I got the text from my mom on Sunday afternoon. “Johnny, Aunt Marcella called to tell us that Eddie died. So sad!”
Eddie is my cousin, my favorite cousin growing up and the closest one to me in age. Typically we’d see each other 2, maybe 3 times a year, and always at Christmas when my family would visit and stay with my grandparents in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, a short drive from where Eddie’s family lived in Philadelphia.
I loved seeing Eddie during those visits. He was funny and smart, and really sneaky, in a way that I admired—a way that all kids admire. He could plot and plan and execute those plans like a master strategist, whether it was some diabolical and inventive way to agitate our sisters without incurring our parents’ wrath; or maybe he’d dream up a scam that would allow us to liberate those extra donuts Grandma had made that morning and put aside as a snack for later for all of the grandchildren. Eddie was curious and had a creative mind; he and I would explore our grandparents’ basement together, making up games out of the flotsam and jetsam we found there, or pretending to be archaeologists unearthing some great find.
And Eddie made me laugh. He was two years younger than me but I think he was the first person I knew who understood how and when to employ sarcasm, understanding its humor and employing it to great effect long before any other kid I knew. He could deliver an insult perfectly deadpan straight in the face of one of our older cousins. Pumped up with their pretensions of maturity, Eddie would say something just clever and ambiguous enough that they had to pause, turn it over in their mind and work out whether he was ridiculing them or not—and because he most often was, he’d often pay the price when they slugged him, or twisted his arm, or put him in a headlock and threatened to beat the shit out of him. And as soon as they let him go and he got a little space away from them or had gotten in eyeshot of a protective adult, he’d make some other jibe, smirking and taunting even though he knew he’d pay for it later. He had guts Eddie did. And for a kid like me who spent a lot of time anxious and afraid, his fearlessness was a wonder.
There’s an ocean between Eddie and me, but the space between us wasn’t so much about geography as it was about time. It had been over 25 years since we had been as close as we were growing up and we had only seen each other on a handful of occasions, none in the last 15 or 20 years I think. It was adulthood which separated us, each of us going our own way, no longer brought together by the grown-ups who loved and cared for us.
I would think of Eddie every couple of years and vow to get back in touch with him. The last real conversation we had was when I was 23 or 24 years-old, doing a volunteer year of service after college, running a program for chronically homeless men—men with an assortment of issues, some in and out of jail, others suffering from long-term substance abuse, and so on. Eddie and I talked on the phone a couple of times during that year. Eddie would go on to have a hard life as an adult, and some of the problems that would haunt him later were present then, but still in the fairly early stages, and what power they would wield over him was still an open question.
Our last phone call during that time was about him coming down from Philly and living with me in Florida. He and I were both excited as we talked about it. He thought that a change of scenery would be good for him, a chance to reset his life, make a clean start of it somewhere new. And I’d get to reconnect with this kid, now an adult, who had been such a fun and interesting companion to me as a child and when we were teenagers. It would be my chance to recapture part of my past, memories and connections that I already felt stretching thin and fading. I remember the hope in his voice and the lightness I felt at the prospect that this was really going to happen. We promised to check out the bus schedules and figure out a plan to get him down there. I remember that we both felt like something good was about to happen, that the long dormant seeds we had from our past as children were suddenly ready to sprout and burst up from the ground, reintroducing us to each other in our present.
But neither of us followed up. It never went anywhere from there, and over the next 20-plus years, Eddie and I would talk just a few more times, never long or serious, just the obligatory hello, how you doing that we exchange with people we’re tied to by blood or history, but no longer really know. We’d become Facebook friends eventually, but never really connect again, despite the electronic possibilities.
When I got news of his death, I went to his Facebook page to see if anything was there about his passing, searching too for anything else that might let me glimpse a little of this man who I never really knew as an adult, now dead at 46, the kid I used to know and love. At the top of his page were the last words I ever sent to him. On November 18, 2016, his birthday, I had written
“Eddie, cousin! Happy birthday man. Would love to catch up with you some time.”
I didn’t hear back from him. And there’s no evidence that he ever saw it.
Whatever else you experienced in the 25 years that we’ve been strangers, I remember you, Eddie. And I give thanks for our shared childhood. Rest in peace cousin.