Trigger Warnings: This post deals with family death, mental illness, misogyny, and racism.
It’s been nearly two months now. I woke up to a phone call from my mother. At first it seemed normal, and as I’m about to scold my mother for waking me she says something that hits me in my stomach.
“They found your cousin dead this morning.”
Her steady voice suddenly crumbles as she burst into tears and all I could manage was, “What? Are you sure? Okay. Okay. Yeah. Okay. Bye.”
We hung up and I sat beside my partner’s sleeping body. I was still, unmoving. And then I breathed. Tears and sobs burst from my chest with such force, I couldn’t talk, breathe, think. None of it could possibly be real.
I hadn’t seen my cousin in a long time. Years had gone by. The last time I could remember him was seeing him in passing at his mother’s house. He still lived there then. I think I had been with my first boyfriend after a Wonderland trip. He smiled, saying hello, as he went back to his room.
Then he was just rumours.
I never really fit into my family. I guess I was always just a little bit different. I can always remember seeing my family as though there was a barrier around me. I stopped trying to be close after a while.
My cousin ended up moving out of his mother’s house soon after. His girlfriend at the time got pregnant. There was whispers that he had started selling drugs.
I drifted further away from the family, and it never occurred to me to check in again.
So how could I grieve so hard for someone that was already missing from my life for so long? Why has my life stood still since I got that phone? Since I saw him lying in a casket in a funeral home? Why did I disappear into it?
When I was six years old, my father tried to take off my training wheels. It ended with a scraped knee and a vow that I was never going to ride a bike again. My cousin was only a year older than me. He had already learned to ride a bike and he didn’t want me to miss out. Despite all my protests that I would never get on a bike again, I found myself back on my bike with him holding it steady.
“I won’t let go until you’re ready,” he promised.
And he ran alongside me, holding my seat steady as I pedalled down the street. I was riding and laughing, and when I looked behind me, he was grinning, still running beside me. But he wasn’t holding the bike. And I was riding.
That was the kind of person my cousin was. He was someone with a good heart; he wanted the best for everyone around him. He didn’t think anyone should miss out.
But life wasn’t as kind to him.
I was too young to understand the differences between how I lived and how he did. I grew up in houses, I never shared a room, I lived in a suburb. He grew up in an apartment until our grandmother bought a house together with his mom.
My father, as distant as he was, worked for most of my life. He had a steady paycheck. And as far as I know, he never actually cheated on my mom. The hardest drug I’ve ever caught him with was pot.
His dad was a DJ. I used to think that was cool, I used to wish my dad was someone interesting too. But I didn’t really know his dad. And one day he disappeared with a twenty-five year old, leaving my cousin and his two younger siblings behind. I wouldn’t see or hear about him again until my cousin’s wake.
We used to be close. For a long time I felt closer to my mom’s family than my father’s. With my father’s family there was always a pressure to impress. I don’t remember those pretenses with my cousins on my mother’s side.
I do remember sleepovers. I remember wrestling on the blow-up mattress. I remember how my cousin could raise one eyebrow like the Rock and how he’d love to demand, “Can you smell… what the Rock… IS COOKING?!”
I remember him showing me K-OS and hip hop and how I wore his hand-me-downs when I was seven. I remember wearing his baggy pants and thinking I looked so cool.
I remember watching the Spawn movie at way too early an age.
I remember him teaching me how to draw Dragonball Z eyes.
I remember how when my brother didn’t want to hang out with his annoying little sister, he would still let me tag along anyways.
I remember how much he loved Space Jam and how much he loved the song “I Believe I Can Fly.”
I blame two things for why we stopped being close: sexism and racism.
The only other girl cousin on my mother’s side was over ten years older than me. Still, my mother was a firm believer that boys were supposed to play with boys and girls were supposed to play with girls. Little did my mother know, I’m not quite a girl.
So during our many sleepovers and gatherings, I was always pulled out of the room eventually. “You don’t want to hang out with a bunch of boys,” my mother would insist. I was fairly certain that I did. I would then sit around as my mother would gossip with my aunts and my older cousin. They would talk about makeup and clothes. And I would hate every minute of it.
