One of my earliest memories of my cousin Eric was when he was 3. My aunt and uncle were over, and Eric spent the day following me around the house. Everything I did, he wanted to do. Everything I touched, he put his hands on. Because of a laundry list of issues, he barely survived childbirth, and as a result early in life had trouble speaking, so when he called my name, “Cousin Phillip” came out as something like “Cousin Quiquop.”
I was much more socially awkward as a kid than I am now, and while I don’t remember exactly how I said it, after an hour or two of having an extra shadow who couldn’t pronounce my name right (or simply call me Phil) I turned to him and said something like, “Will you leave me alone?”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw my mom, who made a beeline to me and pulled me aside.
“Stop being mean,” she said. “He’s following you around because he looks up to you. You’re the oldest cousin. You need to set a good example for him.”
At that moment I felt like the world’s worst cousin.
Since then I’ve tried to set a better example. And though I haven’t always succeeded, I’ve had a lot of fun with Eric over the years. We played street football in front of my grandfather’s house, where it was his mission to beat me deep on a post pattern, and eventually, when he finally got the better of his older cousin, it set the stage for the leveling of the playing field and some epic one-on-one battles that would’ve made a matchup between Randy Moss and Darrelle Revis look like a game of patty-cake. We argued about our respective house rules for the game of Asshole. We went out to bars and partied and took turns designated-driving each other home. Once he helped me move a sofa into my apartment. It was a difficult to negotiate the angles of that particular apartment, and we decided we couldn’t celebrate any other way than with beer and vodka. He gave the red Solo cup its due long before Toby Keith. We celebrated and complained about the opposite sex. We cheered when the Boston sports teams won championships and threw stuff at the TV when they lost. This past Thanksgiving we watched the Patriots pummel the Jets, and when New England scored 21 points in a span of less than a minute I turned to Eric and said, “This could get ugly.” And he responded, “You mean it isn’t already ugly?” And I laughed and had to post his comment to the Twittersphere.
His difficulties at childbirth meant he had his bouts with illness throughout his life, but time after time always pulled through. A couple of weeks ago I was scrolling through Facebook and noticed he was sick again. And I didn’t think twice about it, because he’s always been a warrior and always pulled through.
Last Monday I’m running the store I work at because the manager is on vacation. My cousin Elena calls me. She’s a texter, not a caller, so I know something’s up. But I can’t take the call because I’m in the middle of work and I have 11 other things to do, so I bounce it to voice mail.
Two minutes later she calls again. And that’s when I get the sinking feeling in my stomach.
I call her back on my way home and my intuition is right – he’s probably not going to make it. I want to drive out to Brigham & Women’s to see him. I’m not a doctor and there’s really nothing I can do to help. But I’m an only child so the cousins are as close as I’ll ever get to having siblings of my own. Factoring in traffic and the bad weather and trying to find parking and/or waiting for the T, it’d take me at least a couple of hours to get there and that’s probably being generous. I get home and I can’t move. It’s snowing out, and I’m battling a nasty flu bug, and I’m exhausted.
A couple of hours later, Elena calls back and it’s the call I don’t want to take. Eric’s passed on. Again, I feel like the world’s worst cousin, because I’m at home instead of the hospital.
It’s taken me a week to write this, even though I knew exactly what I was going to say from the beginning. I think part of it is because deep down inside, I feel like if I write this, then it’s final and irreversible, even though I know that’s a silly way to think. It never truly hits me that someone has passed away until after the funeral, because there are always pictures of the person all around you and after the funeral is when you realize this person is never coming back.
Today I found the inner strength to finish it. I like to think it was Eric telling me it’s OK. Because that’s the kind of guy he is. He'll be missed, and yet he'll always be around.