Two years ago, my cousin shot her son and then herself and I stopped writing. Not at the exact moment the bullet entered her brain. The process was more gradual. My output slowed to a trickle, and one day, about four months after it happened, I wrote a blog post saying I need to deal and I stepped away from the keyboard and I didn’t write again.
I tried to. Write about it. Write a novel. Write a short story. The short story I managed. It took six months. There was no joy in it. And there has been no joy in writing since she died, though I don’t blame her for that. I blame myself. Like all of us left behind, we allocate the blame to our failures. What complicated my grief is that I was not close to her and felt I had no right to feel her death so acutely. So much so that I did not speak to my aunt, who I love dearly, for months. Every time I thought of calling her, to express how deeply sorry I was, my palms began to sweat and my heart beat increased until I could hardly breathe. I realize, in retrospect, that the combination of cowardice and sorrow was causing panic attacks. Excuses, excuses. Some things broken cannot be fixed and my relationship with my aunt is probably one of those.
I’ve spent many hours talking to someone about it. The reason for her suicide and my inability to deal with it, or to write. About her or anything else. We weren’t close as adults, my cousin and I. As children, she was the nearest person in my family to my age and we were as close as cousins could be. She was my favourite cousin. My first sleepover was at her house, on a mattress on the floor of her bedroom. We lay watching the dimmed bulb inside her paper lamp shade grow brighter and brighter as she chanted, in Afrikaans, for the fairies to turn the lights back on. With every whispered chant, the light brightened until my aunt, her mother, came in and turned it down again. She eventually fell asleep but I lay in the darkened room, terrified of whatever unseen entity had the power to turn the lights up if you asked. In Afrikaans.
She had a trampoline and a swimming pool, a swing chair and two sisters. I had none of those things. My mother was a divorcee. Her parents had, and still have, a happy marriage. We lived in an old rented house with an overgrown orchard and concrete yard. I had a brother and two dogs. I envied her life, her happy family. Her mom was always in the kitchen, and the kitchen was stocked with sweets and cool drinks, the proper kind that came already mixed in cartons – boxes for FruitTree or Raspberry Sparletta. We had orange squash at the beginning of the month and I&J Boil in a Bag for dinner and my mom was always working. She had curly blonde hair and she looked like an angel. I had thick black eyebrows crawling across my forehead like two stinging caterpillars mating and my mother thought Twiggy and Liza Minnelli were cool so she kept my dark hair cropped short. That crew cut combined with hand-me-downs from my brother had me being constantly mistaken for a boy. No one ever mistook my cousin for a boy.
As teenagers we drifted apart. I dressed in black and wore Doc Martens and had skinny boyfriends with long dirty hair who played guitar badly. She was still blonde and went to church on Sunday with her parents and wore high heel pumps and dated the same boy all through high school. We both smoked cigarettes behind our parent’s backs. We had that in common.
She married that high school sweetheart. He proposed on a plane when they were both too young to know he’d turn into a bastard and she into a depressive who drank too much and drove her car into a wall. She was sweet and funny and had her dreams thwarted by the same black dogs I have constantly on my tail. Last time I saw her we made scrambled eggs for our kids in her mother’s kitchen, and we joked about motherhood and how hard it was to love someone as much as you do your kid. She had tears and a fierce protectiveness in her eyes when she told me that. She was divorced by then, and was being dragged through the courts by her ex who saw the legal system as a way to continue abusing her long after he’d married someone else. Some people get their kicks through non-consensual sadism, I guess. Her son was struggling. He was like her. The sweetest boy imaginable. She was desperate to limit his dad’s visitation but though supervision was advised by psychological reports, the judge ruled always in his favour. Judges can be bought and he had money. She did not. Fighting him bankrupted her.
We made plans for them to come to Cape Town on holiday, but I never called her and she never called me and those plans were never realised. I blame myself. I should have called her. Maybe, if I had kept in touch, told her I understood the depression thing because I have it too, maybe maybe maybe.
You always think you have time.
For a long time after I felt like I was standing too close to the edge. I felt that if I looked to closely at her death, or examined the way it made me feel, I might follow her.
I have not written because I needed to write about her. I felt, however, that I had no right to express anything about her death or her life. She was not my sister. Not my daughter. Not my mother. The grief of her death could not belong to me. And yet I carry it because I loved her. We were not in contact, not close, but people remain the people they have always been, and that is the person I loved. Her loss means we can never have that holiday, never reestablish the connection we had in her mother’s kitchen the last time I saw her. My daughter and her son will never ride around the garden on his mini-quad bike again. They’ll never play hide-and-go-seek. They’ll never call on the fairies to turn up the lights. She’ll never defeat her demons or her abusive ex-husband.
Life, it turns out, is a series of letting go. I know now that some of my childhood dreams will never be fulfilled. I’ll never play Tatiana in New York Central Park in summer. I wanted to be an actress and won awards in school for my performances, but I’ll probably never tread the boards professionally now. I probably won’t have an apartment in New York, or London, or Barcelona. Letting go of those dreams, it turns out, is easier than letting go of the simple idea that one day, my cousin would come on holiday to my home in Cape Town, and we’d make our kids scrambled eggs and joke about how hard motherhood is.
You always think you have time.