Thursday, March 22, 2007

Time out for Thomas

The last ten (10) days or so have blown by in a blur. What kicked it off was sad news: my cousin Thomas had succumbed to bone marrow cancer.

Tommy was my paternal cousin and a key player in my life. He was tall and lanky, and I looked up to him in more ways than one. For example, he patiently taught me to roller skate in Grandma's long driveway in Queens; often hung out with my dad, my brother and me when we went boating, picnicking, and to auto races and movies; visited me at Harvard and attended my graduation; helped me move (many times, and on each occasion advised me to rid of some stuff); and was one of my go-to guys whenever I had electronic or mechanical problems.

Tommy, like my brother and father, loved gadgets and cars; all three would have been miracle workers if they'd applied their passions and talents to medicine. It's largely because of them that I am so handy and that I admire smart men who are willing to roll up their sleevs and get their hands dirty once in a while.

Tommy was generous and civic minded, too. He was an auxiliary policeman, and frequently extended favors and hospitality to others. Talking with Tommy was comforting to both Daddy and me when Dad was dying, and I appreciated my cousin's big brother wisdom afterward.

Obviously, I knew Tommy had been ill, but I thought he was getting better. That's what he had led me to believe. As his brother explained at the repast, Thomas' positive, hopeful attitude had bought him five and a half years longer than his initial, six-month, prognosis.

Thomas' death hit me hard. I was the first in my branch of the family to learn about it. Thomas' sister had distributed the news the same way that most organizations and social groups do when they want word to get around quickly: by email and by phoning key nodes in the network, otherwise known as gatekeepers.

I've now the go-to node-gatekeeper for Dad's family line. In that capacity, I spoke to at least one member of each of the other clans (all now headed by my first cousins). Some of the conversations were comforting, but a few others were shocking, such as the one that informed me about the car crash that killed second cousin Mark-by-marriage this January, and others in which my midwestern cousin (another favorite) informed me he was returning (!) to the hospital to review his recovery from a serious fall from a tree and in which a close family friend said she was took ill from AIDS to go out that day.

There's a lesson to be learned there: don't wait for funerals, weddings or holidays to touch base with loved ones. Our time together is too short and uncertain to squander it.

As someone remarked at Thomas' funeral: our clan's shrinking fast. That observation is not completely accurate: marriages and births are constantly replenishing the family tree. But I know what Cousin meant; I feel it too. We're newcomers to the old guard - the family gatekeeprs - which is a role we grew up attributing to Great Grandma and Great Aunt Lizzie before they passed the torch to Grandma, who then passed it down the ladder of aunts and uncles to us.

Now my generation is at the top of that ladder, and it is kind of lonely at the top. From that vantage point, two things are clear. One: families don't grow as large as they used to. Two, and more importantly: as much as we welcome newcomers with loving, open arms, there's no substitute for the long-term relationships we're saying goodbye to at an alarmingly rapid rate. Consequently, it's all the more important to cherish our loved one while we can.

I hope Cousin Tommy knew how much I loved him. I'll make sure those who are still living know that now.