I am an only child, but one of nine grandchildren on my mother’s side. Those eight cousins of mine are the closest people I have to brothers and sisters. I grew up spending every summer with them. When I was a kid, we chased the mosquito truck at dusk every night in the Mississippi Delta humidity. We swam in the country club pool and swatted at horseflies that did their best to bite us while we stood on the diving board. We spent countless hours at my grandparents’ clothing store, running back and forth and playing house in the dressing rooms. We piled in at my grandparents’ house in Belzoni, draping across chairs in the den and watching whatever we could find on the 12 stations (maybe) Belzoni had back then, while the grown ups talked long into the night. We made dorky home movies and played stupid games with each other. Some of us took baths together. And as I got older and new cousins were born, I GAVE a lot of baths. And changed a lot of diapers. I always had two or three younger cousins in my bed on Christmas Eve and I would stay up late helping put together the stuff that Santa brought them while they slept in my bed. Then I would fall into bed, exhausted from the day’s events, only to find them awake at four in the morning. They would beg me to tell them stories for hours until it was time to wake the grown people.
I was the second oldest grandchild. My cousin, Chad (who you see in the picture on the right, taken when we were little), was the oldest one by three and a half years. This was an honor I was glad for him to hold, because it meant that I was a kid that much longer and HE got all the responsibility of doing stuff first. Stuff like going into 7th grade (which I dreaded), going off to college (while I was still enjoying my high school years), choosing a career path, and getting married and having kids. Growing up, I watched him in awe, just sure that I could never be as confident or as personable as he was with his thousand watt smile and dimpled chin. As adults, he was a good friend, who had children close in age to my own. I could always look to him get a feel for what came next in life.
Chad died Tuesday in a car accident.
I got the call from my father on Tuesday morning before 7:30am. The news was being spread to my whole family at this time. I was very upset and shaken, but knew I had a list of things to focus on so that we could leave for Mississippi the next day.
Part of that list was informing Jay and Annie’s teachers that they would not be in school for the rest of the week. This is necessary because we JUST went to a funeral a couple of weeks ago for my grandmother. I have actual funeral clothes. I hate that.
So, I went up to the school and talked to Jay and Annie’s teachers. “My cousin died in a car accident this morning and we are headed to Mississippi to be with my family.” And as they sadly nodded their heads and told me they were sorry, I realized that the words, “My cousin” just did not accurately portray exactly what Chad was to me. Or what any of my cousins are to me. They are the link to my past. They ARE my present. And I cannot imagine my future without them.
The sadness I felt (and still feel) over losing Chad could not be felt for just “my cousin”.
One of “us” was gone. And I felt an indescribable pull to get to Mississippi as fast as I could so I could be wrapped up in my family. Oklahoma never felt so far away. I needed to look at them, make sure they were all still there, because it seemed to strange that one of them wasn’t and would never be again.
This has been an incredibly emotional week. And that is as it should be. I was prepared for that. The raw emotions of knowing that we had all lost someone who was so well loved weighed heavily on my heart from the moment I got that Tuesday morning phone call.
But what I wasn’t prepared for was the thought I had, standing and looking at Chad for the last time: I am the oldest now. I lost my place in line.
I feel disoriented. Something that defined me in my family has changed That missing place will forever leave a hole in my heart because being The Oldest One is not where I am supposed to be.
And there is just something incredibly wrong with that.