I spent this past Christmas Eve with my mother and her side of the family, as I have every year since was a small child, minus a year or two in the name of marital compromise. We ate comfort food, cracked open a few gifts and engaged in debates about the state of things, as we usually do.
Among the family at my mother’s suburban Detroit home that evening was my cousin Aaron. The only son of my youngest aunt, Aaron was born in my 10th year; he stayed under my chin until a growth spurt as a teenager – accompanied by a chiseled body thanks to clean living and a fondness for hooping – sent him towering over my 6-foot-1 frame.
Like many of my family members that night, Aaron bounced my 10-month-old niece Jamaya on his knee. He’d just obtained a job as a tech for Comcast, provoking me to joke with him about hooking us up with all the channels.
“You gotta get in good with the women who work the phones,” he said to me.
Acknowledging his striking handsomeness, I responded, “I know you’re in good with all those women already!”
About 12 hours later, Aaron suffered a heart attack while having Christmas brunch with his mother, his sister and her fiancé. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful. He was a month and a day away from his 27th birthday.
Considering the largeness of my family, I suppose I could consider myself fortunate that neither side has experienced a significant death since the one-year period between the summers of 2003 and 2004, when I lost a grandmother, two aunts and one uncle, motivating the family to visit the doctor en masse for checkups. Aaron’s death – its immediacy, his age, its complete unexpectedness (we’re still trying to figure out the exact cause), it’s occurrence on the holiday and the fact that we were all together a few hours before – rocked the family’s collective psyche.
For me, it had an added effect: it intensified a quiet, long-gestating concern of mine: the mortality of my own parents.
When I returned to Detroit for Aaron’s funeral following New Year’s Day, the very first thing my mother said after I walked through door is that she got her will and life insurance in order, and insisted that I do the same. I joked, “So, you planning on checking out on us sometime soon?” But that rejoinder was merely a defense mechanism – truth is, I don’t want to think about that shit, even though I find myself increasingly doing so. Too often, my last waking thoughts as I drift away to sleep at night involve imagining a world without one or both of the people who gave me life. Because I’m long distance from both of them, sometimes I wonder in the back of my mind, “is this it?” when we part ways.
This could be some weird, morbid neuroses at play, but I think it’s in part a consequence of being at this “in-between” age: As kids, many of us view our parents as invincible, fully expecting them to be around for many moons to come. I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that when I get much older and my parents are officially at an “advanced” age, I’ll better reconcile the fact that they won’t be around for a lot longer.
But at 36 and with parents in their mid-to-late 60s, I recognize that they aren’t old enough that they could reasonably be expected to die of natural causes at any time, but that armor of invincibility they wore when I was still a kid has eroded. I’ve also seen an alarming number of friends and associates my age announce their parents’ deaths on social media – people close to the age of my own parents. It’s too soon, but not too-too soon, especially when you consider that black Americans still have a comparably stunted life expectancy.
My mother is ex-military and has always kept in good shape, but she’s likely run her last half-marathon with me. Hearing her talk about how draining it can be to babysit her infant granddaughter is sobering to me – merely an indicator that age catches up to us all…but this is my ma.
My dad is one of those old black dudes whom you’d need to drug and kidnap to get him in the doctor’s office for anything less than an amputated limb (we all know one like him). But while I generally assume he’s in good health and that his stubbornness will allow him to outlive us all, he still looks increasingly like a dude pushing 70 every time I see him.
Since my distance allows me to see them only a few times a year, changes in the contours of their face, the color of their hair and other things is likely more noticeable to me than it is for other family members who see them daily. That distance also makes me less likely to take them for granted than my friends who can visit their folks on a random Tuesday on a whim and not have to endure the world’s most boring (and most treacherous in the winter) four-hour drive across southern Michigan.
But even I fall short of keeping in touch sometimes. No doubt motivated by Aaron’s death, mama recently insisted that we always check in with each other at least once a week (which we normally do unless one of us gets busy). Pops is a borderline luddite who’ll eventually have to upgrade from a flip-phone kicking and screaming and has never sent a text message in his life. Since neither of us are phone people, I have to make a concentrated effort to make sure long periods of time don’t pass without us talking.
And that’s not too much to ask for the people I love most in the world, especially considering the time I waste on other things (and people) without giving it a second thought. I don’t believe in Heaven, the afterlife or an eternity with my loved ones following death, so all I have is my now, with them, while they’re here.
Assume the same with you and yours and act accordingly.