Billy and Jerry. My boy cousins. Closest I came to having a brother. There was our cousin Larry, but he drowned when he was fourteen in the Little Miami river, trying to save his friend. Larry didn’t know how to swim. “Just like him to jump in anyway, the fool! Show off!” Billy fumed in irrational fury while Jerry and I turned away, not wanting to witness his mourning. The rivalry between Billy and Larry was over now.
And I became the oldest. I never expected to be this old though. Seventy-nine. I never expected to outlive them all. I never even thought about it. I wanted to write about them while they were living. So they could know how much they meant to me. We never lived in the same state from the time I was six. We saw each other only in the summers my mother would go back to Ohio all the way from San Francisco to help her sister Mildred take care of Grandma and Grandpa.
No, I didn’t expect them all to be gone when I finally got around to writing about them. Jerry would have wanted to read what I wrote. I think he read all three of my published novels. Billy never read anything. He’d complain to me, “Why do you keep reading books? You already know how to read.”
No, I didn’t mean to wait this long, with my eyesight failing badly now, when I can hardly see what I’m writing.
You died, Jerry. Two days ago. As your son Solomon said when he telephoned, “I feel so alone.”
So do I. It is just very empty, a world without you. Even though it’s been almost thirty-seven years since I saw you, since we went out to the pond together and were still young.
That isn’t possible. Unless there isn’t time as we think we know it. Unless it is all happening now. All the pain, all the joy, all that lies in-between. Einstein! You started us thinking! Imagining. Crazy things!
It was cancer, so not unexpected. I, anyway, expected it, having lost a daughter and my sister to that same killer. But Jerry always said “I’m fine” when I asked him how he felt. He never complained, about anything. “It’s all part of life,” he said once. He and the kids were so happy when his wife Linda was allowed to come home from the mental hospital. It must have been when Jerry retired from working at a series of minimum wage jobs and took social security, then he’d have been home to take care of her. The small family group that depended on him and he himself seemed not to grasp that it was very likely a death sentence when he got the diagnosis of stage four lymphoma. Was their faith that strong? He trusted the chemo treatments, the radiation, the doctor, whom he liked, to cure it.
He was the cook for all of them at home. One of my last phone conversations with him was after he’d fallen and the family found he was too big, too heavy, for any (or all) of them to lift, so they had to call the ambulance and he was kept in hospital a couple of days. This happened several times, and after a matter of days he’d always been allowed to come home. I asked him about the strange sizzling sounds I heard coming over the wire.”Me, I guess,” he answered. “I’m fryin chicken.”
That’s somehow a comforting memory to have, Jerry standing at the stove frying chicken. Except he’s not there to do it anymore.