What My Cousin’s Death Taught Me About Life
It was a day like any other. I was getting ready for work, and as I brushed my hair something caught the light and glinted back at me in the mirror. That’s when I saw it—my first gray air. Only, it wasn’t just a strand of gray that I could easily pluck and go about my business, it was an entire patch of gray just north of my right ear. Apparently I inherited my mother’s gene because she went gray in her thirties, unlike my father who is just shy of 70 and still has far more pepper than salt. Lucky me! My first reaction was disbelief. I have always had a baby face, and people generally think I’m much younger than I am. This patch of gray hair was the first physical sign that I am growing older, not to say that 30 is old by any standard. Instead of going through some sort of midlife crisis, I quickly recovered from my disbelief, smiled to myself, and went about my day. You see, I learned a lesson when I was young to appreciate every year of my life. I consider growing older a privilege rather than a burden, and I have my cousin, Cheri, to thank for that.
Cheri didn’t get the privilege of seeing her 31st year of life. She was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and she lost her battle almost twenty years ago. You know how they say bad things happen to good people? Cheri wasn’t just good – she was the best. She had a light inside of her, and she was an absolute joy to be around. Even though I was only eleven when she passed away, I have very fond memories of my sweet cousin. After she was diagnosed, she started collecting angels, and her house was soon covered in angel figurines that helped bring her comfort during her sickest moments. To this day, any time I see an angel I think of Cheri.
At one point, Cheri was hospitalized to have stents put into her veins. When my mom visited her, they had a conversation that I would hear my mother relay time and time again to anyone who complained about their birthday or getting older.
Cheri: “Aunt Lex, you have a birthday coming up soon, right?”
My mother: “I’ve decided I’m not going to celebrate my birthday anymore. I’m happy to just be 45 forever.”
Cheri: “Well, I’ll take all the birthdays you don’t want.”
Those simple words rocked my mom to the core. Here Cheri was fighting for her life, and my mom said something that made her sound ungrateful for turning another year older. Those words helped put everything into perspective – we should not dread our birthdays because the coming year may bring more gray hairs and deepen the wrinkles around our eyes, we should celebrate our birthdays because it means that we had the honor of experiencing another milestone in our fragile lives.
When I was eleven years old, I stood in a church full of my grieving family and sang “Angels Among Us” at my cousin’s funeral. The song was appropriate not just because of Cheri’s obsession with angels, but because the words to the refrain described the way Cheri’s angelic nature touched us all.
Oh I believe there are angels among us
Sent down to us from somewhere up above
They come to you and me in our darkest hours
To show us how to live, to teach us how to give
To guide us with the light of love.
Cheri was the angel among all of us, and she certainly showed us how to live by teaching us a valuable lesson: to celebrate every year of our precious lives.
As I near my 31st birthday, I will think about my cousin and feel especially grateful for all that I have in my life, including my patch of gray hair, because I’m sure Cheri would have given anything to one day watch her blonde hair fade to silver. She may not have lived to see 31, but her short life impacted so many and her wise words have always stuck with me. Whenever I hear people complain about getting older, I tell them about that conversation in the hospital. I pass on the lesson that Cheri gave to my mother, not to make them feel bad for sounding ungrateful, but to help change their perspective. Celebrate every gray hair and every wrinkle, because it means that your heart is still beating.