Sunday, January 23, 2011

Saying Good-bye to Childhood

Whenever I look back on my childhood, I see Gary. Gary was my favorite cousin. I suppose I liked him best because whenever we got together, we had more than a few good laughs.This usually occurred at the expense of the oblivious adults around us.

Be it weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals—we stuck together and entertained ourselves by mercilessly critiquing our eccentric relatives from the Old Country. Our mutual pact of sarcasm followed us through high school and beyond.

As is often the case with childhood chums, we lost touch with each other after college. I was pursuing a writing career in New Jersey; he became a lawyer in Manhattan. It took an unhappy event for us to turn our attention to each other again.

My parents told me he was in a hospital in New York.

I called him there and he explained that one morning while he was shaving, the blade skimmed over a bump on his neck. He didn’t think anything of it until he realized that he couldn’t stop it from bleeding. He was rushed to the emergency room. After a few days of testing, they told him he had lymph-node cancer and he underwent radiation treatments.

I was very pregnant at the time, so I couldn’t get into New York to visit him. I felt awkward talking with Gary on the phone about something so serious. All the while we spoke, I kept thinking, “Why him?” Just as I might have expected, in the midst of this nightmare, he continued to display his same charming, razor-sharp wit.

After the baby was born, I heard through the Relatives Grapevine that the treatments had been effective and Gary would likely be fine. Busy with two pre-school children, I allowed him to slip out of my life again. He was a lawyer helping the downtrodden in New York; I was knee-deep in diapers and Sesame Street plot lines.

Then, several years later, in mid-1990, I found out that he was back in the hospital again. The cancer had recurred. I couldn’t believe it.

How could this be happening to someone whose life should just be taking off? I thought about the times we shared at his grandmother’s house in Boonton: running around the yard, hiding in the root cellar, sitting in the kitchen watching the old women stir their huge pots of food on the stove. Weren’t we supposed to grow old and sit together at those same family gatherings, exchanging barbs about our neurotic clan?

A few months later, a relative slipped and accidentally mentioned that Gary’s latest medication, AZT, wasn’t working anymore. My heart sank.

AIDS. Gary had AIDS.

His immediate family must have carried that painful secret for years. Why? Yes, there were those in the family who might have rejected him. But there were also those of us who would have lent support and love. That sharing was denied us—and Gary.

By now, my cousin was lying on his deathbed in a hospital in New York. I had to talk to him. He was very weak and could hardly speak, but his sense of humor still glimmered through. I told him that I loved him—we all loved him—and that I just wanted him to know that. He thanked me. That was the last time we spoke.

When my father called to say Gary had passed away, I gasped. Funny how even when you know someone’s going to die, it still shocks you when it happens. Maybe hearing someone say it is what makes it so.

He was buried quickly as is the custom in the Jewish religion. Where and when I don’t know. I would have liked to have attended the funeral, but it was for immediate family only. To my knowledge, there will be no traditional unveiling at the gravesite either. Perhaps his family’s pain is too great—even after a year. There were those who said he “brought it on” himself. I wonder how many would say that of a patient with heart disease or lung cancer—other conditions often related to lifestyle.

Almost a year has passed and the reality has begun to sink in. Gary is gone. When our families get together again, there will be no co-conspirator with whom to sit and observe the idiosyncrasies of our Hungarian kin. No one with whom to laugh or share our unique personal history.

Perhaps at the next wedding, when I look away from the dance floor, a trick of the light will make me see him out of the corner of my eye—lurking gleefully in the shadows against the wall. He’ll be standing there, as always, casually observing us with those dark, twinkling eyes, mischievous smirk and ready wit. Then he’ll nod to me and we’ll share a knowing smile over all the good times we shared during our 36 years as cousins. There’ll be a lump in my throat as his image slowly disappears. Those years were special. He was special.

Postscript: Gary’s family finally did have the unveiling at his grave and the extended family was invited. A handful of us attended. This is a reprint of an Op/Ed piece originally published in the Daily Record in late 1991. Since 20 years have passed, it seemed fitting to remember him once more. Gary Reiner, esq.: October 10, 1954 - January 15, 1991, beloved cousin and khokhem.

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