After a year in New York we moved to North Carolina. There I was the new kid in town, and middle school, and the easy target for bullying. It took two and a half years before I made another best friend. Mark Brown and I became fast friends, two loner transplants from up north, we went everywhere together. Mark’s brother Bob was the older brother I wished I had, and his friendship was like a validation. If Bob and Mark thought I was cool, I couldn’t possibly be the idiot that the other middle school kids made me out to be. It was Bob who turned me on to much of the music that became the soundtrack of my high school years.
We had a good year and a half run, Mark and I. 1971, our sophomore year of high school got off to a great start. Many of the kids that had used me for verbal target practice came around; I wasn’t a leper anymore. I felt optimistic. I was working at a convenience store and spending every dime of my minimum wage on records. Jim Croce, Rory Gallagher, Ralph McTell, Todd Rundgren, Poco, and James Taylor. Dylan and Creedence. Five days before Christmas Mark went to the store to get a couple of albums for me. Stuff best buddies do for each other. He hopped on the back of Bob’s motorcycle, and off they went. That day a woman out driving with her children turned to yell at them in the back seat, ran a red light and t-boned the bike. Bob was injured, but survived. Mark was gone.
I sank into a funk that took nearly six months to surface from. That winter I spent hours alone in my room, listening to records. During those cold months I took solace in music, and especially the loneliness in Neil Young’s voice. Spring was a long time coming.
None of these memories or experiences is unique to me. All of us in the human family face loss and injustice; we do business with scales we cannot balance. I do not consider my life to be especially unfair or difficult. It is just life. You celebrate your wins, and sometimes you can find a way to even celebrate your losses.
I was born on August 14th, 1957. My cousin Kathleen was born three days later. We had our share of daring adventures. She was always witty, mischievous, with a knowing wink of the eye and a fast one-liner to keep me off kilter. Her playful barbs were always delivered with a bright smile. We often celebrated our birthdays together. I knew she loved me, and I her.
Moving to North Carolina meant I saw Kathleen on holidays or summer trips back home to Maryland. The times I saw her were fewer and farther between, but no less joyful. I loved her in the way that you want the best for someone you care about. We lost touch when I got married, and moved further south. We reconnected when I moved back to Maryland in the mid-eighties. By then we had jobs and families and saw each other from time to time. But I always looked forward to those moments. I lost my cousin to the ravenous wolf of cancer in 2002, days before we would have turned forty-five.
But not all of life’s demands involve loss. Many that lead to life are wrapped in a train ticket that reads “hardship, travail, pain.” The price is often fearful, the road unsure. The traveler who survives the journey has gained a perspective born of experience, tempered by humility and compassion that those who have not yet made the trek dare not question.
My cousin Rick, Kathleen’s older brother, made that passage last week. Facing an unexpected challenge, a tightening in his chest, he chose to go under the surgeon’s knife, emerging successfully after a quadruple bypass. These days his wife of thirty years, Trixi, is celebrating, along with their children, the courage he showed in the face of adversity. Not all messengers bear ill tidings. Sometimes the glorious gift of life they deliver to us is cloaked in a trial by fire.
Time etches us in ways we do not expect. When we are young we roar at the world and swear to make it remember our name. Then we get a job, get married, have kids, and find out how much we don’t know. We turn into our fathers (or mothers, as the case may be) and we find ourselves saying things like, “Don’t play ball in the house.” It gets hard to stay up until three am. It’s even harder to function the next day if we do stay up that late. I once told Rick, while handing him a can of Maxwell House coffee, “You know you’re getting older when this is your idea of pure Columbian.”
Rick broke ground. He pushed envelopes. I looked up to him, even though he made me nervous. By the time I convinced my folks to let me grow shoulder-length hair; he had a pony tail that hung nearly to his waist. He protested the Vietnam War. My grandfather hated the ponytail. He was, in a word, dangerous. In 1972, just turning sixteen, I wasn’t ready for the full weight of consequences.
These days Rick is an award-winning photographer and family man. I wish I had his gift for photography, but I will have to settle for playing word games. Forty years on my cousin has turned into the spitting image of his father. And that’s a good thing. He’s still here. And recovering well. That’s what matters. It's October, so a baseball reference seems appropriate, the runner has made it safely home.
I haven’t had to walk in his shoes, but I know it takes guts to make that decision to face the knife, even if you find you really don’t have a choice. I hope I never have to face that challenge, but if I do, I hope I can face it head on.
So this week I am celebrating a win, not marking a loss. This week I am just grateful that an important part of the family is still with us, and I know his wife and children feel that many times over. So here is a Lou Reed song for Rick and Trixi, covered by Peter Gabriel. Well done, cousin, well done….
And btw, for some wonderful photography go to