Life gets ugly, we know that, it’s right as rain and true as glue and clear as mud; there’s perhaps nothing more self-evident and trite, or truer and opaque. Maybe that’s the ugliest thing about it. Ugliness’s inevitability, and its murk.
But there are always degrees, and—more importantly and interestingly—always the matter of recovery, which can be the most beautiful, most essential thing in the world. Maybe recovery appeals because it is survival, or seems to relate to it—not just base animalistic persistence, but survival in a more creative sense, a more willful sense, freer and more constitutive than mere continuance. Recovery is survival at a more sophisticated level, how about that, and at the moment it strikes me as the basis of change and also, in a way, art.
Because an experience is had and recognized as such and learned from, or insight is gleaned, or some manner of acknowledgement takes place, and a different path is taken or a current path remade or a thought or sensibility or vision expressed, adjusted, or entertained. Preparations are made, if only in the rearrangement of mental furniture, for some imagined alternative, whether in terms of eventual actuality or perception or representation. There is something revolutionary in that, on a scale broad as nations and specific as single lives, even single moments. The combined powers of will and understanding bring reflection and action together, though not causally, I don’t think, but more dialectically, reciprocally, even cyclically. And in that way life is all—or largely—about recovery, and art too: life is about art and art is about life and recovery, that is, even at its most destructive.
Up until the last. Death is the end of recovery, the end of the vital, cyclical relationship between reflection and action—it draws the curtain on second chances and next times. There is nothing left to fix or improve or change or do differently or try or see, nothing left to understand or will. We do not recover from death; there are no more chances, nothing left to hope for, no remaining possibilities. We might like to believe there’s something else waiting on the other side, a last big recovery-hurrah landing us in that “better place” we’ve made so much of for so long. But that’s just a way of coping with finality, ultimately, unless by “better place” we mean non-existence (or the relegation of existence to the memories of the living), which is another existentialism altogether.
I am writing and rambling on about this now and in this introductory fashion because I’ve read too much Poe and because of my cousin. And this is where the ugliness comes in. Not so much the ugliness of death and its stamp of impossibility and finitude, but the ugliness of its timing and abruptness, in her case. It’s one thing to live, say, eighty-, ninety-odd years and then pass away, even if the final years are tough, or even if the final moment is sudden or dramatic. It’s quite another to be found dead at home by your son, lying unresponsive in bed on a Friday in mid-July at thirty-nine, just about two weeks from forty. She wasn’t done, couldn’t have been.
But there’s more to it than that. The saddest part of my cousin’s death, to me, now two days and still about 2,000 miles and innumerable life-details removed (I haven’t seen her in over a decade), is that she didn’t have the chance to recover, not fully. And she was just starting to, from what I understand, and that might be even worse.
It’s difficult to comprehend. The girl I knew in childhood, on those visits to the grandparents usually, or to my aunt and uncle’s on the other coast, the girl who I’ve always remembered as kind and sweet and older than me and my other cousin—her sister—by just enough to be out of play range; who went on to have a child at nineteen(ish); who married and later divorced a joke of a man I met once, briefly, and remember feeling was beneath her, beneath just about anyone; who wound up with an even bigger and completely unfunny, abusive joke of a man; who left that man and came back I don’t know how many times before finally having a restraining order issued against him and yet still did not cease contacting; who maybe drank a little too much (don’t we all?); who had high, much higher than normal high blood pressure—that girl is gone, her chances gone, her recovery over before it really got legs, if it was ever going to get them. The woman that girl became has left behind a son, as I mentioned, and some memories, more for some of us than others. That’s all, or all as I know and remember it.
My trouble with all this, the little that it is, is very probably tied to the fact that the time when I really knew her was a more or less innocent one, not without its problems and complexities, of course, but also not without hope, a great and ubiquitous kid-hope for futures we couldn’t even comprehend and had very little need to because it was there, everywhere, part of kid-dom. There was time, and it would tell. Well it has, and now that her time is already up, it has told all it ever will.
We were not terribly close, this cousin and I, if you haven’t gathered this from what I’ve said already, but we cared for each other in that satellite way that relations who’ve shared some people and past will care. We grew up on opposite sides of the country, took very different paths in life, some by choice, some accidental (or perhaps incidental), and wondered about each other from time to time, hoping for the best. I assume this on her part, and feel safe in doing so, mainly because it seems logical and because I know she was a kindhearted person—wondering and hoping for the best are typically things kindhearted people do.
She would wish me happy birthday, I’d forget hers, and we’d generally hear rough outlines about each other’s lives because of and/or through the great, reliable grapevine that is my mother, who, among her many wonderful motherly qualities, manages to keep her rather outlying son in the familial loop by simply being in touch where he is not. I’m not sure if she knows how much I appreciate this, or, rather, appreciate that she does this without remonstrance or judgment or extra effort, but I do. She knows how I am, where I am, that I’m typically in the background or on the fringes but that I, too, wonder and hope for the best.
So, considering the distances and differences between us, this cousin and I, it’s easy for me to oversimplify in regards to her and her untimely death, as I have not been present in her life, nor she in mine, for quite some time, and even then our last meeting was only a brief visit, I think a single afternoon-evening-night-morning. I feel the loss nevertheless, and also a marked kind of intravenous sadness over thoughts of her life’s summary and the final hashmark on her timeline, both its placement and attendant explanation, whatever it turns out to be, and whoever it might involve (I did hear that the crazy, order-restrained ex-boyfriend was with her the night before and day of…).
All thought and memory of that life, in other words, largely plain and sometimes sad as it was—or as far as I knew it to be—will from this point forward be circumscribed by the timing and circumstances of her death, the details of which are still at this point cloudy, even for those closer to her than I. Was there foul play? Who knows. Was it suicide? No, she wouldn’t have done that. Her blood pressure, though, so maybe a stroke? At thirty-nine? The fact that these scenarios sit atop the list of her last remaining possibilities makes the whole thing that much sadder, and sadder still that the mourners, especially her son, are left for the moment to wonder. But her book is closed regardless; there will be no recovery, and the only remaining hope is for an explanation of how, then maybe why.
Maybe my vantage point on all this is clearer and simpler because I don’t have to sort through the minutiae of her life; I am ignorant of most of it and all I see are a few main points, because that’s all I really know, beyond the girl I remember. Considering those points and remembering that girl, however, I find myself wanting something better for my cousin, a better life with better main points, especially now that she can no longer have it or them. Maybe this is selfish of me, maybe she was happy in a way I knew nothing of, but I don’t think so, I honestly don’t, and I wish I’d had a chance to talk to her about it, all of it. I’d gladly relinquish this broad-stroke summary for any number of full-detailed uglinesses if it meant she still had a chance to recover.