My cousin died yesterday.
I got the news last night, as sketchy as it was, when my brother called. When I saw his name on the caller I.D., I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be good. When he asked, “Have you talked to Mom?”, my suspicions were confirmed.
Over the years, Mom has shared snippets of information about my cousin’s health challenges. A life-long chain smoker, she had been battling cancer for many years in different ways and in different parts of her body. Apparently, enough was enough. Sometime recently, she decided against more chemo.
I don’t blame her.
After several attempts in reaching K. were unsuccessful, and after receiving an random email from someone she didn’t know, Mom had a feeling something was wrong. My mother and cousin shared regular phone calls – many in the middle of the night – as well as many many challenges over the course of their lives. They were more like peers, even though K. called my Mom “Auntie”. So when she didn’t receive any call backs, Mom reached out to one of my cousin’s friends, who hadn’t heard a thing either. More calls were made and, unfortunately, the sad news was relayed. K. passed away in a care facility up in Los Angeles somewhere at around 11:30 a.m. She was 75.
I keep wondering if she was alone when she left this Earth, or if her husband or mom or my father were there to greet her. Childless and a widow, we are some of her only blood family. I’ll phone Mom later to see how she is doing. Personally, while my heart is heavy, I haven’t shed a tear…which is weird, I suppose. Maybe I will psychoanalyze that later, but it won’t change anything. I simply haven’t cried. Yet.
My first memories of my cousin are of a young woman, fresh from a small town in Illinois, who came to California in the early 60’s to live with my family while she got settled. Dixie (her birth name) was the only daughter of my father’s sister. Dixie came to California with a dream in her heart and never a look back: she wanted to be a star!
15 years apart, K. (a stage name she took and used religiously for the rest of her life) was everything I wanted to be. Beautiful. Glamorous. Brave. “IN”.
I can remember sitting on the toilet in our little bathroom with the pink and gray tile, fascinated as she applied makeup like an expert. Sometimes she would swipe lipstick against my own little mouth, or brushed my eyelids with color. It made me feel beautiful, like her. K. had a natural beauty only enhanced with color and contour, her most striking feature being her blue “cat eyes” – a feature she would exploit to her best advantage with smoky artisanship throughout her life and career.
Because YES, as it turns out, her dream came true! K. DID become an actress, playing many roles in movies and TV shows, as well as in live stage productions. It was always exciting to go see her work, or to see her on a TV show. Dynasty…Dallas….Happy Texas. A sculptress as well, K. had an amazing voice that was at once classy, sexy and deep, with an infectious laugh. Therefore, she was a perfect fit for the voice over work she also did.
Over the years, K. and her husband B. (himself a famous stuntman/actor and one of the original cast of legendary TV show, “High Chaparral”) spent a lot of time with my family …. Birthdays, holidays, weddings. B. and my father were contemporaries and loved to sit, share war stories and just “shoot the shit” over cigars and beer. I have a collection of photos of us all together. K. was the big sister I never had, B. and I had birthdays 4 days apart, and while we lived very different lives, we all adored each other.
As often happens over time, we lost touch. It began when my father died in January 2000. Big Al was the glue that kept much of my family’s “togetherness” together, as it turns out. After over 40 years of marriage, Mom was never the same after his passing, and family gatherings shifted to my home or my brothers …. the “next” generation taking over the traditions as happens with many families, I suppose.
After a few more years, B. got very sick and passed away. K. herself got sick, and, well, somehow the months turned in to years and the Christmas cards stop coming.
Life – and death – happened. The last time we spoke was several years ago.
Turns out K. didn’t wish there to be any services, recluse that she had become. That makes me sad, but I respect her decision. I imagine that after a lifetime of making your living and your life around your “looks”, it would be extra difficult to face aging and illness – and to put that face in the public eye. She was so very gorgeous, too. This is how I will remember her.
So as I go through family pictures, and talk with my mom, I will hold a little heart-shaped memorial by myself, in her honor. Her passing has, once again, put the stark reality of my own mortality square in my sites. None of us gets out of here alive. Every day – every moment – is an important one, especially when you reach the age where the years left in front of you are, statistically, less than the years left behind.
Each moment is to be appreciated. The sound of the rain falling. The smell of baking cookies. The laughter of a child. These are the important things, the simple pleasures in life, that are to be valued. We are given only so many days here on earth, and in the wink of an eye – like a wisp of smoke – they are gone.
My cousin, may she rest in eternal peace and beauty, reminds me of these things. Her death compels me to make sure the people in my life know that I love them while I still have the chance. I am encouraged to follow my own dreams (because even at 60, I still have some), and – most importantly – do everything I can to make the most of what a day brings.
Because it might be my last.
(Note: I actually wrote this last Sunday the 11th. Since then, I have cried – a lot and at unexpected and private moments. Other than that, the rest remains the same.)