s lives.
Keith didn’t fit that mold. His was a freer spirit and he had many jobs but what seemed to fit him best was working for himself. Like many entrepreneurs, he was successful at times, not so much so at others. One of my most vivid memories of him occurred at one of his low points; I remember him saying “When you owe $1000, you worry about it all the time. When you owe half a million, you realize that you’re in so deep there’s no point in worrying about it.” Somehow that has always stayed with me as a comforting thought.
He did somehow recover from that setback, and went on to do okay. On the personal front, he did marry pretty young, but that marriage didn’t last. Neither did the next one. I lost count over the years but I think there were four. He finally seemed to get it right with Barbara and she was there to care for him through his illnesses over the last several years. Heart attacks, surgeries – he had been in and out of the hospital a lot. But it still came as a surprise to learn, only one day after losing Kim, that he was gone, too. September 2009 was not a good year for my family.
Before September 2nd, none of my cousins on mom’s side had died of natural causes. Now, my cadre of quasi-siblings is smaller and those of us who are left have a new realization that our generation’s turn has come. Our annual family Christmas gathering will feel even more incomplete this year, as it has each time we’ve lost another member of my parents’ generation. But at the same time we’re feeling the sadness, we have their lives to celebrate. I will never forget that, like Kim and Keith and the rest of my cousins, I am tremendously blessed to have been born into this wonderful family.