My cousin, Debbie Duffie, died last Sunday. It was the end of a long battle with leukemia, which, obviously, she lost. The most basic urge at times like these is to write poems and elegies in honor of the departed, or offer up well-worn phrases to the family such as “sorry for your loss”. None of which really help. A human being was here. Now she is gone. There are no words that can fill up the hole in our lives where she used to be.
I’m not the person to write the pretty words for Debbie. We were close when we were kids. At one point in my life she, and her sister, Joey, were like sisters to me. But as it happens, we lost touch as we grew older. When Debbie died, I could not say that I knew her as a person. Too many decades had passed since those simpler, happier times when we would spend summers playing in the barn at my aunt’s and uncle’s “farm”, catching crawfish in a nearby creek, or rolling down the steep bank that led up to the road. As much as I might like to write something for Debbie, my idea of who she was as a person is far too out-of-date to be anything but a disservice to the woman she became. I could write about the little girl she once was. But I really didn’t know the wife of Dean. Or the mother of Cody and Cameron. Or the grandmother. I don’t have the right, much less the insight, to speak about that person.
All I know is that Debbie died too young. She was 49 years old. About six months older that me. When she died, it hit me harder than I expected. Not because of our estrangement. She was my cousin. My family. I never loved her any less than I did when we were those happy kids so long ago. But distance has a way of fraying old ties. It was a surprise to have those cords suddenly pulled taut.
I suppose the reason Debbie’s passing so thoroughly stopped me in my tracks was that I just knew she’d pull it out somehow. I just knew she’d beat the leukemia. She just lost her mother a few months ago. Surely her story would have a different ending. It was a hope born of my own sense of mortality, I suppose. Last Sunday I was having my own existential crisis. I was having a bad day to cap off a few bad weeks, and I had found myself wondering what it’s all about, and if this life is even worth fighting for. We struggle. We work. We dream. And somehow there’s just more struggle and work. I wasn’t in the best frame of mind when I found out that Debbie had died around 7pm that night. But it put my self-pity into immediate focus and perspective. And in the moment I stopped being a self-centered old man bitching about his aches, pains and struggles, and was suddenly a boy from long ago who was realizing that he’d never see his playmate again.
I suppose that’s the reason I just… stopped. I can’t imagine what the family is going through up there in South Carolina. Or what my cousin, Joey, is facing, losing her mother and her sister both in a matter of months. But for me, the deepest abiding sadness is that now I will never have the chance to renew old ties with Debbie. That is always the great tragedy of death, that it robs us of those chances to say the things we’ve always meant to say some day. Now my wife will never get to meet my old playmate and friend. As with all loss, that is what hurts us most of all. The loss of what might have been. Laughs that might have been shared.
As evidenced by my meanderings here, I am ill-equipped to sum up the life of Debbie Roark Duffie. That’s why I haven’t tried. Her life and presence lives on in the hearts of her husband, children, grandchildren, friends, and, especially, her sister. They are the ones who most bitterly feel the sting of her passing, who will most feel her absence in their daily lives, and most joyously remember the moments when they felt her presence. I won’t dishonor that with clumsy attempts at flowery words.
But I will take a moment to myself and close my eyes. I will remember sitting in the grass with my cousins. I will remember the sun shining in Debbie’s blonde hair. I will remember her laugh, and her smile. I’ll remember that little girl for a moment. I will remember her presence. And then I will open my eyes and look around me, and feel the truth, that she is no longer with us. Like so many others, she has gone on before us. All we can really do is take a moment and smile, and remember those days when she was here.
I miss you, cuz. Perhaps, in the end, that’s all that really needs to be said.