There is nothing more terrifying than knowing you can’t follow someone you love into a new situation.
The first time it was brought to my attention that my cousin might decide not to need me anymore, I was six or seven years old. I remember it vividly, because it was such a defining moment in my life. I was jumping around in my grandparents’ living room during their Christmas Art Show and one of their frequent customers was watching me interact with my cousin Amber. I had just said something hurtful or insensitive and the stern lady looked at me and said, “Your cousin isn’t going to like you if you treat her like that.” My response was, “She has to love me because she’s my cousin!” And she looked at me and said, “She might love you but she doesn’t have to like you.”
I have no idea what six or seven year old me thought about that, but I know that decades later I still think about it, and wonder if I’m a good enough person to deserve having her in my life. After all, most of my favorite memories involve her in some way. Extensive shopping trips with my mom, arguing over who gets to open their Christmas presents first at Grandma and Grandpa’s, the memory book she made my daughter before she was born, the wedding and baby showers she threw me, the comical way she withheld or bestowed approval of my boyfriends. The list is endless.
When I was younger I had this idea in my head that we would kind of be like Roseanne and Jackie. We’d live in the same town, she’d come over and do her laundry and drink coffee with us every morning while we had hilarious conversations about how our significant others were pissing us off. Maybe we’d take a girls’ weekend to Vegas every year or get matching tattoos. I’d give her all kinds of sound life advice–since I’m older by a year and a half–and she’d do crazy single lady things and let me live through her vicariously. It was going to be great.
Then reality hit. And while I wasn’t expecting a prime-time sitcom special with problems which would be rounded off and tied up in thirty minute increments, I was not prepared for the swan-dive our lives took into an HBO drama series.
In 2004, I was a junior in college. I was also engaged to be married that summer. Amber was my maid of honor, of course and she and my mom had pretty much taken over the wedding planning since I had very little interest beyond cake flavors, menu options, and booze offerings. I was getting married. Amber approved and my soon-to-be husband adored her, too. We were halfway to becoming sitcom material! How exciting! My life was coming together, and I was happy. Then, three months before we were to say our I-do’s, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. She needed surgery. I don’t remember much about that day, but I remember the surgeons coming out sooner than expected, talking to us in the hallway. “There is less than a one percent chance of her making it through this. She has two, three years tops.” That was what they said. I tried not to hate them. I knew they were just doing their job. I knew they must have to give bad news all the time and they were running out of tactful ways to do it. I stood there, with my dad and brothers, for an unknowable amount of time.
I don’t even remember how it happened, but in my mind I went from hugging my dad while my legs began to wobble, to sitting in a chair in the same hall staring down into Amber’s face as she knelt in front of me, her hands on my knees. It’s like in a dream, when you don’t remember the motions which precede each scene. I just remember her staring up at me saying, “It’s going to be ok,” while she tried not to cry. Over and over again. It’s going to be ok. Because that’s what people say when nothing else comes to mind.
I nodded at her because I didn’t know what else to do. I wanted to tell her she could cry if she wanted to–not to pretend for my sake. I hoped this would be the only wobbly-kneed, hallway moment we’d ever have to have together, but of course it wasn’t. Amber would have her own moments in a few short years, and all I would be able to utter was a trite, “It’s going to be ok,” even though I had no idea what the hell I was talking about.
I had no idea how perpendicular our paths would become that April afternoon in 2004, but I hugged her and tried to believe it all really would turn out ok.