This week has brought about the worst tragedy my family has ever known.
My beloved cousin, Alex was out to lunch and suddenly collapsed. Despite getting immediate CPR and quick treatment, he died. He had no prior health issues and was only 34. He left behind his wife of eight years and two daughters, 5 and 3.
I can only contrast this death to the other major death in my life, my grandfather’s, which was last year. The circumstances of the two couldn’t be more different.
With my grandfather, known as “Fahtie”, I had prepared for it for literally a decade. I loved him so much it scared me. With each fall or health issue, I would feel more and more anxious for the day that it would actually end him. Fahtie was my favorite person in the world.
When we love fiercely, we also fear deeply for those who hold our hearts. We give them a piece of ourselves that we can’t take back.
Fahtie created a legacy – with seven children, 20+ grandchildren, 8+ great grandchildren and a 60+ year marriage. It wasn’t just that he created power in numbers, Fahtie was the most committed family man I’ve ever met. He taught me and all of my family members so much. He and my grandmother, Alice, created traditions which, for most kids, only lived in fairy tales.
When it actually happened, Fahtie was 95 years old. There was a sense of peace. It was beautiful, really. He had a bad scare a month ahead of it, which meant that my family all got ourselves set for the end. And a then, it happened.
He was sleeping and unresponsive for many hours. And, given that he and I were ten thousand miles apart, I could only call him. When he heard my voice, he awoke and said “Is that Charlotte? How nice of you to call!” and somehow, miraculously, I got my goodbyes with him in a very brief moment of consciousness.
When I flew back for his memorial in the States, there was a celebration of his life and, through my tears, I felt happy for him. Happy for him and sad for myself. I felt a void in my life that was even bigger than his 6’4” frame and hearty laugh.
With my grandfather’s death, the grief came in waves. I am not a cryer, but when I would see a picture of him or think of things he said to me, I would lose my composure and the tears would come for an hour at a time. I felt his presence and, when I’d ask, “Fahtie, are you with me?” I’d feel a hand holding mine or a cheeky pinch on my toe. I still ask him every now and then. I have come to peace with losing him and I’m thankful for that.
With Alex though, there is only shock and dismay. With the deaths of young people, it is typically an accident or a longer sickness. But not in this case.
It doesn’t seem possible that there is no one to blame; That there was nothing one of the best hospitals in the world could do to resuscitate him. That he was alive and then, in an instant, was not anymore.
One of my first thoughts after hearing the news was that Fahtie and Alex were together. And I felt conflicted. I was happy for them, but also felt strongly that Alex shouldn’t be there yet.
When I think of Alex, I am right back in my childhood road trips with my cousins – the RV and the vichi water. Playing hours of card games and sprinting down the “Dirtiest Place in the World” (a big hill of sand on the Connecticut River). Alex was always game to one-up the other cousins in our traditional dinner game of “good manners / bad manners” with something half-chewed hanging out of his mouth in the second round.
That guy had spirit. He always has.
Al was an enigma to me in his adult life, but in a way I really respected. He managed to maintain an alternative sense about him, with unkempt hair and a scruffy beard, while holding down an impressive career, finding his soulmate and marrying early, and becoming a fantastic dad.
Music was always a part of his life and I remember him crooning to his new wife Joan on their wedding day. I saw a side of him then I hadn’t seen before. Alex and Joan bought a house and I remember thinking that he really had his shit together.
Alex had a legacy in a way that 34 year olds rarely do these days. He lived a very full life in a very short amount of time. It’s all I keep thinking. How did he do that so fast? How did he do it so quietly? I wish I had told him how impressed I have been from afar, but maybe it doesn’t matter.
With death, I am starting realize it’s really about the people left behind. And the sadness I feel for Alex’s mom, dad, brothers, wife, and kids is hard to put into words. My only instinct is to shield them. To try to hold the grief away from them. To try to take some of it on, to spread the wealth between the rest of us. But that’s not how it works.
I can only process my own feelings. I can reach out to them. I can say his name. I can try to think what might make their lives a little bit more tolerable and to think of holes I can fill. From another continent it’s hard, but it also doesn’t really matter. Love is love. Support is support.
We each deal with grief in our own ways. I am starting to see that each death may bring about a different kind of grief. This is a horrible moment for my extended family, for Alex’s immediate family, and I know that things will never be the same.
In a matter of hours, Alex will be buried next to Fahtie. It’s at a beautiful plot in the countryside of New Hampshire. And I am so sad about what’s happened, but I think of them together (both on Earth and wherever else) and I feel a little bit better.
So this is how I deal with my grief. Loving Alex and appreciating how he made use of his short life, loving Fahtie and how he shaped who I am, and honoring the ones I’ve never even met but still made my life possible. A life I don’t take for granted.
It’s not fair and it isn’t easy, but it is all I can think to do.
Alex’s obituary can be found here.
If you’d like to help, please consider donating to Alex’s kids’ college fund.
Checks written out to “Vivian and Juliet Education Fund” can be sent to:
Mascoma Bank c/o Amanda Roberts
80 S. Main St.
Hanover, NH 03755