Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Adrift in an uncaring universe.

The stereotype of an unpleasant holiday is being forced into close quarters with extended family members that you don't even pretend to tolerate anymore. For me, this past holiday was in many ways the opposite: I adore my extended family, I quite enjoy having a number of people in the same place – enclosed or otherwise – and, instead of bringing the worst member of my family very close, this holiday season took one of the best as far away from us as she could go. My cousin Heather, who would have turned 23 just 5 days ago, was killed by a(n alleged) drunk driver on the 17th of December.

Heather was the middle child of three girls; all of them driven, all of them successful. Her first words, according to my aunt, were “me too”. She once biked from Thunder Bay to near Kingston carrying only two shirts and a hammock with her. She could write beautifully. I could go on, but it would be... a list, but not an account. I hadn't seen Heather in probably two or three years. I hadn't been counting, of course; I'm not prescient, I didn't know the number would have such grim significance. I would have seen her this summer, but she couldn't get time off work to come to the family reunion.

Slings and Arrows puts it best: when we are bereaved, we are not mourning the departed, so much as the part of ourselves that died with them. This will sound callous: Heather was not a large figure in my life. I shall explain: growing up, she was always sufficiently older than I was that I can't imagine we could have related much, and so we didn't tend to hang out when the family gathered together. The saddest part of the experience for me was watching the people who had lost large parts of themselves. People who will have to live every day of their lives with her death clawing at the back of their minds, a constant reminder of loss. My aunt and uncle, Heather's sisters, her friends from school and elsewhere, her boyfriend, the hundreds of people who came to pay their respects at the visitation and funeral. 
This post, or the idea of this post, I have been drafting since I got back to Ottawa from my Aunt and Uncle's place. I wanted to write something, but every time I made the same mistake: I started off with my cousin's death, and used it as a segway into one of so many related topics: death, life, drunk drivers, the law... and it never really worked. I can write about any of these some other time, but if I am going to write about my cousin's death, I am not going to use that as the starting point to philosophical or political discourse. I am going to write about her.

It may seem, at this point, like this post is entirely a downer. My cousin died, and the incredible number of people whom she touched in her lifetime have all lost a piece of themselves. I have saved for the last the message that everyone who spoke at the funeral was advancing, in one way or another: Heather was an exceptional human being. She loved life, she loved people, she loved nature, and nothing was impossible for her if she did not want it to be. You cynics may retreat behind your bitter shields, and imagine that this is the sort of thing people are wont to say at funerals because it is impolite to speak ill of the dead. I may not have known Heather as well as others, but I do not doubt for a second that everyone believed what they were saying, that it was – minus the tears of course – probably the sort of thing they told people when they talked about her when she was alive. Their message, then, was that we should all strive to be a little more like her than we are, that we should throw ourselves into life with all the vigour and abandon that she did. Heather once gave away her tent – the very tent that she was sleeping in on a particular trip, essentially her home – to some homeless people whose need she thought was greater than her own. How many of us can say the same? I understand that you, the reader, did not in all likelihood know my cousin, and that the idea that you should follow the example of someone you never knew might seem a little odd. I would respond that in our celebrity culture, there are millions if not billions of people whose desire is to emulate those whom they have never met. My cousin was not famous, but she was a far better role model than most of the people who are.

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