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.
Oh Jackie- what a beautiful and moving tribute to your cousin. Thank you for sharing it. I am so very sorry for your loss…
Caroline Calcote says
Rachel was an amazing person. I feel like I got to know her a bit through your posts, and I know without a doubt that she and I could hang (just like I knew you and I could and we did). This is another great post my friend. You have inspired me to tell more stories about my life on my blog. You know how I blog the mundane like it’s my religion. I get so bogged down in that ish. While I know that I am preserving the memories of our NOW for my kids, I love the idea of going back and telling some pre-blogging stories for them. I have years of scrapbooks (very detailed) also, but they often also just chronicled the mundane. I was into real life scrapbooking, not just special event scrapping. I have many fascinating stories that need to be preserved! Ha. Thanks.
Krissy @ Shiawase Life says
Thank you for sharing this <3
Oh, Jackie, this tribute was beautiful. I’m so sorry for your loss, your cousin Rachel seems like an amazing person. We can all learn from her energy and fierceness. It’s moments like these that we’re reminded to put the little things aside and instead focus on the big things and the happy moments with family and the ones we love.
Katy Widrick says
I honestly don’t know what to say…you have been writing this post for weeks, and I’ve now been reading and re-reading for hours. It’s taken me that long to get through, because every sentence is a reminder that we just can’t take life for granted.
This is one of the many reasons that I blog…because selfishly, I don’t want to disappear from the world. I want my thoughts and stories to live on, not only through my kids, but through others. Rachel did that through her actions, and I can’t tell you how hard I laughed at some of the stories you shared here. Cried, too, but that’s to be expected. I’m really trying to embrace what Rachel taught you and what you are now teaching us — that we have to celebrate EVERYTHING.
Thank you for sharing her story, as hard as it is for you and your family. I’m sharing it with my cousins today.
Amazing post, Jackie. Thinking of you!
Kashi @ Cape Island Runners says
Wow. Just beautiful.
Very important blog post and I’m sure it was extremely tough. So very sorry for your loss! 🙁 It’s always good to get things out and to also reflect on all of the great memories had with lost loved ones. She sounded like an awesome person to know. Thank you for sharing her blog with me a while back. It reminded me to enjoy the moment more.
I always think we adapt and take on certain characteristics of those we are closest to. Based on how close you two were, you will periodically find yourself doing things or saying things like her. While that may bring a tear or two at that moment of recognition, it always something that brought a smile and some times a small chuckle to me because I know they are still living through me.
Your whole family is in our prayers.
Christine (Cook the Story) says
Your post is beautiful. I’ve read it over more than once now. I feel like I got to know Rachel a little bit. Thank you for that. What a wonderful person to have had in your life. I am so sorry for your loss.
Your post was so touching. I read it over and over. I feel like I knew your cousin myself. I love the way you described her. Sounds like she was an incredible person. I recently (two days ago) lost my cousin and best friend. I was looking online for some solace I guess, and found your post. I’m so glad, because, it made me smile and feel so much better. Cedrian, my cousin, had kidney failure. I donated my kidney to my cuz/friend on December 13th, 2012. We did everything together, and I’m finding it hard to not have him around. I feel so hurt, and when I normally would have went to him to talk…..but he is just not around. Your cousin sounds a lot like mine, and I hope they are in heaven together having an awesome time. Thank you again for your post.
Oh Kristen, I am so very sorry for your loss. What an incredible gift of love you gave him and I can imagine that act meant the world to him.
I hope that this post gave you some solace to know there are others out there who understand your grief. I can’t recommend enough writing something like this about your cousin, just for yourself. Your comment prompted me to re-read this and it even brought me some comfort too … and of course made me cry!
The next couple days will be incredibly difficult but I promise at some point, you’ll first think of Cedrian with smiles or even laughter first, rather than tears.
Thinking of you during this very sad time.
Yesterday we had four family birthday party. Including 9 grandchildren. All within age of 5 to 12 yrs of age. Each of my 3 children had 3 children in jus about the same years. 1 12 yrs, 2- 10 yr olds, 3 8 yr olds and 3 -5 yr olds. Always close. Yesterday I began to see the 12 yr old and the female 10 yr old going in different directions. Both female. Broke my heart a little. Felt the need to have a cousin party so they would value each other. Been in tears not understanding Then when I read yours I under stood. I was only child so cousins were important. When I was in thirties we got phone call that devastated. My cousin in twenties with young family was killed in London IRA bomb blast on visiting trip. More tragic details but not place to get into it.
I hadn’t stayed as close cause of age and gender. He died dec 17. 1974. 2days before that from now dec 15 2014. No wonder the timing. My mom never emphasized family. How do I do that now. Cousin party? Thank you for sharing your story. Tried to find ideas
Sorry. I wasn’t thinking when wrote. Year was 1983.