Even though we were only cousins, and even that bloodline was complicated by our grandmother's marriages and remarriages, to me you always seemed like the closest of family. We only saw each other once a year, and then not at all, but we were drawn together in an extended sibling bond, united by the abuse and neglect we all suffered at the hands of our mothers.
We never talked about it.
(Here I could go on for ages about why child abuse is a terrible thing, making reference after reference to well-designed research discussing the long-term consequences of a negative home environment. Instead I will say this: my mother has been dead for years. Every time I think of her, I tear myself apart trying to figure out how I can love her and hate her in the same breath, trying to find redemption for my birth.)
We never talked about it, and honestly, I never guessed that the extent and content of your suffering so closely matched my own. (I've been so self-absorbed. I am sorry I was not there for you.) Still, we all had this in common--we were never young. All of us, always too intense, too mature for our age, too smart for our own good.
(Children are stronger than we give them credit for. Aside from their obvious and remarkable insight, flexibility, and resilience, in those circumstances where adults are incapable of fulfilling their duties, children will often effectively give up their childhood in order to care for loved ones. They take up the slack, despite the unrewarding nature of their labor.)
We were survivors.
After a while, the regular gatherings fell by the wayside. We each moved as far as possible from our immediate families, thereby losing contact with each other. We would see each other at the major events: Two weddings. One funeral. Birthday parties, as our grandmother and aging matriarch reached milestones that seemed to warrant celebration.
(Every single one of those birthday parties seemed the same. The same rented tents, the same smarmy lounge singers, the same dull catered food, the same friends and family going through the same routine of drinking themselves into an angry, unhappy oblivion. Every time saying to yourself, "I would do anything to get out of this," and every time finding yourself going anyway, because this was family, and we are loyal.)
For some reason, this time, at this gathering, we started talking.
After so long a silence, there is such joy in being understood.
We have all grown up cautious, distant, and independent as a result of our hurt. We admit to difficulty trusting people. We fear that, should we become parents, we will be like too much like our own...or else overcompensate and hurt our children in a different way. We are motivated and self-sufficient. We have learned to appreciate the good things that come our way. We love fiercely. And, through all of it, despite the extended periods without contact, we never lost that feeling of connection to each other.
I am so proud to call myself your family.
you, the one that stayed with me and played at being the youngest when the others were too grown up to spend time with us, you, who despite being only a few months my senior, always protected me (even though I had stolen from you the coveted spot of Youngest), you, who I've always admired...we can all see that life has worn on you the most of all.
What does it mean about our world when our children are so mangled on the inside that they are compelled to damage their outsides?
You've always looked older than your chronological age, but it seems wrong for you to have more gray hairs than the eldest cousin, eight years your senior. You are so insightful and wise, and that doesn't sit right on your barely-twenties body. And the stories you tell...they should belong to someone twice your age. The stories you tell shouldn't belong to anyone.
During the four days when I saw you, I didn't see a single smile approach your eyes. They are so full of hurt, bitter, loneliness that there is no room for anything else. Somewhere in between your stories and your sad eyes, It looks like you want to stop hurting, but you are so mired down by pain that you don't think it is possible.
my dearest cousin, my almost-brother,
I just wanted to let you know I am thinking of you, and that you are loved.
I don't know how to make things better,
and I worry that even my best efforts won't bring a smile to your eyes.
I've been collecting the feathers that the birds leave behind,
and when I have enough, I'm going to make you wings,
and maybe that will be enough to lift you up.
when I look up into the rain it is almost like I can cry again.
I love you fiercely, forever.