By Hardscrabble Farmer
I got the call that my cousin had passed just after dark. I had been butchering a hog all day by myself and I was tired and needed a shower, but all I could think of was reaching out to his sons. My younger cousin had been looking after him for the last two years as he slowly disappeared into his dementia and I knew how hard this was going to hit him. I made the call from the bedroom in the dark and stood up against the windows looking out at the leafless trees and distant, rolling hills enveloped in a lead-colored mist.
I hadn’t spoken to him since the last family funeral- we are ten years part and by the time I was heading out into the world he was just hitting middle school- and so we never really bonded closely, but we were familiars to one another over the span of our own lives, family. The phone rang half a dozen times and then went to voice mail so I began to leave my heartfelt condolences. After a few halting words that sounded stiff, the phone picked up and I heard his voice across the distant miles and months between us, desperate and broken.
I repeated what I had just said into the void a moment earlier and then he began to speak, not really to me at first, just a torrent of anguish and grief that rambled on from the horrible treatment of the hospital and worse yet the insurance syndicate and the various agents of Medicare and Medicaid and their endless abuses, to the deep and profound loss he had just experienced, and the sudden hole that had just been left in the middle of his life.
I understood completely what he was experiencing and I leaned my head up against the cool glass and just listened to his words pour out, letting him vent off the emotions that filled him beyond his ability to comprehend. After a while he paused, I could hear the sound of his breathing, deep draughts as if he were fighting a fire with each breath. Weakly he asked, “What do I do now?”
I offered him the only advice I could think of, what we had done in the days after my Mother’s death, I told him that after the funeral that he should get away, find some space where he could get his bearings. I told him to come up to the farm and visit for a while. Hike, bang some nails, stare at the lake, eat some good food and sleep in.
Last week I had a difficult conversation with my aunt. We’d always been very close and she lives out on the coast not two hours away from us. The last time we saw each other was at my Father’s bedside after his operation in the Fall of 2019. We’d enjoyed each other’s company as we always do, gone to a restaurant in Princeton before we all headed home, and then the flu panic came along and our lives went different directions. She believed in the story while we did not and she longed for and clung to the promise that the vaccine would solve our problems the way most Americans did.
And then it came and they got their shots but they insisted that it wasn’t possible to socialize again until we’d done the same, something that wasn’t ever going to happen and the distance between us became insurmountable and our conversations, even by telephone, infrequent and unpleasant for both of us. I struggled with it not only because of my love and concern for those I love, but also because it had once again forced me into a position I neither wanted nor had any part in creating. Powerless is the closest word to describe my state, but something more than that.
These connections we make in life, our families tied by blood and time to one another, the shared celebrations and losses that form the cement that had always kept us together was washed away by a tide of nonsense, fueled by strangers with no investment in our history, no real concern for the struggles and trials of everyday life that are made endurable by our fidelity to those we love. She called me to say hello, but really to once again check on our vaccination status.
When I stated what I had told her in every previous conversation she went on to inform me that we would not be able to come to Thanksgiving again, the second year in a row. There were reasons, of course. Her step-daughter was a teacher in Massachusetts and there were some kinds of prohibitions and concerns about them socializing with the unvaccinated, her children’s colleges were the same, excuses really for a decision which only she and my uncle could make and be responsible for. I told her not to worry, I loved her regardless of whatever choice she chose to make and that I respected her decision as I hoped she would my own.
I told her how much I missed her and offered to bring a turkey down to her and drop it on the front lawn if she wanted me to. I also told her that our door was always open no matter what, no matter when. After some tearful exchanges of our love for one another and the hope that we would be together again at some point, I got off the phone and went back to living life.
I fell asleep early last night and at some point, there was a dream. My mother was hosting a party, outdoors somewhere warm. It wasn’t a place I recognized but everyone was there. My grandparents from both sides were seated together and laughing at some story my uncle was telling them. I could smell smoke from the barbecue and I was so excited to see them all I could barely contain myself, but they acknowledged me as if we’d been together all day, the kind smiles and quick hugs as I passed between them looking at all their beautiful faces; younger, healthy, happy. When I awoke, I held onto it for as long as I could, warm under the comforter with one foot in both worlds.
The telephone conversation between my cousin and I went on for quite a while. He wanted to share the details of his father’s death- he’d fallen on some stairs and hit his head on the floor leaving a terrible gash. At the hospital the x-rays showed that he’d also broken his neck and while measures were taken, there wasn’t a great deal that could be done and within the week, with my cousin at his bedside holding his hand he slipped out of this world and joined everyone who had ever gone before.
My cousin felt a great deal of guilt about it since he was the sole caregiver, but it was simply an accident to an elderly man near the end of his natural life and an inevitability that would have played out sooner or later in any case. I told him not to add that burden to the ones he already bore, that there were plenty of other things to concern himself with but that his father knew well exactly the kind of man he had raised and just how loyal and dutiful he had been even if he wasn’t fully cognizant.
Their relationship had always been a close one and you couldn’t miss the respect that they had for each other over the years. As he began to calm down our conversation ran back to the generation who had already passed. Both of us were lucky to have grown up with both sets of grandparents, in the same town where we’d grown up and we revisited Christmas and Thanksgivings past, our favorite dishes our grandmothers made for us- coconut custard pie, oyster casserole, baked chicken with gravy- and I told him that in my bedroom at the foot of the bed on a small chair I kept my grandfather’s hat as a remembrance of him, the last thing I’d see before I fell asleep and the photos of our common great-grandparents above the bookcase.
He’d recount some episode and I’d fill in a blank and then I’d tell a story and he began to laugh, several times, genuine and out loud, like a steam whistle on a tea kettle. Near the end of the call, he thanked me for reaching out and I thanked him for being my cousin, both of us the better for the exchange. I told him he could call me anytime he needed me, and to come up to visit as soon as he was ready and he promised me that he was going to take me up on it, that I should expect to see more of him and I told him how glad that made me and we said our good-byes. He went back into his mourning in that dark and silent house and I went back into the kitchen to embrace my wife in the warmth and light of our marriage and home.
What has been done over the past couple of years is a crime against humanity. I don’t care which side of the spectrum you find yourself, what you believe or discard, how fearful or fearless you may be, alone or in solidarity with a majority of hundreds of millions. Anyone who fails perceive the cruelty and injustice of forces conspiring to tear apart families, to ruin lives for being lived in accordance with their own conscience, of destroying the means of earning a living, of bribing and threatening to achieve and end no matter what it may be, of the endless lies and prevarications of people who don’t bother to hide their disdain and contempt for those they order about is simply not in the game.
We may be beset by forces that seem unstoppable and hectored into submission at every turn over things which have never caused any trouble in the past for reasons that are never explained but we can still do what we know is right. We have it within us to resist these implacable tyrants by going another way, of reaching out to one another and doing everything that we can to lift each other up, to support and nurture them when they need it and to accept their help and guidance when it is offered.
As I finish this piece, I am looking out the window as the cold rain falls on the turkey flock and I can see the one we are going to have for dinner when my daughter comes home for Thanksgiving. And I have another one picked out that I will roast and deliver to my Aunt and leave upon her doorstep 50 miles to the east of us that same morning. Whether it is eaten or not is up to her, but I will give it to her with all the love I can muster because that is one thing that they cannot take away from us no matter what they do.