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Posts Tagged ‘Death’

I’ve been reminded of my mortality. My cousin Michael died recently. I hadn’t seen him in years, yet it saddens me. Mike was only two years older than I, too young to die. I’m told he drank himself to death.

Mike hardly lead a charmed life—his mother died in childbirth. Uncle Buck remarried to a widow from Alabama who had two daughters. Aunt Ora Mae was no southern belle, but a scrappy gal who gave him two additional sons.

Mike grew up believing Aunt Ora Mae was his biological mother, until some “well-meaning” relative told him otherwise. Although given the same love and attention as the other children, Mike seemed to feel out of place. He was the only child in the home who’d been born to a different mother. I remember a conversation between him and his brother when they were very young. Uncle Buck, frustrated as parents sometimes get, had threatened to put the boys in a juvenile home. Paul, too young to know better at the time, bragged that his mother could get him out of the home but not Mike because he wasn’t hers. Ouch.

He was actually my father’s first cousin. Dad was born to Grandad’s oldest son and Mike to his youngest. With only a few years’ difference between them, my dad and Uncle Buck were buddies. Both served in World War II, came home, married, and started families. When I was born, Mike was only two and couldn’t pronounce my name. He called me “Tishie” which stuck as a nickname until I was a teenager. Then I decided I no longer wanted to be called that, but by my real name. Somehow I bent most of my relatives to my will and was able to change my appellation.

When I started school, Mike was put in charge of my safety, to walk me to our one-room schoolhouse each morning. He and I were among the last students to attend that school. After it was closed we rode the bus together to the city schools, but following Mike through the academic ranks was not easy. I was a well-behaved scholar and he was not. In junior high, one teacher asked if I was related to Mike Rogers. When I said yes, that I was his cousin, the teacher said only, “Oh.” That one word spoke volumes.

I had an English teacher who never seemed to like me. I got along well with most teachers because I was a good student. I was a favorite of English teachers, especially, because I enjoyed reading. I couldn’t figure out why this teacher never warmed up to me. Later, I learned that Mike had previously been in her class. He told me he got in trouble when she found girlie books in his desk. How unfair! After nine months of school, you’d think this teacher could have figured out that I was quite different from my cousin.

Mike’s family lived in an apartment upstairs in Grandad’s house, just up the hill from us. He and his brothers, and my brothers and I, were childhood playmates. In winter, we would ice skate on his grandfather’s pond and during summer we played baseball in my grandparents’ field.

Then time and distance separated us. My family moved to Florida and I saw Mike only a few times when we returned to visit. I did not know him as an adult. He married and moved to California, and I did not see him for a lifetime. I never met his wife or children.

I had led a rather sheltered childhood. The only people I knew who died were old people who had lived out their years. Even during the Viet Nam Era, most of those around me avoided the draft and I lost no one I knew well. At my 40th high school reunion I was shocked to learn that some of our classmates’ lives had been snuffed out, at least one by suicide. Mike’s death was similarly unexpected.

When my grandparents were still with us, I made a point of visiting them often. I didn’t want to regret not spending enough time with them while they were alive. After I became interested in genealogy and family history, I found holes in my knowledge and often wish I could ask my elders about this or that person or event. Despite my efforts, I have regrets.

In the summer of 2009, Mike accompanied Uncle Buck to our family reunion. I had not seen him in over forty years and would not have recognized him on the street. He’d turned into an old codger with a grizzled beard. With over a hundred other relatives in attendance, I didn’t have much time to visit with Mike. I didn’t know I would never see him again. He was not supposed to die so soon.

And so I regret not having made more effort to know my cousin Michael. I also wish I had collected his stories. Living in close proximity to Grandad, what family history did Mike know that died with him? And with two more years at Barnum Hill School, what memories did he have that I lack? Must we always regret such missed opportunities?

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