Updated: Apr 26
With a heavy heart and trembling hands, I want to tell you about my cousin Jason.
In my earliest, warmest childhood memories, we’d curl up in front of the television at our grandparents’ house with bowls of sugary cereal, and watch Spiderman, Ghostbusters and wrestling. I sometimes convinced him to watch Jem and the Holograms, which he halfway pretended to like some of the time.
Nearly every weekend, we begged our parents for a sleepover. We spread out blankets onto the carpet, and swapped stories about things that we thought were far-fetched and funny and weird—things that made our eyes grow with wonderment. Things we imagined might be happening outside of our tiny, Southeastern American bubble.
We loved making mud pies, climbing trees and playing in the flower garden at our great-grandmother’s house, especially when she called us inside to make rice pudding. We’d huddle together at her bar and watch her whip the sugar and butter together.
Many years and memories later, when I was 22 and he was 20, I ventured to Oklahoma for an extended trip, where he attended college, to try to distance myself from an unhealthy relationship with a boyfriend. Within days of arriving, I panicked and wanted to rush back to Nashville. But he begged me to stay, leaning his head all the way into the car window, locking eyes with me and pleading, “Two weeks! Please just give it two weeks!”
I had trouble understanding why he cared so passionately, though that was the truth of who he was. His heart was almost too big and genuine for this transactional world. And, because he often lived with it hanging out on his sleeve, without reservation, it was wounded many times.
My mind reaches back to when he was 25 and I was 27, after he’d been traveling through a confusing and tumultuous time personally. He called me, asking if we could get an apartment together in Nashville, saying, “I’m just trying to find some happiness.”
Those words haunted me because I understood the pain behind them. I knew he ached to stretch out and carve his own path and proclaim his own identity, though he wasn’t exactly sure how to go about doing that.
There were also times when I disappointed him, and he once avoided me for nearly a year without telling me why. But he always softened eventually. Because he loved me. And he knew I loved him.
His life and the widespread perception of him was often overshadowed by the shame of addiction to prescription pain pills–entering and exiting rehabs several times, though I don’t define him by that struggle and never have. His compassionate, gentle, interesting nature could never be reduced to addiction. He helped me understand that addiction is a means of coping with things that are too agonizing and heavy to carry–emotional scars and unanswered questions that one has tried, but cannot, shove into the dark.
He suffered relentlessly with Crohn’s disease, though he never complained. So much of his adult life was spent smiling and joking through immeasurable discomfort, going in and out of doctor’s offices and undergoing painful, emasculating procedures and surgeries. It hurts to imagine how defeating that was for him.
Jason was a gentle, special soul in my life. Ours was a bond that I chase the words to accurately describe. Many times in recent years, we had two hour-long, deep-dive conversations about God and love and shame and forgiveness and emotionalism and judgment and the complexities of addiction and the power of choice. We confessed many things to each other that I’ve since folded into my heart for safekeeping. He made me feel seen and accepted, and I believe I did the same for him. He told me, “We’re kindred spirits,” and “You’ve always been my favorite cousin.”
He was intelligent and insightful and perceptive and generous and caring and quirky. He was never as confident as he was capable. He also had tremendous, unexplored talent as a writer and I told him so. His mind housed a multitude of artistic and intellectual gifts—some he was able to exercise vividly, and some the world may never get the benefit of experiencing.
As is the case with most of us, his most powerful gifts were hidden within his most stubborn dysfunctions.
There isn’t a person on our planet who gets to live forever. This isn’t our home. We each get a finite amount of time to complete whatever tasks our soul has been supernaturally assigned. And none of us know exactly when or how our story will end.
Which means that we only get so many opportunities to say “I love you” or “I’m sorry” or to tell the truth or to stop playing tricks with ourselves through the jealousies and judgments we carry, or book the trip, or finish the book, or to let ourselves be cracked open and vulnerable again, at risk of being hurt or rejected.
The story of Jason was finalized and sealed one week ago today. Monday, the morning after Easter, his body was found slumped over on his sofa in his home, without any obvious cause. Though, of course, his long battle with health issues make it slightly less of a mystery. He’d recently rekindled his hope for the future and had entered into a personal and spiritual revival—moving into a new apartment in a new city, making a new circle of friends who supported his ongoing recovery and preparing to start a new job.
The truth is, I’ve lost many loved ones in my life. Sudden loss is no stranger to me. But it’s a specific kind of grief to bury someone you’ve loved since the earliest days of your life—when the two of you were fresh and wide open and unscathed, running through this world, side by side at full-speed, letting yourself be shaped by experiences without fear, convinced of your invincibility, and feeling like an infinity of tomorrows laid out before you.
They don’t. They never did. But that’s what makes it all so beautiful. If life didn’t end, it wouldn’t be quite so precious. We only grieve because we’ve so deeply loved. In this sense, grief is a potent reminder of our greatest blessings.
I’m thankful for the 40 years that I got to share this Earth with Jason. I’m thankful that we got to share blood and make precious memories, and that he gets to live on as a part of my story, for whatever stretch of time I’ve got left to finish it.
In one of our text conversations last year, I wrote to him: “I’m so proud of you and I love you,” to which he responded, “Thanks cuz and I love you. I would like to come visit some time.”
As they say, God had a different plan. We never got to make our own. At least not this time.
But one thing will never not be true:
In this life, Jason, you left a beautiful mark on me. You’ll always be my cousin and my friend.