I grew up amid a herd of cousins, surrogate brothers and sisters who were embedded in my childhood. Operating as life scouts, they lived a few years ahead of me on the dangerous and uncharted perimeter of the adult world. One by one we all transmuted into adults with careers, families, kids, and aging parents.
In most cases, our aging parents passed on when we well on our way in middle age. With each loss, our world became more sober as the reality of being “next” in line collided with the world of sixty-something. But a new emotional tipping point in the drama of being older occurred with the unexpected death of the first cousin.
It’s not that we hadn’t experienced the loss of peers in childhood or as young adults. And then after fifty, the news of friends, friends of friends, and people we simply knew about being suddenly gone began occurring with a prophetic regularity. While it was disorienting and disturbing, it initially spared our family network of adult children. But when the first cousin of the surviving herd died at sixty-something, all that changed.
While it was a single loss, we knew it was a cautionary tale about our generational position and predicament. Despite the density of our modern lives, we could no longer afford to ignore this new vulnerability, a realization that haunted our awareness. We knew we were never going to reclaim the frequency or closeness of childhood. That was another life that had served us well, but was gone. We also know that the meaning and import of our early years now took on legacy proportions with the threatened loss of its primary players. We felt compelled to undertake a “cousin audit” of the history that defined so much of our early family life.
We spoke out loud about what meant the most to us and why. We disagreed about chronology but respected personal importance. We confessed our bias, preferences, blind spots, selective memory and the out and out rewriting of history. But most of all we saw, from the end of middle age, how complicated life was for our parents, like it or not. We didn’t gloss over the unsavory and pathological events we would have gladly avoided, but the easy assessments of “they could have done better” lost its steam. Life turned out to be hard for everyone, including us.