My Drunk, Dead Cousin
He was my oldest cousin, by about 10 or 11 years. He was the first one to show me the Clash box set. He showed me movie posters from the 1950s. He loved old horror flics, especially with Bela Lugosi. He collected horror film masks and I was enthralled. I was too young for him to really talk to me, but when he did I was over the moon because he was so interesting. His character was especially unique, since his household wasn’t especially creative. Strictly working class and provincial, my cousin’s family was an eastern Long Island stalwart—where a trip to Manhattan was an earth-shattering affair. He would illustrate beautifully. He could talk about classic movies forever. He was an encyclopedia of rock music.
He dared go to college. It didn’t work out after a couple of years. We later figured out that his partying was more than just college guy partying. He hit the sauce hard. So he got a sales job in Manhattan and an apartment. From what we knew he was living large. Our family moved abroad for a couple of years, snobs and elitists that we were, so we didn’t hear many details except on the once-per-year home leave trip we were awarded. Squeezing all the details of life into that short time was impossible, since there was also so much bullshit to pile on.
He liked to drink. Some of his best stories—and they were great stories—involved drinking somewhere. He had such a knack for telling stories, it didn’t matter if they were self-destructive tales, we were all entertained and he enjoyed telling. Though the behavior got kind of trite, year after year at the holiday gatherings, with his drunkenness. But he was really no worse than his sister or father, at least on the surface. But apparently the drinking got bad enough that it was deemed best for him to move out of Manhattan and perhaps with his grandfather in Arizona. And that’s all we knew.
Grandpa was a raging alcoholic, himself, so I’m still not sure what the thinking was behind the move out west. I was in college by this point, so on occasional phone calls with him I learned that he was in so much trouble that he was going to prison. Drunk driving? I didn’t know enough to ask the right questions. He was on a work-release program, where he was allowed to attend his job, but then had to return to jail on nights and weekends. Then the job petered out—how could it have not?
Years went by and I got my own apartment in Manhattan. One Easter hosted at my parents’ house, he came back and the whole extended family enjoyed a reunion. We caught up, talked about movies mostly, and he thought it would be great if he came back to the city with me and my boyfriend. Great, I said, it’ll be fun. We’ll go out, he’ll stay over and take the train back in the morning.
So we all hit the bars that night. Oddly, he kept leaving the bar and walking around outside, clamoring, he said, for New York City air. He hadn’t been back in so long and he missed it so. It was getting late, so we’re going to head back to the apartment. No, he said, he’s going to stick around a while and walk around the village. I gave him a key, reminded him where we live, and we went our separate ways. My boyfriend and I ran into some friends and had one more drink, then onto pizza, some laughs and a slow walk back home.
He was back at the apartment passed out on the couch. On the kitchen table was a roll of tin foil and some matches. Holy shit, my cousin just smoked some goddamned drugs in my place.
Stunned, disappointed, and shaken, I crawled into bed and shuddered all night.
I never mentioned it to him. If he wanted to think I was stupid enough to fall for whatever gimmick he used to explain away the foil and matches, what purpose was it for me to change his thinking. I realized at that point he had been so far gone for so long that nothing I could say or do would make any difference. Now all the disparate details about his life started to make sense. Of course, an addict would do that, I thought.
We only saw him sporadically from then on, and my mother and her sister didn’t exactly share a warm relationship, so the family get-togethers at holidays were getting squeezed out by lame excuses about traffic.
Saw him years later at another cousin’s wedding. He was a fucking mess. Crying all over the place, wildly overweight, and slobbering. He moved back to Long Island and was living in my aunt’s house. He was working as a golf pro, for the time being. He lost his driver’s license permanently. No girlfriend or wife. It’s not like he was a tormented artist—he never even gave himself an opportunity to get there. He got fucked up on drugs and alcohol before he even had a chance.
A couple years later he was at my grandmother’s wake. His state was worse, and he had aged so much he was unrecognizable. He didn’t show up for the funeral; no one knew where he was.
He felt things intensely—that was something we shared in common. I remember when our grandfather died, I was about 15. We were all totally devastated by my grandfather’s death—he was the greatest. I was standing in my aunt’s kitchen, and he quietly walked in and stood against the counter adjacent to where my aunt was emptying the dishwasher. In a flash, he tore the top drawer of the dishwasher out of the machine and hurled it across the kitchen, with glass shattering everywhere.
I heard that my uncle was a violent guy; or at least beat up on my cousin emotionally. Apparently he was a real bully and took it out on my cousin. I don’t know. I hadn’t spoken to him in the last 2 years, since his father died and he called me for hours at a time. I listened to him talk and said very little.
Last week he had just came out of rehab, again after countless attempts, this time for 22 days, but his neuropathy was so painful he continued to drink once he got back to my aunt’s house. I guess he had no job either. He was hopeless and in agony. He passed out on the couch watching TV. My aunt couldn’t seem to wake him up to get him to go upstairs to bed. She got Nancy, my other cousin, to try to rouse him but he would just open his eyes a little and go back to snoring. A few minutes went by and they heard a gurgling noise and then silence. They rushed back in the room. Nancy said he was grey. She shouted at my aunt to get out of the house and run next door; the neighbor was a cop. Nancy called 911 and they talked her through CPR, after she tried clearing his throat. He was dying. She tried to revive her brother, riddled with drugs and alcohol and depression for so many years. The EMTs arrived and worked on him for 40 minutes. He was dead on arrival at the hospital.
Last Saturday my cousin died of a massive heart attack. He was 49.