My cousin died and now it's too late to do the right thing

Todd Van Beck's picture

Ten days ago or so, my cousin died.  The story, which is somewhat fuzzy, went like this.  He was driving on I-10 in Palm Springs, in the fast lane, and was evidently talking on his cell phone to my Aunt about pains in his chest the intensity of which he had never experienced before in his life.  He had been dealing with “indigestion” for the last several days.

Eye witnesses said they saw the car move over several lanes of traffic, attempt to exit, hit the guard rail, careened off the exit ramp, hit several objects and came to a stop.  My cousin was pronounced dead at the scene.

When my mother called to inform me of his death I have to admit that I felt nothing remotely akin to the pain and anguish of human grief.  However, I did feel a sense of lost history, a haunting feeling that I probably had not done the right thing by my cousin for I have not seen or talked or had any type of interaction with my cousin, my Aunt, or his surviving sister for forty years.  Is that not sad – forty bloody years?  However this confession is true.

This was not always the case.  From the beginning of my life until around eighteen years of age, my cousin and I were buddies, although there were times I could have strangled him.  He was a bully, I was not.  He was a tease, I was not.  I was more reserved and quiet, he was the opposite.  Yet despite our differences we did spend a great amount of time together.  

For one thing my cousin’s father died when he was ten, and for quite a while my family became a type of surrogate family for him.  My cousin spent many summer weeks, many week-ends, many holidays with my family.  My cousin was a city boy, I was a hick farmer.  The farm however offered him more peace and substance in his crisis over his father’s death than the city could – it just seemed that everybody knew that fact of life.

Together he and I were creative.  What one didn’t think of the other one did.  For instance we had a great big barn on our property and I made one section of it a fire department, the other section, I know no one will believe this, I made into a pet funeral home (fifty years before pet funeral homes were even in vogue – I could be a consultant today).  My cousin predictably turned the hay loft into a gambling casino (an idea he got from watching the movie “Some Like It Hot” where the speakeasy was in the back of the funeral parlor).  I said we were creative.

That barn was the most popular kid spot in kiddom.  Kids from miles around walked just to see the place.  On any one given day we might have a dozen fires, two dozen funerals (I was always the funeral director), and between battling imaginary blazes and holding state funerals for real and true dead rabbits, we managed to get in games of 21, dice, craps, slots, in fact any game of chance you might think of, my cousin and I had one.  One problem existed with our gambling casino however – the house never won.  My cousin and I lost every time when somebody else would play one of our games of chance, but we were undeterred even when my own mother beat the pants off the house.

There were a thousand memories and experiences packed into eighteen short years, and looking back eighteen years is indeed nothing.  Eighteen year olds don’t believe this, but I can assure you 58 year olds do.

Shortly after our graduation from high school my cousin married.  I was one of the groomsmen.  After the wedding someone dropped me off at the front door of the Heafey & Heafey Mortuary, and I never talked or laid eyes on my cousin again.  That was it. Over, finished, done, and gone.  Eighteen years just vanished with the slam of a car door.

Over the last forty years I have thought about him off and on.  I have made some half-hearted inquiries concerning him, his mother and sister.  In all honesty however I really was not too serious about any attempts to find out what his life had become.  For some reason, which honestly is still a mystery, all connections with my cousin and his immediate family just broke apart, never to be again, and now it is way too late to bring things together or at least try to with my former chum and good buddy – way too late.  My cousin is a corpse.

I feel shame in writing this because in all honesty the block to connecting, at least on my part anyway, was simple willpower and stubbornness.  I come from a long line of stubborn and willful people (you ought to have attended one of my family's holiday dinners – shootout at the OK Corral), and I know in my own heart there were times I thought about simply offering him the olive branch and just making the call.  I never did.

I never knew his children, I know nothing of his mother or sister's status, I learned that he had been divorced, and had a significant other, and also that he had done well in the profession of golf instruction and country club management.  I found this information five days after his death.  If you had asked me anything about him over the last 40 years I would have just shrugged my shoulders.  Everything I gleaned about my good buddy cousin I learned five days after his death.

I realize that nothing lasts forever.  Everything dies, even our relationships.  Right now however that type of sterile intellectualization about the ultimate truths and realities about life offer me little comfort.  I don’t feel the deep pangs of grief or even of wrenching guilt, no not those emotions.  I just simply regret not calling him.  I ought to have called him.

I know full well what my life has been like without my cousin involved with it, and it has been overall really pretty good.  Today however I am wondering what my life would have been like, what experiences both good and bad I would have had, if I had kept up with him, tried to keep up with him, just called him here and there, now and then, even if I got rejected.  I know that had I taken the initiative, and abandoned my own willfulness and stubbornness, what I am writing right now would be much different, but I do not know and will never know what that difference would have been.

I feel the unsettling pangs of consciousness today in having to honestly face up to deal with the haunting phrase “Too late.”  I did not do the right thing.

I went to see the Disney version of Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” a week or two before my cousin died.  The story always touches me, but as I write these words in view of what has happened since, I am thinking that I am a modern version of Ebenezer Scrooge, and I really need a visitation from three spirits to give me the wake up call.  I should have called my cousin.

I think I will write to my Aunt and see how things are going for her.

ELUO VICIS IS EST EFFERCIO VITA EST NO OF.  Don’t squander time; it is the stuff life is made of.

Anyway that is one old undertaker’s opinion.



thanks Todd for the great article. so sorry for your loss. I think we all have the same story about MIA family members. a similar situation happened in our family 3 years ago.

My story exactly. My cousin was the Mask from Tapout....I should have reached out...Before he died in the car crash.