My cousin Johnny died a few days ago. He was 70, and had been struggling with complications of Type 2 diabetes for years. He didn’t die because of that complex disease, though.
His doctor noticed that he looked yellow one day. Specialists discovered that he had cancer of the liver and bile ducts. It was so advanced that they weren’t able to drain the bile ducts; nor could they do surgery or chemo. Johnny signed a DNR, told his family and doctors that he just wanted to be comfortable, and died the next day.
Johnny was my first crush. Even as a little girl, I idolized him. A few years older than me, he was smart and funny and cheerful and outgoing and so handsome. His family lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, where my father had grown up. We visited them for a week every summer. The other week was spent with my mother’s parents on their farm in a small town outside of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
We never went to scenic or historic places for our summer vacations–certainly not anyplace like Disneyland–and I never thought that was odd. We had fun with our aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas and cousins. We watched Grandpa milk the cows and run the tractor in Baltic. Played with Grandma’s barn cats and swung on a rope in the barn, always landing safely in the hay.
In Lincoln, we occasionally visited local attractions during the impossibly hot and humid July and August days in southeastern Nebraska. We addressed colorful postcards to our friends and took them down to a nearby mailbox as the evenings began to cool, occasionally getting a treat at a little corner store. In the evenings, one of my sisters and I played pinochle for hours with the aunt and uncle who had taught us the game. We ate Beer Nuts and Switzer’s red licorice bites as we threw down cards in the gloriously air-conditioned dining room.
Johnny was around until I was about 12. He joined the Air Force and was gone for years. But during those visits when he was there, he was always smiling or laughing, even when I locked myself in the bathroom and he had to come in through the window to rescue me. Or when he danced around Grandma’s tree one 4th of July holding a lit cherry bomb (Grandma was not amused).
On one of those Lincoln trips–I must have been about 9–we went to a medical building at the University of Nebraska. One of the exhibits illustrated the steps of an appendectomy. Though I love watching bad medical dramas now, graphic as they are, it kind of freaked me out to see an open incision.
When we visited Baltic next, I pulled a First-Aid book out of a dusty old bookshelf in the tiny living room of the farmhouse. The book opened to a section about treating knife wounds.
I wrote about the childhood beginnings of my OCD in this blog post. I believe that this lifelong affliction started with an intense awareness of violence that summer with those incidents in Nebraska and South Dakota, disappeared for a while after about three years, and has come and gone in adulthood. 200 milligrams of Zoloft helps, though I still have to check and re-check the stove and the locks at night, and I get overly worried about contaminated food and medicine, along with a few other minor symptoms.
As I grieve for my sweet, funny cousin, I’m taken back to those childhood summer vacations. I miss knowing that Johnny is still in the world. We reconnected as adults; Mom and I visited him in Phoenix once, and he visited us in Minnesota a few times with his sister and her husband in recent years. We’d been talking on the phone about once a month when he made his last visit to the hospital.
Someone said that cousins are our first best friends. I’m so thankful on this almost-Thanksgiving Day that my parents didn’t take us to Disneyland or Mt. Rushmore or anywhere but Nebraska and South Dakota on our summer vacations.