My cousin Donna was something in the neighborhood of 10 years older than me, maybe more; I honestly don't know. She was my father's first niece, his sister's first child, my grandmother's first grandchild. She had a great laugh, beautiful red hair, and was smart and loving and kind. My father was in LOVE with his nieces and up until my parents divorced when I was 6, they were a huge part of our daily life. After that, we only saw them on my dad's time with us. My parents had one of those divorces where both sides of the family completely parted ways, and my mother took us. We didn't have a whole ton of contact with his side until they all started dying.
My brother, I have to add, was much better than me at saying Fuck It and seeing my father's side of the family anyway. I was entirely too afraid of my mother to attempt such a mutiny, and not a day goes by that I don't envy him the contact he had with our family after the rest of us were secluded from them. That boy had balls.
My cousin was married to a man (who we'll just call Tee) at some point, I don't really know, and had a baby who we'll just call Jr. I did get to see Jr quite a bit; my mother was a bitch, but she wasn't that bad. I couldn't see my aunt, but her kid was totally in-limits. He was cute, they were happy, blah blah blah.
They lived far from us, in Bethany which is in the very southern, beachy tip of Delaware, and I just didn't know anything about her as an adult. I know she later had another baby (maybe twins?) and that her marriage sounded fine on the surface. I'd seen her at our grandmother's funeral when I was 15, and Donna was the family member who was given our grandmother's folded flag at her military funeral. She was wearing a black dress-suit and pumps, and looked she fine to me. Apparently, she had a major drug problem that I didn't know about until I moved to Colorado with my dad when I was 17.
I remember one night when she called, crying to my father that she didn't have money for rent. My dad sat up with her all night on the phone, trying to get the number of her landlord out of her, promising he'd get her caught up. She wouldn't give the number over, made some bullshit story up, pleaded with him to send money that night, and after a while my dad just gave up and called her husband back the next day.
Turns out, they were behind on their rent. Turns out, all their money was going up her nose (and in her arm, I'd be willing to bet.) Turns out, Donna's father, my asshole uncle, was keeping her pretty hooked on some drug or the other, because he didn't want to party alone. Turns out, the problem was bigger than most of us knew. Tee had thrown her out of the house for the sake of the children's and his sanity, and they did need help. My father sent the landlord the rent, rather than giving it to Donna, who was just going to snort it anyway, ensuring that money went to the family and not to the addiction, or the addict. And there's my bailout paragraph in a nutshell. Moving on...
Apparently, Donna had taken to sneaking in the house in the middle of the night to sleep. Tee knew this, but didn't want to let on that he knew, so he'd just leave a small window unlocked at night that she could get in and out of. The neighbors and her friends had seen her pushing a ladder up to her house in the middle of the night to get in before; it wasn't really a secret or anything. She would just leave before everyone was up the next morning, and in that silent arrangement she had shelter and safety, and Tee knew his wife and the mother of his children was warm and fed at the very least.
One day, when I was at the end of being 21, my father started calling me at my boyfriend's house. We were fighting about something or the other, so I ignored his calls all day until, eventually, I realized something was wrong. He NEVER called, let alone that many times in a row. When I finally answered, he asked me with tears in his throat to sit down.
Donna had gone out with her friends, maybe her father (the jury is still out on that one) and they were all doing drugs. She mixed too many substances, or took too much of one, no one really knows. What we do know is that her friends, rather than dumping her off at the ER, took her as she O.D.'d back to her house. They grabbed the ladder that she'd used before to get in, pushed it up to the house, and shoved her into the open window. They drove off, and one of them called 911 to report "what looks like a break in attempt" at her house. Of course, the neighbors all knew about the ladder thing, and the cops thought nothing of it.
The kicker here is that they shoved her in the wrong window. They shoved her into her oldest son's window, who wasn't even 10 yet, where she cracked her head on the bedframe on the fall down. Tee had the kids out that night, I think at his mother's, and the next morning when they came home Jr walked into his room and found his mother dead, overdosed, suffocated on her own vomit, soaked in it and her urine and her feces, crumpled over in the corner of his bed.
And that is how I lost my cousin. And that is how her son lost his mother. My father, well, I didn't think he'd ever recover from it. When he told me, I sat on the corner of my boyfriend's bed and I couldn't breath. I couldn't think. All I could do was scream and scream and scream. It took that boyfriend longer than I can remember to get the story of what happened out of me, and that night he asked me to marry him because he didn't ever want something to happen to me and for him to not know what it was ever again. I spent most of that night hunting my brother down, who had taken off years before never to be heard from again, and I reunited with him over the phone under these circumstances.
We all flew to Delaware to lay her to rest, and in her death, my family found each other.
Every anniversary that boyfriend and I celebrate, she is still there with me. Every baby of ours, each one born with a shock of red hair and a beautiful smile, they are each a reminder of her. Each comment my brother leaves on this blog, she's in there somewhere. She was taken from my life twice in the 21 years I'd known her, once by divorce, once by addiction and irresponsible, selfish behavior, but this time, I know I'll never find her again. I just have to hold a little tighter to what she left in her wake.