I'm torn between the impulse to document the heartbreak of this past week and the acute knowledge that no words can really explain the full spectrum of emotions, from horror to hilarity, that fill up the spaces of a true family tragedy.
My cousin TR was born six months after me, 80 miles away. Our whole lives were like that, in a way - very close, but not close enough. My family moved away from Minnesota when I was a baby, and from then on we only saw each other during our yearly pilgrimage back to the homeland or during their very rare trips out east. But then we came back, and our holidays and summer vacations intertwined again. We had run around my parents' small hometown pretending to be twins when we were younger, but being adolescents, we of course shifted into a cooler, more distant relationship. We never detached, though. Partly because my grandmother was just as likely to send me a news clipping about TR's most recent athletic feats as an inspirational Dear Abby, I always knew what was going on in TR's life, and based on the strength of our pre-WWW familial internet, I'm guessing he was pretty aware of mine. As we went off to college and crept up into adulthood, however, we got closer again. We went from mocking each others' first girlfriend/boyfriend to attending each others' weddings. We made extra trips around the holidays so that my sister and I could spend time with him and his brother. We got to know each other as grown-ups, and we got to be not just family but friends. With the recent birth of his first baby, we had all the more in common, and we were looking forward to bringing together the next generation when we were all back home for Christmas.
My family, nuclear and extended, is wrapped around the core of my being, and I have never had an event that shook that core as suddenly and violently as the phone call from my sister telling me that TR had died. There was no immediate explanation, which seemed both fitting and insane. If there was no way to understand it, how could we possibly accept it? If we didn't know what happened, maybe it didn't.
The next few days were a conflict between my regular daily life and the overpowering desire to get the hell out of here and go be with my family. I shrugged off an indecent amount of responsibility to my business and finally caught a plane to Minnesota on Thursday morning, arriving just a few hours before the reviewal service. Or what anyone less Protestant would call a wake, but that term seems to indicate a level of celebration that us grieving Midwesterners couldn't quite muster. We don't celebrate the life lost, we comfort those left behind with buttered ham sandwiches and an almost sinful assemblage of home-made bars.
And there were so, so many left behind. I've been to far too many of these things in my life, but I've never seen a line extend all the way through a church sanctuary and out into the hall. I've also never seen a pastor start crying during his devotional moment with the family, and I felt a strong urge to have him un-ordained for it. We already had a room full of weeping Lutherans; the professional was supposed to keep it together.
No one could blame him, though. He barely even knew TR, but he knew his parents - my godparents, one of them Miss M's namesake - and all it took was one look at their sweet, stoic faces crumpled in grief to break the resolve of the most Nordic. Which is to say, the rest of my family. From the moment I arrived in the homeland until the minute Pops helped me load my diaper bag onto the airport security X-ray, someone in my family was crying. Crying so much that, at least in my case, the act itself caused physical pain - a bloody nose, an upset stomach, actual bruising in one eye. That's not us, that's not what we do, but there was no way around it. How do you not cry when you see the body of a vibrant, healthy 30-year-old lying in front of his wife and baby? How do you keep it together when hearing a younger brother eulogize a man who was clearly his best friend? Even if you didn't know these people, you would weep for them. Knowing them as we did, there was nothing else we could do. And we shared that feeling with the hundreds of friends and relatives who packed into my grandmother's former high school auditorium to remember a very brief but very powerful life.
I expected the weekend of services and family gatherings to be nothing but somber, but there was a surprising amount of humor, too. Not light-heartedness, exactly - our hearts were too badly broken to be light - but the stress of the event forced us to find release wherever we could, from tipsy Trivial Pursuit matches to a highly unexpected Captain Ron quote-off. These less serious moments weren't a testimony to our coping skills but rather a reminder of TR's essential nature. He was a happy young man. Funny, sweet, charming and bright in every sense of the word.
These moments were also a reminder that the reason families come together during times like this is to provide Trivial Pursuit partners and movie quote opponents. For as long as I was in Memphis, I was a solitary mourner, but once I got to Minnesota, we were one big, catastrophe-addled unit, using each other to lean on and gathering enough strength among our numbers to begin healing.
Because of that strength, this family will get through this. But because of TR, we will never be the same.