As a writer, I’m constantly paying attention to what certain words mean to people and why people use words and phrases that they do. One word that comes up again and again lately is Cousin. I grew up in Alberta and for my whole childhood I didn’t have any extended family anywhere near me. I had three brothers and sisters but all of our cousins lived in Ontario pretty much. When I was in school and other kids talked about their cousins they were talking about people they saw every Christmas and holiday and maybe at the cabin in the summer. We didn’t have a cabin either. To me, when I was talking about my cousins, they were people who lived far away and we would get to see once a year if we were lucky. Cousins may as well have been friends you made at summer camp or something like that.
To my parents’ credit, when my brothers and sister and I were very young they would toss us all in the car almost every summer and drive us down to Ontario to see our cousins. In Ontario the word Cousin meant something very different to me. Cousin meant something closer like brother or sister. When I was in Ontario visiting our extended family out there I actually felt like I was part of this larger family. Aunts and uncles opened up their houses to us and they treated us like we were their own children. To my parents, hanging out with my cousins was the most important thing to them during these summers. My mom usually detested sleepovers. She thought it was some scam that the other parents were pulling on her to take care of their kids for a night. In Ontario she was actually suggesting the sleepovers, or telling us we should all go to the beach together and offering to drive us to a movie or arcade or something. The other best part about these summers with my cousins was that my mom or dad were always stuffing money into my pockets so that my cousins and I could have a good time. They knew how important it was to feel like you were part of a larger family and they knew that even though moving to Alberta was the best thing for our family, they still never wanted us to feel detached from the other people in our family who loved us from far away.
We lost my cousin Chris last week. He left behind his mother and father and an older brother and a younger sister, and one niece who is just a couple months old. We consider it a blessing that he was just home a few weeks ago to see his family and meet his little niece for the first time. Chris came out west, much like my father did in the 70s, to work and make money and try to start to build something that was his own and make his family back home proud of him. For the last couple of years he was an Alberta cousin instead of an Ontario cousin. My family out here felt a responsibility to him and his family to show him that it was ok to be so far away from home and that now he was an Alberta cousin he could visit us much more regularly than before.
He lived and worked out of Lloydminster but last Saturday he was brought to a hospital in Edmonton. It was around this time when I knew that we were in danger of losing him that I started to think about those words and phrases that people tend to use during times of tragedy. I wondered why, when we eulogize people, we use those same terms all the time. People say things like, “he was always smiling” or “he never had an enemy in the world” or “he would give you the shirt off his back” and I used to think that people just said these things because they were things they’ve heard before and thought were easiest to use in that kind of situation. When I knew that we were probably going to lose Chris I immediately realized that people use those terms because people just like that exist in this world. Chris was one of those people. Nobody believed in family more than Chris. He was fiercely loyal and anyone who was lucky enough to be his friend would attest to that. Being his cousin meant that we had a different relationship. We never had to meet once and then get along and then just keep getting together to see if we liked one another. We were cousins, which meant that we just instantly liked each other and instantly got along- for almost no other reason than because we were family. It just worked out for us and it was like that for the rest of my cousins as well.
Chris was raised in a family that loved him and cared and supported him through every aspect of his life. His mom and dad always opened their home up to me when we would come to visit. Their home was like our second home during those times. These decisions were automatic to them. We’re family, my aunt would always say. It’s just what you do.
Chris died on Tuesday. He wasn’t awake for his last couple days but he was surrounded by his family and friends. We were finally able to be there for his family this time when his mom and dad came to the hospital in Edmonton. We were finally able to say to them, we’re family, we’ll always be there for you- in the same way that they had always said to us. For the last couple days of Chris’ life all we did was love him and love each other. We held his hand and we hugged him and all said goodbye in our own way. I’m sure that Chris was able to hear us and I know that he would be happy that we could be there with him.
Chris was a great guy. He definitely always had a smile on his face. He was a great friend. He loved his family. He would give you the shirt off his back. He never had an enemy in this world. He will be remembered fondly and greatly missed by everyone who knew him. We will always miss him and we will always love him. Because we’re family.