Remembering Cousin Nicholas
This windy and sporadically sunny day, the buoy offshore, usually visible from the window of my dining room — long lost to office work — is playing hide and seek. The ocean is choppy, the broken water aiding and abetting the game and if I did not know of the marker’s presence, I could not see it. As it is I have to go upstairs and peer out toward the horizon until I spy it, seeming to be in the wrong place, as everything has been since the hurricane and the following storm from the northeast.
One year, when my oldest cousin made his annual trip to Block Island, he told me that buoy had been painted; it was a different shade of green than it had been the year previous. He would drive around the island and come back to the house asking how this or that was changed, complaining about “yuppification.” He would also come back from a trip with a happy discovery; after a cemetery visit he commented that it was so nice that “Mr. Benson is buried with his friends.”
He said age was taking from him his greatest pleasure and solace, walking in the woods. Age and all those g.d. developers who have to have more and more, never mind what they did to the land in the process. He said his legs hurt and when I asked where he’d been, it was the North Light by way of Clay Head and back. The next day he hiked out to Black Rock, and when I asked “All the way to the shore?” he replied in his gruffest voice “of course not… to the edge of the cliff.” There was no point in reminding him he was decades away from the 20-year-old marine he once had been.
He said it would be his last trip to Block Island and I chose not to believe him.
A few weeks ago we last spoke at length and he told me he had had a wonderful life, some ups and downs, some of the downs very low, but he was not dwelling on them. He had started Brown in an engineering program, money was tight and he left after a year, enlisting. Not quite 20 years after the end of World War II, he found himself stationed in Japan. He loved it, especially the people, and I think of the time frame and wonder how a population could be so kind to the soldiers of the nation they had attacked and at whose hands they had known crushing defeat. That time remained important to him, he spoke of talking with a nurse in the hospital where the family had insisted he go, threatening to call an ambulance unless he acquiesced. He found the man was a marine as well, which eased his qualms about a male nurse.
I loved him to the ends of the earth but we did not agree on everything. One year after his visit I found a Slick Willie three-dollar bill stuck in the frame of a White House-issue photo of me shaking hands with then President Bill Clinton at the Southeast Lighthouse (the photo I had made a point of having on display). We had learned to accept and have fun with our differences.
He could never bring himself to say “global warming” but went on at length about “global weirding,” with a real fear his grandchildren were inheriting a world damaged beyond repair. He had finished college after the service, was a trained engineer, but he was also the kind of guy who read and read and knew about everything. We could not decide if Norman Borlaug’s achievements were a blessing or a curse.
My cousin and his sister lived here for two years when they were very young, and he came summers through high school, working for our uncle who had the first array of heavy machinery on the island. The details of those times never dulled for him, from the cannonball shaped lanterns “we” set out at night to warn of an open ditch, to the big tractor he drove haying Sheffield Farm. He spoke of houses painted dark green or white, boat colors, he said. That was silly, I thought, then counted them off, those dark green houses since turned white or gray or weathered cedar.
My other cousin, his sister, laughs and says “You know Nick thinks he grew up here,” and I reply “Yeah, I know.” When I relay that conversation to my own brother in Michigan, he says “Well, he did, sort of,” and I am reminded of the pull this magical isle has even on the most pragmatic of men.
He used to come the weekend before Memorial Day, unwilling to face the holiday weekend, then these last couple of years in early June on the weekend closest to our one-day-apart birthdays. Last year his daughter-in-law made quite a fuss, bringing a cake to the restaurant, mortifying him with singing he tolerated only for the sake of his glowing granddaughter.
Come February the phone will ring and for a moment I will think it is Nick, making “reservations” for a weekend in the spring. He would have shared my disappointment in a way no one else seems to over the green light fallen in to the sea.
Still, these few days before Christmas, we are able to say his passing was a good thing, he was at peace, he had convinced his children (aka “those g.d. ba*tards who kidnapped me”) to let him go home to die. Unlike so many families this year, our mourning is for a life well lived, not one cut short by mayhem. It is a terrible loss and our hearts are broken, but it is not wrong and unnatural. The grandchildren will have a holiday to share good memories instead of fearing a dreaded phone call. I hope only that the morphine sheltered Nick from the terrible news from Connecticut.