My cousin William died yesterday, most likely of an opportunistic pneumonia in the wake of treatment for leukemia. William was a truly decent human being. His staunch Republicanism often vexed the liberal wing of the Karp family, but all the while we understood that it was born of his intense belief in self-reliance and personal responsibility, not the nasty, vituperative scolding that many of that party's marquee players exhibit these days. He believed in absolute rights and wrongs and lived by them. He served in the Marines and then became an FBI agent, always working to preserve the safety and civility of our lives. He embodied what was undeniably good and right about military and civil service so completely that it almost became self-parody. He joined the family by marrying my mother's cousin, who had struggled earlier in life but seemed to have found exactly what she needed and wanted in him. Together, they raised a daughter who has become one of those preternaturally good kids that news magazines occasionally do cover packages about, talking about "the future ruling class" (that was Atlantic Monthly, I believe) or worrying about whether parents are putting too much pressure on their little wunderkinder. I don't know if William and Bebe put too much pressure on Hannah - I'm willing to bet that she just saw their example and holds a deep-seated belief in the virtue of being your best and honing your talents to perfection - not as a means of making others seem small, mind you, but because the world benefits when people do things well.
I wasn't really close with William. We weren't distant, and I was certainly fond of him, but his super-Marine demeanor sometimes made it hard to have conversations with him. He tried, though - he was constantly making ridiculously corny jokes as a means of communicating across our differences, and one in particular has stayed with me all the years since the Marine told it to the awkward, nerdy young adolescent during our family's yearly trip to the beach. How many pancakes does it take to cover the top of a doghouse? 21, because ice cream doesn't have bones. He got that from somewhere, and it changed a bit between him hearing it and retelling it to me, but I like his version better.
I found out about it from Mike, who I haven't talked to in forever. Usually, when I see that a call is coming from him, I don't take it, rationalizing that I'll call him back later. I never do. For some reason, maybe it was the great weather, maybe it was listening to The Clash version of "Pressure Drop," it seemed right to answer. I was really jovial, trying my best to make small talk, when he interrupted me and said "I've got bad news." I was instantly terrified. Elliott had called yesterday while I was sleeping, and I'd figured I'd call her back, but the sudden realization that she was almost certainly calling because of the bad news made me recognize that some form of bad news was headed my way from my two siblings. I was terrified. I hate to say that I was relieved to hear that it was William who had died. He was sick - it had always been a possibility - I wasn't that close to him - all that mattered was it wasn't Mom or Dad.
In writing this now, it's starting to sink in. I haven't dealt with death much. That's one of the benefits of having a very small family - not a lot of chances to mourn. In all but one case (now two), the deaths of my relatives had come long after their mental faculties had failed, making the end of their physical lives seem almost like a blessing. Not so with William. He was young - in his mid-50s. His daughter will be graduating high school before long. No doubt they've already talked quite a bit about colleges and plans for the future, always with him in them, proud at each graduation, guiding her through the pitfalls and vexing new experiences of life in the real world, eventually bringing that authoritative Marine gaze to rest upon terrified boyfriends and an eventual husband-to-be. Certainly he and Bebe must have talked about retirement, looking to my parents as an example, thinking about the time they'd spend together, the traveling they'd do. Now those plans are all changed, deeply and tragically. The graduations will be bittersweet. The travel will be that much quieter. We'll have Thanksgivings together where his absence is palpable, where his handyman skills aren't there to fix the myriad tiny annoyances accumulated since his last visit, where he and my father won't watch the ball game, where he won't say "Bilbo Bobbins" (he always got it wrong) to me, just because he liked the sound of it and it seemed like a bridge between our worlds, even though it's been years since I read "The Hobbit." It seems so strange to be sitting here thinking "He's gone - death means gone" at my age, but as I said, I don't have much experience with it. Just enough to know that I hate it, regardless of how everything is impermanent and it's a natural part of life and all that. I can't accept that our lives, in all of their intricate and impossible and hilarious beauty, are sand mandalas, that some day each and every one of us will have to be swept into the water to remind those left behind that all is temporary and fleeting. Yes, we're all floating in space. That doesn't mean I have to like it.
Wherever you are now, William T'Kindt, you are missed.