It wasn't a shock when I heard my cousin was dying. It wasn't a shock when I heard he had died.
I guess it helps, not being surprised. Really, though,I don't think I've fully accepted that my favorite cousin is gone forever.
We both had unstable childhoods, so Eli was always in and out of my life. When the turbulent waters of our lives brought us together, however briefly, we would cling to each other to stay afloat. I was 4 and he was 6.
I wish that bond could have spanned the time and distance that inevitably came between us, but it didn't.
As for me, I never swallowed those turbulent waters. I always managed to find places of refuge. Safety.
Eli internalized the storm that was his life. He became a storm. He was passed around from family member to family member, tearing a path of rage and destruction wherever he went.
But Eli had a dual personality. He had a smile that made everyone around him smile. When he laughed, he would scratch the top of his head with both hands. He had a quick and precocious humor. Even when we were kids, he could make all the adults laugh. I was 8 and he was 10.
Refusing to hide his homosexuality made him an outsider, especially in Cincinnati. I remember walking down McMillan Avenue and having guys yell at him out their car window. I could never make out what they said, but they always sounded infuriated.
Nothing daunted Eli, though. I was shy and awkward, but he was brave and indifferent. Still, beneath his cool, hard exterior bubbled a rage that could explode without warning.
For the most part, I believed Eli was happy. I was taken in by his easy charm and his beautiful smile. I think he was taken in himself.
He wanted to believe his freedom made him happy. He knew all the gay bars in Cincinnati, and he had boyfriends who gave him cars and clothes. I admired his confidence, and I took his mask of happiness at face value. I was 14 and he was 16.
When I think about it now, I get angry. He was just a kid, and he was in way over his head. Where were the adults? Where were the people who were supposed to be looking out for him?
Maybe he and I weren't as similar as I thought. Maybe I was set adrift in turbulent ocean waters and Eli was thrown to the wolves.
My biggest regret goes back to a telephone conversation I had with him years ago. He was feeling depressed and was confiding in me.
He told me that his life had gotten out of control and he didn't know what to do. He told me he wasn't sure if he was really gay or if he'd just been confused by the things that happened to him when he was little.
Even at the time, I felt the weight of that moment. I knew I needed to tell him something profound and encouraging. I don't remember what I said, but I know I didn't say much. I was 15 and he was 17.
People are alarmingly candid with me -- possibly because I do more listening than talking -- but I've always felt that I should have said more that day.
A moment like that never happened between Eli and me again. We saw each other when we could, but we hung out less and less as the years passed.
I don't know how long he had HIV before he got sick because he always refused to get tested. He said he didn't want to know.
We have a family member who's diabetic, and Eli would stop by to see her a couple times a year to ask for needles. He would say they were for someone else, but she never asked.
I'll never know how many lives she saved by giving him clean needles; I just wish she could have saved Eli's. I was 27 when Eli died at 29.
I often go back to that conversation I had with him. I should have told him to stop hurting himself, to find whatever it was that would bring him real joy, that bandaging over unclean wounds only allows them to fester.
I wish I could have found the words that would have ended his cycle of self-destruction.
I should have told him that the past is gone and being angry about things we can't change is what gives our pasts the power to keep hurting us.
Happiness might be harder to find for some people, but as long as we're alive it's never beyond our reach.
You deserved to be happy, Eli. I wish I would have told you that.
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