My Cousin’s Death Taught Me to Live

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Billy Joel was right to say only the good die young. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck. Like any other 18-year-old, my cousin should’ve turned in college applications and impatiently waited to graduate to keep him occupied.

But instead, he battled cancer.

I just finished my last high school midterm when I burst through my front doors to sleep off the regret of not studying enough. I barely made it to the stairwell when my mom stopped me in my tracks. She greeted me solely by my first name which every teenager understands as the calm before the scolding. This time, however, my teenage delinquency wasn’t the topic of discussion.

Ben died. It probably happened while I eeny-meeny-miny-moed between A and B. I could only squeeze out, “Oh,” before crawling into bed and staring at my ceiling until it grew dark outside. I couldn’t tell you what I thought in that moment. My mind chickened out on me and went blank as I tried to process what this news meant.

I skipped swim practice that day and the next day and the day after that, too. School went stale. Socializing seemed trivial. I couldn’t bother with senior year because it felt like a crime to live it.

Honestly, the rest of my life seemed like a crime for that matter. Overwhelming guilt seeped through my skin and refused to wash away no matter how hard I scrubbed. Any time I allowed myself to enjoy a rite of passage like picking out my prom dress or dawning college apparel on the first of May, I immediately felt selfish and insensitive.

Ben wasn’t doing the same.

It felt like burning your tongue every time you sipped your coffee to test the temperature. It always too hot for me.

Graduating without Ben was horrible enough. Continuing on without him made moving my tassel from right to left look like child’s play. Even though we were never close, I held a soft spot for my cousin. He was the first and only kid to volunteer to wash the dishes after dinner. And he absolutely adored his uncle’s baby. We kept an unspoken agreement to share soft smiles here and there and not to force awkward small talk.

I know I’m supposed to say I wish we had a better relationship or that I should’ve spent more time with him. But that’s not where my problem lies. I always felt as though we shared the same boat growing up and I looked forward to sharing future milestones together. All of a sudden, my crew mate vanished gone and I found myself seconds away from capsizing.

I kept thinking that I needed to brave the storm all alone moving forward. College. Jobs. Marriage. Kids. Of course I can do all this with my friends, but I felt a certain comfort in experiencing these moments alongside a family member. Blood runs thicker than water after all. And I didn’t have the stomach to leave Ben behind me.

If I didn’t get to cherish those moments with him then I didn’t want them at all. This stubbornness kept me from truly healing. I became someone who angry-cried every time I relayed my college speech. I wanted nothing to do with it.

I’m going to the University of Maryland. I’m majoring in journalism. I’m so excited. By the way I’m approximately two seconds from losing my mind and yes, I know all about the “freshman 15”

In spite of all the hurt, brief moments of relief encouraged me to overcome this obstacle. I chased them the way you hit rewind in a panicked frenzy after accidentally fast-forwarding past your favorite part of a movie.

I remember watching my close friend getting into her first-choice university. The crow’s feet formed around her eyes when she read her acceptance letter. Her triumph reminded me of the pride I felt when my letter came.

I remember my brother gushing about medical school. It plays images in my head of him fulfilling his dream that morph into snapshots of me doing the same someday.

I remember a gesture as small as the girl I babysat cuddling up to me while watching Madagascar 3. I could put this frame on pause forever. Her affection reminds me of all the love I’ve yet to give and receive in my life.

Getting past Ben wasn’t a learning curve. It was a 90 degree turn in an 18-wheeler. I crashed and reversed too many times to count. But eventually, I got around the bend.

By the grace of whatever or whomever you believe in, the memory of my cousin Ben no longer brings heartache or resentment. Instead, Ben tenderly reminds me keep my chin up and to embrace the long road ahead of me.

Even then I try not to look too far in to the future. As I deal with my grief, I will deal with every tomorrow: one day at a time. My glass isn’t half-empty anymore. It’s half-full and waiting patiently for me to fill it to the brim.

Now with a few days to go before move-in day, I only get a more couple tomorrow’s before college. This is the first milestone I’ll come across without my cousin’s familiar face in the crowd.

Thinking about it makes me nervous. But I imagine Ben in the same position as me and the millions of other freshmen stepping onto campus for the first time this fall. He’s far away from me in this hypothetical situation. I think of him like a childhood friend that I drifted apart from because of out-of-sync schedules or differing social groups.

No one’s to blame but time and circumstance. But he’s the kind of person I would look up on Facebook 20 years from now out of fond curiosity. I bet he would create a beautiful family and land an impressive job by then, knowing what a charming and hard-working person he was. With this in mind, if Ben has a promising future waiting for him then so do I, and so does everyone else.

We are still in this together.

Kaitlyn is a freshman at the University of Maryland. She loves writing, driving around town and being curious.

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