I’ve started and trashed this post about 10 times over the past two-and-a-half weeks.
As many of you know, my cousin Rachel died on Dec. 1, after a nearly five-year battle against cancer.
She was 34 years old. She was a wife, a mother of two young children, a daughter, a sister to six brothers and sisters, a sister-in-law, an aunt, a cousin, a niece and the best friend you could imagine.
How do you put into words what someone like that means to you?
How do you explain what it means to lose someone who you’ve known your entire life (at least as far back as your memory goes)?
Rachel and I were 22 months apart. Since I was an only child growing up, in many ways, she was my surrogate sister. She had plenty of her own siblings but she and her oldest brother (as well as two other cousins) were mine. The five of us spent more nights than can ever be counted at our Nam and Pap’s farm.
Rachel and her brother were military kids, so whenever they came home to Pennsylvania from Maryland, Ohio, California or Germany, it was a BIG DEAL. Thankfully, there was no such thing as too many kids at my grandmother’s house (she did have 10 of her own kids after all), so if Rachel and her brother (who is just six months younger than me) were there, I was going to be there too as much as possible.
The summers of our youth were spent playing cowboys and Indians (sorry, if it’s not PC anymore but when you’re in the country with horses around, it seemed a logical game to kids); building massive hay forts in the barn (much to our grandfather’s constant annoyance); constructing secret clubhouses with highly original names like the Cool Kids Club using old boards, nails and paint we
stole found laying around the farm; playing card and word games with Nam; hiding under the covers during thunderstorms that rattled every window in the house; telling scary ghost stories and daring each other to go up into the attic; staying up way past bedtime reading books in bed; playing hours-long baseball games in the yard or seeing who could throw the ball over the shed roof (it took me years to accomplish that) and just being adventure-seeking free-range kids in the country.
It was a glorious way to grow up.
Well, except for the time she and I were the guest book attendants at a wedding when we were probably 12 and 11 (or maybe younger) and our older cousins decided we needed makeup for the event. Needless to say, our dads were not happy.
This picture was after we’d already wiped half of it off.
As much as I treasure every single one of those memories, I treasure the past 10 or so years even more. There’s a famous quote that says something like “cousins are childhood playmates who grow up to be forever friends,” and that’s exactly what happened with Rachel and me.
Like most people, we drifted apart later in high school and college. You kids with your Facebook and texting have no idea how much easier it is to keep in touch now compared to the ancient, pre-Internet days.
But finally, as adults, we started really reconnecting. When I was living in DC after college, she came and stayed with me one weekend for a conference and we had a blast staying up late and drinking wine.
In the ensuing years, my younger cousin, in many ways, became a big sister to me, the way she was to her four younger sisters. She got married first; she had kids first; she taught me the most magical of all phrases — pump and dump. She sent me her hand-me-down kids clothes. She was my lifeline to all the family gossip (and in a family as big as ours, there’s something big and new every week).
When my grandmother was sick and ultimately dying, it was Rachel who called me one Thursday and said, “Get on a plane. Your dad won’t say it but Nam is dying. It’s time to come home now.”
And I listened and thanks to her, was able to be there to have a few final special moments with my grandmother, which was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
When we were kids, we all called Rachel Bossy the Cow and it’s a label she wore proudly. The phrase “outspoken” clearly was invented just for her. She always spoke her mind but her cancer gave her an even wider berth. She was fond of saying, “They won’t get mad at me. I have cancer. I can say whatever I want.”
And she did.
But now, our family is missing its voice. We’re missing the person who wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers and remind people in the midst of petty squabbles what’s really important in life.
She lived large, and she celebrated everything. And she was so brilliant. Rachel was a genetic counselor, and before her diagnosis, she helped cancer patients design treatment protocols that best matched their bodies (I’m sure I’m screwing up that description some). And yes, irony sure is a cruel bitch.
Her diagnosis unleashed her already present tendencies to do things big. She just started doing them bigger. Elaborate and wonderful birthday parties for her kids. The biggest Christmas tree you’ve ever seen in your life. Frequent trips to Disney.
I thank God that of all the places I could have moved in the world, I moved to the one place where I’d see not only Rachel but my other visiting relatives almost as much as if I still lived in DC. Over the past few years, Rachel, in particular, has been here at least once if not twice a year.
Thanks to geography, we made so many more memories together. We watched our children, the next generation of cousins, begin to form their own bonds.
We ate Dole Whips together. We swam in hotel pools and made s’mores by the giraffes at the Animal Kingdom resort. And on one memorable night, we got wasted.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about her over the past few months in particular. I’ve thought about what I would have done in her place. Would I have the strength she showed? Would I wallow or would I live the way she did — boldly, fearlessly and fiercely?
And then one day it hit me. Rachel didn’t live like this for these past few years because of her cancer; she did it in spite of her cancer.
She lived up until the very final minute her poor body could take it. On her final day, she went shopping with her sisters. She walked along the river with her family. She was having a girls’ night sleepover with her sisters and daughter. She was celebrating everything.
And I don’t intend to let her message be forgotten.
Since the Sandy Hook tragedy, I’ve heard a lot of parents saying they’re letting the little things slide more. They’re taking the time to treasure their children and enjoy these fleeting moments.
Thanks to Rachel, I’ve been doing that for a long time. She taught me that it’s NEVER a bad idea to rock your baby to sleep or to even pick them up when they’re sleeping, just for a snuggle. She taught me to over-photograph every single event of my daughter’s life.
She taught me that mothers should never be afraid to be silly and a little outrageous for their kids.
She taught me to celebrate the little things. She taught me that we’re all going to die; it’s inevitable. But how are we all going to live?
One of the most beautiful — and heartbreaking — parts of her funeral services was looking through the amazing book she put together in her final months thanks to the help of our cousin. The book is called The Story of Mommy, and it’s a photo book that covers her entire life — her infancy, birthdays, soccer teams, baseball teams, family trips, college, meeting and falling in love with their Daddy, their wedding and honeymoon, her pregnancy and these last few years.
It knocked me to my knees.
And it gave me an idea. What an extraordinary gift for her children. Most of us are just going to die someday. We’re not going to have that time to prepare ourselves and our families for it. What will be left when we’re gone?
I want E. to know my stories. I want her to know what made Mommy Mommy. Some of the stories I’ll tell here; some will be just for her. But I think it’s a worthy undertaking for all of us.
In the meantime, I’ll be learning how to live without Rachel. In some ways, I’m glad I live so far away from everyone; the loss isn’t staring me in my face every day. But other days, it makes it so much worse. There have been times when I’ve momentarily forgotten and I’ve seen something hilarious and I’ll think to myself, “I should email this to Rachel. It’ll make her laugh.” And then I remember all over again that I’ll never make her laugh again.
It’s not fair. It’s just not fair.
But thanks to her blog, myself and the rest of our family will always have her voice in our heads. When we start to miss her, we can go read her beautiful words and remember all over again how lucky we were to have this extraordinary woman as part of our family. We can remind ourselves that the little stuff just doesn’t matter.
Every day that we have to snuggle our children and loved ones and laugh is a good one.
And when you find yourself enjoying that moment, I hope you’ll sometimes take a private moment to thank Rachel for teaching us all to Celebrate Everything.
I know I will.