It's been 8 years this month.
It had been an uneventful day at the bookstore. I finished work and headed home, calculating how much time before I needed to leave to pick up a friend from the airport. I breezed in through the back door of my house and saw my dad standing in the kitchen, leaning against the counter. I said hi, probably started to chatter about my day, and noticed I wasn't getting much response. As I turned quizzically toward him, my world divided into before and after.
"Scottie died today," he said slowly, eyes intent on me.
I scanned through people named Scottie, thinking perhaps this was a neighbor or a friend of my grandparents. The only Scottie I knew was my cousin. He was 22, just 3 months older than me. There was no way that he could be dead.
Only, he was.
Life turned upside down in that moment. It's hard to describe the pain that crashed into my family's life that day. I can't even think about this moment without tears coming to my eyes. While I had gone to many funerals before this and lost relatives for whom I cared very much, this loss was more personal and closer to home. It's quite different to lose a beloved great-uncle, to be able to say "he lived a good long life." Scottie was so young. There are no platitudes when a child, teen, or young adult dies. We instinctively know that this is wrong and in no realm could it ever make sense.
I leaned into my dad for a hug and began to sob. I was surprised by the intensity of emotion. Scottie and I were close when we were little but I didn't remember this until later. There are tons of pictures of me with Scottie and Scottie with me, playing, doing crafts, holding each other.
Things changed when he and his family moved to Florida for several years before coming back to the Midwest for most of our teen years. We had both changed by then. As the sole girl at most family gatherings (Clara and Emily lived either in Vermont or California for most of my life), I always felt I had to prove myself to my boy cousins. We're all closer than close now but when I was in high school I always felt one step behind as they would run off to play football or other "boy activities." I could hold my own playing pool and exercised my razor sharp wit but it wasn't enough to compensate for the fact that I was still a girl and they were still boys. I had their respect and admiration, if not always their time.
Once I went to college, the dynamic of our relationships changed once again. I felt as though Scottie and I were starting to get to know each other once again. I started to feel as if we were peers. For some reason I always envisioned Scottie and Jon as my "older" cousins, when there was no more than a year and a half between us all. It must be a reflection of how much I looked up to them.
As the shock of the news wore off, I kept thinking, "it's not fair." I felt robbed. We all did. Scottie and I would never be given the chance to relate to each other as adults. We would never learn what would come of his immense artistic talent. Or whether he would have married his girlfriend of a couple years. So many "what ifs."
We don't know why Scottie died. The day before he came home after work and took a nap, as he did every day after work. Pat tried to wake him when they were supposed to meet up with friends but Scottie was always a sound sleeper and didn't budge. My uncle found Scottie still sleeping when he got home from work later and found it strange that he would still be asleep. When he went to wake him, Scottie was unresponsive. He died in his sleep. There was no foul play, no substance abuse, no freak illness. His heart stopped beating. This from a kid who'd never been sick a day in his life.
There's no convenient time to learn that a loved one has died. Life continues on around you. My uncle had called my parents that morning and my mom headed up to be with them. My parents decided they didn't want to interrupt me at work, hence why my dad was waiting for me in the kitchen. I cried my heart out. But my friend was still due to fly in to O'Hare and I was still her designated driver. I called a friend who agreed to come with me to the airport, as I didn't trust myself to drive. Being with those friends was a blessed distraction but grief became my constant background.
I went back to work the next day, at my parents' suggestion. They thought the normal routine would be good for me. I made it through the day just fine but when out with friends afterward, I became antsy and upset. There they were complaining about the most inane things when my cousin had died. I left and went over to Tracy's house where I flopped across her bed and cried. Best friends always know how to comfort one another. In hindsight, I should have skipped the post-work outing and just spent time with Tracy. I had never grieved hard for someone before though so I didn't know what to expect from myself. The next day, at work again, I almost bit a coworkers' head off. Truthfully, this coworker always drove me a bit batty but I was not in the mood to be understanding. I ended up leaving early that day. It was only going to be a half day anyway since my family would be driving to Wisconsin for Scottie's wake.
I wasn't prepared to say goodbye to Scottie. I wasn't prepared to examine what his death meant to me. I wasn't prepared to walk through the valley of the shadow of the death at 22. But I did.