A few weeks ago, my family gathered at my parents’ house to celebrate my little sister’s high school graduation. At some point in the evening, my Aunt Barbara suggested taking a cousins picture with all the kids who were there from my mom’s side of the family. It had been a long time since I had been around for one of those photos, and I smiled when I saw it on Facebook the next day. But I couldn’t help thinking about one person who wasn’t there for the picture–my cousin Danny, who died two years ago today.
It still seems impossible that he’ll never again line up with the rest of us for those family photos. He should be there cracking us up with impressions of our grandmother’s heavy New York accent or making jokes while we smile awkwardly for five different cameras while all the moms snap their pictures.
He should be telling stories punctuated by his trademark laugh or playing his guitar. He was only 30 when he died, younger than I am now. He should still be here, happy and healthy. He shouldn’t be dead.
I hadn’t seen Danny for several years before he died, but I have vivid memories of him, especially from when we were little. I could be a real pain in the ass during my preteen years, and Danny never missed an opportunity to tell me when I was being snotty or pretentious.
But I looked up to him, and I always wanted him to think I was cool. He had played in bands for as long as I can remember, touring as a musician before I was even allowed to go the mall without a parent. He introduced me to Green Day and Blink-182 and local bands like The Youth Ahead. Danny was cool, and I always felt a little bit edgier because he was my cousin.
We didn’t see each other often as we got older, and we only talked a few times in the year or so before he died. I knew Danny was struggling with the heroin addiction that ultimately took his life. In one message, I told him that I admired him for going to rehab and that I thought he was brave for rising above his demons. I wish so much that I had gotten to see him one more time before he died, but I’m thankful that I at least got to tell him that. Danny was brave, and it kills me that he didn’t get to fight another day.
Now that he’s gone, I find myself thinking about him often. Occasionally he’ll appear in my dreams, and I wake up crying because even in the dream, I know it's fleeting. But for a second, I get to see him again. And I think about how to learn from him and how to honor his life in my own.
The only thing I come away with is to be grateful for the people in my life and to tell them what they mean to me. Not because it’s trendy or because it sounds nice or makes a good Instagram hashtag (which I’m sure Danny would have hated). But because I have to think that Danny would have done anything to have one more day. One more hug from his mother. One more beer with his dad. One more laugh over an inside joke with his sister. One more hangout with his friends. One more tour. One more chance.
Life is short, and precious. Danny’s ended far too soon, and he left behind countless people who would also give anything for one more laugh, one more hug, one more second with him. In every Facebook post people write to him, they all say the same things: “You’re gone too soon.” “I wish we had more time together.” “I miss you.” In the end, no amount of time is ever enough with the people we love.
My mom recently told me that she credits my boyfriend, Heath, with bringing me home after four and a half years of living abroad. In truth, it was a mutual decision to come back to the States for awhile. But Danny had a hand in it, too.
On the morning of his funeral in July 2014, it was already nighttime in Thailand. Since I couldn’t come back for the service, I wanted to do something to honor him from Chiang Mai, where I was living at the time. Heath and I walked along the moat that encircles Chiang Mai’s Old City, and I told him that Danny’s death had woken me out of complacency.
For months, I had been drifting, unsure of what was next in my life and not doing much to figure it out. When Danny died, I understood viscerally that tomorrow is not guaranteed. The time to act, to tell people you love them, to let go of petty shit, to do anything, is now. The thought played like a drumbeat in my mind. Tomorrow is not guaranteed.
Heath and I walked down to Moonmuang Soi 9, a little side street where I used to rent a room and where I had made some of my happiest memories. We lit a lantern and sent it heavenward in Danny’s honor. I hoped he had experienced some lightness at the end, that the burdens he carried had finally been lifted away. When the lantern disappeared, we stood there and I cried in Heath’s arms. Two months later, we arrived back in the States.
You’ll never know it, but that realization was your gift to me, Danny. You taught me that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed and that the only thing that matters–the only thing that really matters–is the people you love in the here and now. I’ll forever be grateful for that and for the privilege of having you as my cousin.
You are, like everyone says, gone too soon. But your memory lives on in the hearts of everyone who loved you–and trust me, there are many. Sometimes I wonder if you knew how many people cared about you, how many lives you touched, and how many people were in your corner. I really hope you did.