When I was younger, my grandmother and I would often be found painting on her screened in porch in a little house on the outskirts of suburban Chicago, Illinois. Then there were visits from my cousin Marie… venturing from the far far away land of California.
The two of them paired together were the people that introduced me to the art world. Cousin Marie would teach me the art of brush strokes as we watched Bob Ross on the television. She would buy me droves of brushes. I would lose them in the myriad of moves.
Growing up and moving out here, I always thought that I would spend more time with Cousin Marie than I ultimately did. She lived in Bakersfield, and I would go back and forth between Los Angeles and San Diego. I spent a bit of time with her estranged daughter in Venice. A bit of time in Culver City. It was not often enough that our paths would cross.
And then one day I got a call…
Cousin Marie needed some help changing a bandage. Her daughter was heading to work and couldn’t do it. I obliged and made the trek over to help her. I didn’t know how horrible she was going to look, nor did I know about the avalanche of health issues that had come upon her.
Now I’m not a health practitioner of any kind, but the wound I helped her undress and dress took a lot out of me to do. As I pulled the layer after layer off, and the hole in her side where they had gone in to remove her breast bled and leaked fluids. Every move I made seemed to hurt her more. She was in so much pain from all of it.
She was so so thankful- ever vibrant and gracious. She offered to pay me. I declined. The whole time I was there she asked me about me. She didn’t want to focus on the pain, and didn’t want pitty.
Seeing her like that broke my heart. One of the heroes from my childhood was falling to pieces. I didn’t have much, but I offered to help her when a nurse couldn’t, and when her daughter refused to push back her own exploits.
Cousin Marie would later get the treatment she needed. She was placed into a hospital in Santa Monica. I regret that I had not visited her while she was there.
Months passed. I randomly ran into dad after one of his visits. We thought she was getting better. We hoped she was getting better.
I asked my cousins daughter for a favor. She refused.
“You did what you did for my mother, not for me.”
I haven’t spoken to her since February.
Yesterday Dad and Ethan came to visit me in the artist colony I currently reside in. Cousin Marie had never been there.
“Mom, we’re outside, come downstairs.”
I jumped out of bed and ran down the stairs. I hadn’t seen Ethan in a few weeks due to work constraints. We played some cards about killing off members of your family (in comical ways of course) and started a board game. We didn’t know it then, but this day would be another one that we wouldn’t be forgetting.
Dad sat patiently as we played. He made some phone calls and listened to the AM radio. As he got off the phone with the last call, he stopped suddenly.
“She could die any day now. We’re going to Bakersfield. Are you coming?”
The cancer had come back in five places. My cousin Marie was now laying in her deathbed.
Back in the days that I’d spent in Bakersfield it always seemed liked death was in the air. I didn’t understand why she would have wanted to go back up there after being able to get the care she’d needed in Santa Monica. She chose to spend the remainder of her days where she grew up.
I didn’t know it was going to hit me as hard as it did. Seeing her there hooked up to machines to “keep her comfortable” as I stood next to my dad and son…
Dad talked to cousin Marie. He told her about things going on with my grandparents. About how they had discovered why Grandpa was losing his memory, and how squirrels had destroyed the phone line to their house. Dad kept his composure. I couldn’t. I broke down.
“Jen lives in an artist colony now Marie. You’d probably like it there.”
My son hugged me tight. Cousin Marie could barely open her eyes, let alone much else. Dad left the room to talk to the friend she had been staying with.
“Cousin Marie I want to thank you for showing me about art. You are inspirational.”
She opened her eyes and smiled. I couldn’t understand what she was trying to say, but I think she knew what I had told her.
We walked out of the room. I found out that my cousins daughter had not been up to see her. It upset me some more. My cousin’s daughter lives a couple of hours south of where her mother was. Dad advised me not to contact her regarding it, as the relationship between Marie and her had been estranged.
I texted her anyway.
“You need to put your differences aside and go up there. It’s only a couple of hours away.”
She called me in tears. She gave excuses as to why she wasn’t going to go. She claimed she had gone last weekend. She seemed upset about things out of her control… of the past that she was trying to come to terms with, but wasn’t.
“She made her choice to go up there. I asked her many times to come down and paint with me. She didn’t.”
As we left my son hugged me some more. I felt worse that my son has had to experience death much sooner than I ever did. I have been very fortunate to have had my family around this long. Now, one by one they are going away.
“Mommy’s going to miss her the most.”
I think back to those simpler days with Gram and cousin Marie. Days that formed my childhood. Days that would form my adulthood. I think about how different I would have been without these two women. I think about how different I will be when I don’t have either of them anymore.
We drove home shortly after. Said a rosary in the car for her. My son was to have his first day of school today. His days growing up are far different than mine. They are so less full of the art and imagination that my cousin and grandmother ingrained in me back in the days that my dad didn’t really care to let us play video games as much as he does now. The days before I started on the path of working in video games and dad would allow my son to play far too much for my liking.
“Call me before you go to school if you can. And if not, call me after. I want to know how your day was.”
This morning on the bus, I got a phone call about the time Ethan would be going to school. I answered excitedly, hoping he had had the chance to call me before after all. It was unfortunately the call that my cousin’s battle with breast cancer had come to a close this morning.
“She’s gone Jen.”
Immediately it rushed over me. I was ever so thankful I had had the chance to thank her for impacting my life before she passed.
The pink of the flowers along the path seemed to be a bit more vibrant today. I saw my cousin shine in the world around me. I smiled through the tears. But it still hurts. What do you do when one of your childhood heroes passes away?
To one of the most inspirational people of my childhood, you will be missed more than you know. To those that would like to help support the fight against breast cancer, I highly encourage you to donate your time or energy to the Susan G Komen foundation.