A Sensitive Soul
When I got in Friday at 2 in the morning after a 13 hour drive, I had a difficult time sleeping knowing that I would go to the funeral home to see John in the morning. The director said I could come by at 8:30. I stood outside in that parking lot pacing around with my cup of coffee at 7:45. It felt like someone dropped a load of bricks on my soul when I finally saw him. The next two days were a blur until I went to leave my aunt’s house tonight. I sat on those same stairs we used to use mattresses to slide down and just stared at the box of ashes. The cousin who I loved was inside a box… all his energy removed and put back into the world.
As a child growing up in Kentucky, I was always looking upwards at my cousins Steven and John. They always had the best toys, went on the best vacations, had pets, and always had one another. I couldn’t rough and tumble with my younger sister and my brother was far younger than me. While I have plenty of great memories of spending the night, playing around, and being a kid with my two cousins, I often remember feeling left out when I was with them.
That all changed when their father died right as the three of us were hitting our formative years. Steven moved down to Louisiana for half a year to live with my family and became the big brother I never had. We shared a room, stayed up late listening to the radio after the lights were out, and often wondered what John was doing. Steven eventually moved back home to Kentucky, and I was without my older cousins again.
Every time I came home after that, John wasn’t as rambunctious and hard charging as he once was when we were tots. He was hurting. He was hyper sensitive and hyper aware. When Steven would be off with his friends or pick on John, John and I would disappear into his room or off somewhere to do something else. Most of the time, it was just John talking… and venting. While Steven had sports and was mostly fitting in, John always felt ostracized. Every time, he conformed and did something normal (whether it was baseball, soccer, Coast Guard, or whatever); he would immediately succeed and then something would happen to derail it. Every time, he fell in love and had his heart broken, it served to increase his sensitivity. Growing up in the south (and northern Kentucky especially) can be a challenge to an Asian kid especially for a kid who didn’t have his dad there to lead the way.
John became sensitive, caring, and involved with a wide variety of people. He was aware at an absurdly young age that conformity creates outsiders who are ostracized for being different. Despite being a well liked person, John for some reason always felt ostracized or slighted for things he couldn’t change… whether it was his race or his lack of a father or personality. He felt isolated a lot of times. He opened up his life and his heart to a lot of people who might not have been deemed “ideal” by general society. A lot of those friends were the exact same people who gave him a sense of community and belonging. As he grew stronger he became more proactively defensive of himself to any slight he might have experienced and expanded that protection to his friends.
I’m unsure of the image projected to his vast array of friends. Each time I was introduced to someone different during high school and into adulthood, I got a quick primer on what to expect and what to avoid talking about. I’m unsure of how much he shared with each of them, but I do know that he loved them all as much as he possibly could. The other side to that was that because he opened his heart and his life so strongly to people, when he felt betrayed or slighted, you might as well clear the decks and hope you can keep him out of trouble. John never forgot any betrayal. He always seemed to harbor his scars.
When John became a father the first time, I remember talking to him and him realizing he had to be more responsible. He had a difficult time reconciling his stance against conformity and mainstream society with his desire to care for his son. You would see waves of irresponsibility followed by waves of responsibility. It ebbed and flowed.
I came home to see John get married 4 years ago, and I had hoped that he found the right person to help balance his life. I don’t know much about the last few years because he and I literally never talked except when I came in for holidays. After he got married and his son was born, it became impossible for us to take our drives out in his car like we did when we were younger.
But how does anyone find balance and reconcile your values with his background? His stance against the mainstream (though he understood it clearly) provided him friendships, love, stability, energy, and a community of friends/colleagues he wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s easy for anyone to be critical and say that he should have been responsible for his kids, but everything he loved (besides family) was provided to him when he pushed against the mainstream.
I might be totally wrong with all of this. I might not know my cousin as well as I thought I did. After all, I’m the peripheral cousin who moved away and only came back once or twice a year. I’m the one who took the more traditional path. As much as I wanted to say something at his visitation, I felt like everyone in the room shared more time with John than I did.
It wasn’t my place to say anything. He has spent more time with friends over the last 13 years than he has with family and even less for the cousin seen only on holidays. Maybe everyone forever looks up to their older cousins and siblings, but I always felt John was a better version of what I wanted myself to be. Maybe I’m supposed to always feel like the guy who gave me my first fake ID will always be cooler than me. Maybe because he always made me feel like I had it easy or that I stood behind his friends in the priority order, I’m not sure if he would have grieved me like I will forever grieve for him.
I’m also not trying to excuse his behavior. I’m writing this so that I can remember why I believe my cousin was who he was. Our shared maternal grandfather lost his father when he was young and was far from a perfect husband and father. John’s father went through his own trauma (as a soldier during the war and losing his own father). Then, John lived his own life without his father. Now John’s two sons are now missing their father, their paternal grandfather, and great grandfather.
My hope is that those two boys will be better equipped to balance their own lives, their genetic personality quirks, and their lifetimes without a father. I hope they turn to John’s siblings for help. I hope they are able to turn to John’s friends. As far off as I am, I hope that if they need me that they’ll find me.
It didn’t make sense a a few days ago, a couple hours ago, doesn’t make sense now, and not sure if it ever will. I love you John… and I’m sorry for being such a mainstream distant cousin. I wish I could have told you how much I loved you. I wish I had picked my phone and actually dialed your number. I wish you had done the same. Before the girls, the partying, the petty (and serious) crimes, the motorcycles… there was just us (and Steven) playing with water guns.