That time I grieved for my cousin
Content warning: death and addiction
Keeping in the difficult stories
A family emergency drew me home this weekend. That’s the nice way to say it. The Emily Post way to say it. The let-me-still-figure-out-how-make-this-instagramable way to say it.
My sweet, but AWOL and recently estranged first cousin was found dead on a couch in the “office” of his deadbeat brother at 3.30am in the morning. Cause of death? Overdose, likely, thinks the Police Department. Natural causes, says his brother. The truth? No one will know for months, if at all.
Trying to relieve my uncle and cousin, I asked what I could do. My assigned task: write an obituary. So sitting in traffic in the armpit of America, I started to draft my cousin’s obituary.
Bradley, 38, died yesterday.
No, passed away.
Do I say he overdosed?
No that’s too personal.
But it is most likely the most factual.
Would being honest help others? Or help his family?
Cheese and rice, this is only the first sentence.
Daunted by this first sentence, I googled “how to write an obituary when someone overdoses.” Turns out, unfortunately, in this opioid epidemic, such a question is not uncommon. While most advice tends toward leaving out such details, one mother’s obituary of her son made headlines for its frankness. Her darling boy was sweet but ungrounded. He wanted to be rich, but he fell in with the wrong crowd, where heroin got ahold of him and took his life.
When we talk about stories of resistance, I think often of those who subvert the patriarchy, who fight economic oppression, who challenge authority. Heroic and tragic.
But sometimes I think, a story of resistance is just telling an awful story like it is. Resisting an urge to purify, to neuter, to make sense.
As I’ve been sitting in my Gender and Sexuality in the Hebrew Bible course I’ve been wondering, why would the authors keep the worst shit of their lives—rape, incest, murder—in their holy books? If they had had social media instead of oral media, would we have gotten a different picture? Or, if we did our Instagram like they did their stories, would we have a little less loneliness and depression (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.?
The stories we’ve read of the matriarchs, patriarchs—the “archs”—give snippets of the arc of life. And that arc, it seems, is often messy, messed up, and upside-down. Through the stories of Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah and Bilhah and Zilpah, Jacob and Esau—I’ve come to see that clear binaries of oppressor/oppressed, victim/perpetrator, good/bad, and the like, are just not so rigid.
Reading these stories through a feminist and gender studies lens has demanded I ask, “Whose voice is missing? What social structure is being centered? What is really being said?” This makes turning to stories like Dinah’s in Genesis and Tamar’s in 2 Samuel so gut wrenching. To see the stories for what they are, I have to turn into the painful account and not shy away as so many translators do.
Yet in reading both Tivka Frymer-Kensky’s (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. and Alison Joseph’s (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. account of Dinah’s story, I found an even more painful reality: sometimes we just really don’t know what to make of it, even after looking at all the angles. Did Dinah “go out awhoring” or was she ‘raped’ (even if consent didn’t really exist)? Is it really just about male authority? What does her silence represent? I learn that after turning over every permutation of the meaning of lāqaḥ, “to take,” there’s still room to debate what’s meant by the verb. And that’s just one word.
And all of this questioning leads to me a different question: what happens when I have to write people’s stories? Whose voice did I lift up and whose did I forget? What social structure did I prop up? What did regime did I hope to resist?
This rattled in my head before, and after, I wrote my cousin’s whole obituary.
I talked about his smile. His sweetness. His gentleness.
I talked about his battles. His addiction. His awol-ness.
I talked about how much we loved him before he went missing; how much we hurt when he was missing; how much we miss him now.
I didn’t know what to say. His sister and father kept it all in. They published it.
But his brother, drug dealing one, will now come after me at the funeral for including all that because to him I reduced Bradley to an addict. Even though he likely dealt the drugs, I dealt a sliver of truth—there is never a whole truth—and implicated him. But while I can maybe stomach whatever literal or metaphorical punches my eldest cousin might throw, I can’t stomach thinking I accidentally silenced my cousin. And as I sit here reading about all these women, whose stories were written by men, I wonder if I did the same.
I don’t what we say about life when it’s messy. I really don’t. I don’t pretend the biblical authors meant to be exemplars of “how to write an obit for your kinda deadbeat family.” But in turning into the sheer horror of these texts, I have found inspiration in these stories, of at least, not shying away from the mess. And that’s all I have to go on right now.