There’s a sick dichotomy between Sept. 2, 2021 being my 19th birthday and Sept. 2, 2021 being the day my 20-year-old cousin, Thomas, was diagnosed with leukemia.
There is also something nauseating about my use of the word “sick” when that is exactly what he is — trapped in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy when just weeks ago everything was perfectly normal, save for his toothache with an unknown cause. He is also, at present, nauseous, so I suppose I shouldn’t have used that word either.
I am lucky. I have never experienced true loss. My first experience with death occurred when I was 5 years old, when my dog died and I point-blank asked my mother if I could see his skull. The only wakes I’ve attended have been for distant relatives — the service delivered entirely in Korean for my father’s uncle and the wake for my mother’s great aunt, a charming woman who was old enough when she passed that the event was sad but peaceful, rather than utterly heartbreaking.
Now, the potential for an incredible, human loss is staring me in the face. Thomas, his two siblings and my sister and I all look a great deal alike. As cousins, we’ve always said that it would be easy to rearrange who was genetically siblings. My sister and Aidan are practically twins; Ella looks like them as well. Thomas and I share many of the same features.
I don’t have a brother — and I have no right to claim Thomas as the closest thing I have to one. His family once lived in Connecticut, not too far from my home on Long Island, but they moved to California when I was 6 years old.
At first they visited annually, then less and less as the years passed. We were close from when we were babies until maybe ages 14 and 15. We didn’t speak much at all over the course of the last four years, and that is something I cannot take back and cannot change. We are not in touch anymore, but over the summer, when the “Cali Kyes” visited us New York Kyes for a carefree week in June, something started to snap back to how it was when we were children.
Thomas and I shared a room at our grandparents’ house for a week. And it was not the room in their old house on the beach that we shared five years ago, watching stupid YouTube series like “Llamas with Hats,” and there was no contemplating sneaking out the window of that room (we never did, I swear) to traipse down to the beach under the cover of night. And everything was different, but in some ways I suppose it was like old times.
No, this year was filled with him working on his summer class and us only sharing a room because the futon in the other room was just a little too uncomfortable for anything more than a nap. This year was filled with “adult” conversations about politics and college and how he met his girlfriend by chance through his awkward roommate and how I got my heart broken.
Whatever happened in June feels like a lifetime ago. And it’s sort of funny because when my father told me he had bad news, I assumed that a decline in health was in the cards for someone — my mother’s horse was terminally ill, my grandfather had just had surgery — but all that came to mind when he told me that Thomas was diagnosed with leukemia was confusion.
And now my father is telling me to call Thomas and wish him well as he sits in the hospital for inpatient chemotherapy, but I have nothing to say to him that cannot be summed up in a cursory text message.
We are not the children we were, and we are not yet the adults that we deserve the chance to be.
We are not as close as we were, but for a week this summer I saw the closeness we once had in flashes, flashes as bright and fleeting as the fireworks my cousins and I used to watch together at the old house in Asharoken.
And I do not plan on letting those flashes go.
Madelyn Kye is a sophomore from Long Island, N.Y. majoring in Writing Seminars and International Studies.