I am grateful for my cousin Randy. He was named Randall John Stewart, the John part of his name in respect to my father John Richard Stewart and to our great-grandfather John O Stewart. I’m not sure what the “O” stands for or at least I don’t remember now. He was referred to as John O and that stuck, the way that some called my father John R. I liked that, the feeling of being worthy of a special moniker.
Randy was born three years after me and when you’re the youngest in a family with strong-willed siblings, it’s nice to have someone you think you need to show the ropes to, a leg up so to speak in the game of growing up. I had the privilege of thinking I knew more than someone and when you are a child and the youngest and always obligated to sit in the middle on every and all car outings, never getting to be by the window, it’s a big deal to have a younger cousin. There were three of them, three little boys who were like three little old men, who discussed life as if they’d been to the top and surveyed the entire scene called life, and carried back the information to discuss with each other and sometimes with me. They were their own version of the three little bears – the oldest (Randy) ready for fun and daring, the youngest (Rickie) who wanted to be certain, and the one in the middle (Robbie) was the gooey marshmallow centre of a perfect three-layered cookie. They made me laugh, but most importantly they made me feel warm inside, the connection one feels when we have an extended family. Cousins become the best friends we never have to earn, we never have to audition for, just about the only guarantee we have in life aside of its ending.
Robbie, the gooey marshmallow centre of the perfect three-layered cookie, went on ahead, much too early in the game, long before anyone was ready to let go his hand, on a day that would become the worst day, the kind of day no mother really recovers from, no brother stops aching from, but just learns how to put one foot in front of the other, and to try to remember to keep breathing, the kind of day that is revisited year after year, the distance never great enough to stop a family’s hurt, to stop the wish of if only. An accident, we call it, when circumstances line up in the worst possible way.
Randy was struck by lightning when he was just about to have his ninth birthday. His heart stopped more than once and he was given life-saving CPR by a relative on the way to the hospital. I don’t remember who saved him, but I credited him with saving himself. He was that strong. I was certain. Someone may have thumped his chest and breathed some air into his lungs, but it was his heart that decided to start beating again. That’s how I looked at it then. That’s how I look at it now. Randy was strong. Randy was determined. Randy could do anything. Almost. Even Superman has to battle kryptonite.
Randy’s kryptonite was mental illness, bipolar disorder. It was a hard fought battle, and a cruel one. I sometimes wonder if that lightning strike had something to do with his brain being assaulted, leaving it injured, beyond repair it turns out.
We don’t talk about mental illness. Science struggles to understand the brain and its deep secrets, and so do we. We’re afraid of mental illness and it seems easier to look away from its victims, too uncomfortable to see its by-products, too uneasy to offer comfort, too judgmental to say I see your pain. Instead, we whisper behind our hands, and in those whispers, we speak of blame not help, we shake our heads with fatigue not kindness, and in our silence, we all too often leave those who struggle with mental illness alone with their battle. When the battle is lost, when the load has become too heavy, when the soul is just too weary, they slip away from us and could easily be forgotten. Their legacy of laughter and love and creativity seems to vanish almost in its entirety, and they are often remembered for their death rather than their life. If only there was a way to share the load. If only there was a way to say talk to me. If only there was a way to make space in our lives to offer solace and rest and comfort. If only.
I don’t want my tears to be the only measure of my loss of my precious cousin. Instead of tears, I make the choice to remember, to remember three little boys smoking a cigar on a Sunday morning in front of the cabin’s fireplace, laughing too hard to think they might be in trouble, to remember building blanket forts and hay forts and snow forts and crawling inside and thinking we were safe from absolutely everything life could throw at us. I will remember his love of Rainy Lake, a genetic predisposition that allowed him a second sight of the shoreline and waterways as if he could maneuver a boat through the many channels even if he was blind. I will remember him water-skiing as if he could almost fly and didn’t need a boat towing him but instead could glide over the water on his own magical power. I will remember his woodworking that was more about art than function, more about beauty than nails and paint, more about creativity than work.
Randy was far more than the mental demons that tortured his soul, was far more than the pain he endured while he struggled, was far more than the shame he felt at not being perfect, was far more than a man worn weary by his illness. Oh, how he loved his three sons, the details of them, the beauty of them, the near perfection he saw in them. He wanted to hold them and breathe them in so they might remain forever with him, melded to his soul, would always be his little boys. Oh, how he wished it was different, how he hoped it could be different, how he prayed it would be different, how he so desperately needed it to be different.
Mental illness won the battle. Part of me is relieved for his freedom, relieved he is no longer in pain, relieved he no longer has to feel he is half a person, half a man, half a father. He was always whole. He was always all in with everything he did, in everything he was, but it’s just too hard to hold on to that when one’s brain is hurting, just too hard to believe it’s still true.
It’s up to each of us to tell the story of those who leave us behind to carry on, to remember the tiny details of someone, details we can’t etch into a grave marker, that we can’t paint across the sky. It’s up to us to remember Randy’s hearty laugh, so like his father’s, and to remember his eagerness for fun. It’s up to us to remember he was precious and loved and in his human imperfection, he was almost perfect, all that any of us can be or will be. I’m so very glad and so very blessed to have shared childhood with him, to have called him family.