One of my younger cousins has died. She’s the first in our generation of cousins to do so. I guess that makes us lucky when you consider how many cousins we have and what a wide variety of ages.
Sometimes I have to blink and clear my eyes when I see my cousin Louie. I keep expecting to see the young man who used to swallow bottle caps to impress his little cousin who had such a crush on him. Instead, I see a 72-year-old grandfather who could easily become a great-grandfather in the not too distant future.
But I hadn’t seen Nancy in over 30 years and so, in my mind, she remained as young as my memories of her. In those memories she’s a vivacious, elfish looking teenager with bright sparkling eyes and an every ready smile.
But the sixties were not kind to her. She went into them with a special spark that caused everyone to brighten up when she was in the room and got lost in drugs and alcohol. It took a long time for her to come back to us. When she did, she made a good home for herself and her new husband and raised her family well.
But the excesses of her early life caught up with her and she died at 53 of liver failure, diabetic complications and pneumonia.
When she died, the cousins’ network went into full swing. Her sister only had to call one cousin and tell her to spread the word. It spread rapidly. While many of us are too far away to make the funeral, in many ways we’ve already done our mourning in the multiple phone calls that have flown around the country.
We relived our best memories in those phone calls and laughed at the children we once were. We relived the sad memories and rued the time lost. We renewed our bonds as a family united in grief.
When I get involved in a case as a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) in which a child must be removed from their family, I know that more than just the bonds of that immediate family are being broken. Actually, in many cases, the nuclear family is so sick and damaged that you would be hard pressed to actually define it as a family.
Unfortunately, there is always an extended family that loses a member when this happens. When cousins get together to play, one of them is missing. By missing out on those days of play, the child who has been removed from his or her home is also missing out on the time that forges the bonds that will last through their lifetime.
There is no easy solution to the problems created when you have to remove children from their home. And when you add in the loss of their extended family, the price children pay for their parents inability to stay sober, stop fighting and provide them with a stable home is enormous.
No matter how hard a foster home or group home might try to keep those extended family ties alive, the natural ebb and flow of family dropping in to visit, showing up for dinner, gathering for the holidays, is lost. In its place is a schedule of visits with predetermined times, pre-approved lengths and pre-negotiated conditions about contact with the parents.
I don’t know what I’d have done without my cousins in my life. Some of us are still best friends. Some of us only see each other on holidays. But no matter how little or how often the contact happens, when it does, there is a wonderful flow of love and laughter that comes from so many shared memories.
When my Aunt Toni makes a certain remark and my cousin Toni rolls her eyes, I know exactly what she means because I was there from the start. And the playing field is always level among us no matter who is making what salary or has what position because we all have too much information about each other for anyone to ever have the upper hand.
Kids in state custody often lose that closeness with their cousins, their extended family. And nothing in the world can replace it because nothing else is quite like it.
Wouldn’t it be a much fairer world if the parents who messed up paid the price instead of the kids?