Eventually I stopped volunteering to go to my cousin’s. I was tired of my brother trying to keep me out, and my mother trying to turn me into a girl. I wanted to roughhouse and watch animes and play video games with the boys.
As we got older, my brother grew closer and I grew further. I grew resentful.
I also grew up in a very white dominated area. Growing up in Pickering in the early 2000s wasn’t that much fun for a brown kid. The less connection I had to my cousins, the more I tried to relate to the kids around me.
At first, I think I actually made friends with most of the people of colour in my class. My first three years of elementary school, my best friends were either of South Asian or Caribbean descent. But an older brother of one of them beat up my brother, others moved or changed schools.
Without a strong connection to my cousins and the number of my friends began to dwindle again, I began trying to relate to more of the kids in my school. Combined with the clear anti-blackness that my family perpetuated, and lack of representation of pretty much anyone other than white straight people, I found myself vying for the attention of my white classmates.
From the fourth grade, for pretty much the rest of public school, I was no longer a fan of hip hop. I liked songs “that were actually about something” not just “about girls and money” (wait what is classic rock about again?). It helped that the kinds of white kids I was around liked anime and fantasy too.
Now I had an excuse to not want to hang out with my cousins. We weren’t the same anymore. I didn’t listen to hip-hop,I liked rock and punk (okay, I liked Avril Lavigne, but the rock and punk came later). I didn’t like Dragonball Z, I liked Cardcaptors and Inu Yasha (big difference, eh?). I didn’t play video games, I read books.
I just wasn’t like them anymore.
The hardest part of losing my cousin has been realizing how wrong I was. We weren’t different. I knew that he was a victim of circumstance. The world told him he only had one life to offer.
Days before I got the news, I started to listen to K-OS again on Spotify. I had been listening to Drake and Angel Haze and J.Cole and the Weeknd. I started to think to myself I wanted to get into the Toronto hip-hop scene. I remember thinking of him as I listened, telling myself, I should reach out.
For a long time I knew my cousin was in a dark place. I knew he knew I was in a dark place. A vague memory lingers in my head of him letting me know that I could talk to him if I wanted. I never did.
It’s been nearly two months since my cousin died. I missed the funeral. When I was supposed to be picked up, I found myself in a pile on the floor, sobbing. I had started crying as I put my eyeliner on, turning the gel into goo. I tried to wipe a tear away and it smeared underneath my lid. I lost control as I tried to scrub the smudge away, but it just looked like I had a black eye.
I called my mother, barely able to breathe between sobs.
“So what, you’re not coming? You don’t even care about him anyways. What did your boyfriend do now?”
I turned my phone off, crawled back into bed, and spent the rest of the day alternating between sleeping and crying.
The day before I had sat in the viewing hall. I was holding back tears as I sat in a crowd of semi-familiar faces and strangers. When I walked up to the casket, it was the first time I saw him as an adult. And it wasn’t even him. “I Believe I Can Fly” played in the background.
My mother sat down beside, placed a hand on my knee, and then asked my brother if he was okay. “You were close to him. Was he happy?”
She’s still never asked me if I was okay.
Before I left, my grandmother grabbed my hand and looked me in the eye. “Please visit me more.” Before this, I had never seen this woman be soft. The women in our family were forced to be strong and hard.
The last two months have passed in a blur. Entire weeks have gone by where the furthest I have travelled is to my couch. I sleep half the day away. I have cancelled more plans than I have made. Everything I do seems pointless. It’s empty. It won’t change anything. I can’t change the systems that put us here today. How can I even try?
I am outside this family. I still live on the edges. I don’t know how to connect to them anymore. I have spent so long building barriers.
I can’t show them I’m queer. I can’t show them I’m genderfluid. I can’t show them who I am.
The one person I was almost ready to show is gone now. And I’ll never get that chance back. And I don’t know how to not miss this chance again with the family that I have left. Now I don’t know how to move on from all these missed chances. I don’t know how to forgive myself for not trying harder.
It’s been nearly two months, but I will never have those years back, past or future.