O Cousin My Cousin

hoarfrost 1218On my way here, with a completely different plan in mind, I swung by my e-mail — and that has changed everything.

I have a cousin who became my cousin when we were both in college at the University of Colorado, and he has been battling a rare form of blood cancer which has taken every bad turn it could possibly take. This morning his daughter posted on Caring Bridge that he is in the hospital for what is most likely his final stay.

I started life with a rather lopsided cousin count. My mom has only one brother, and he never had children. I imagine there are second and third and once removed cousins on that side of the family, and perhaps I met one or two of those (much older than me), but really, no cousins on that side.

My dad was one of five siblings, all of whom were relatively prolific in the child-production department, especially my Uncle Don, with five (six?). However, my dad grew up in upstate New York, where the bulk of his family has remained. His family raised dairy cattle, and apparently it didn’t sit so well with them that he moved clear across the country and didn’t work with his hands (although he was quite the handyman) as a college professor.

The last time I visited New York was when I was 7. Tia went to visit once when she was a graduate student, and a couple of Don’s daughters made trips out to Colorado decades ago. But it’s safe to say I don’t really know anyone from that side of the family.

When I was in college, after my dad had died, my mom met and married John, who came with a brother and sister, both on the Front Range, and their six children, all of them similarly aged to the three of us. In fact, I think we make an almost perfect series of stairsteps among the nine of us: Bill is a year older than me, Scott a year younger, Stephen a year behind him, then Terri, and so on down to Tia — where there is then a slight gap to Doug, youngest of us all.

Suddenly, after 20 years of no real concept of cousins, I had extended family. We had Thanksgivings together. I could stay with my aunt and uncle when I needed a place to stay in Boulder. There were growing-up lives to track, as Stephen and Bill started producing children of their own and Jennifer tackled semi-pro football. There was the momentous day when Tia graduated college and Doug graduated high school, and we celebrated around Aunt Martie’s table. There were marriages, divorces, more marriages, and anniversaries. I can’t even remember whose anniversary it was that brought many of us together a few years ago in downtown Denver. In this long-lived family, David has pioneered that step where the children take care of their parents.

And there has been loss.

My uncle Sonny has had to say good-bye to two wives, both times to terminal illness. In one of those small-world moments, his first wife Nancy’s memorial service was conducted by their Episcopalian priest Father Mike Houlick, who had tended to the flock here in Gunnison before moving on to Boulder and my aunt and uncle’s church.

Now it seems as though Scott, Martie’s second son, teeters on that vast, scary precipice.

We were both at CU and living in the same dorm complex when we met. He was a competent mechanical engineering student who dreamed of playing his guitar for a living. He specifically did not want to design sprinkler systems for a living — I remember him being quite emphatic about that.

He tried the music thing — his band even once came to the Trough in Gunnison. I dragged my friend KT along with me to listen to the most awful heavy metal screeching — we only made it through their first set.

He tried to support his music habit by offering guitar lessons. All I really remember is that it paid so poorly that he found himself once somewhat stuck, when an underinsured car he had just bought got totaled, and there he was, making payments on a car he could no longer drive.

Eventually he embraced his skills as an engineer, and instead of sprinkler systems he designed pieces of interplanetary travelers, including the probe that touched down safely on Mars a week or two ago.

Somewhere along the way he met a woman who came with a couple of daughters, and of everything he has done, this is his crowning achievement: he embraced those girls as his own, and has cared for them fiercely and forever. They have repaid his devotion in spades throughout his illness, constantly by his side as he has grabbed hold of every possible solution, no matter how slight.

I haven’t seen or talked to Scott in years, except for posting some comments on his Caring Bridge site. He wrote all of the entries himself, but for today’s sad report, and through those he showed how literate, witty and self-aware he is.

His last couple of posts referenced his complete exhaustion, and this morning daughter Amber reports that he is on constant pain meds, waking occasionally to meet family members he hasn’t been able to see for months because of his severely compromised immune system.

I hope this end journey goes as smoothly as it can for him, my cousin and fellow CU alum; musician, engineer, father and fighter. The world will be an emptier place without him.

scott cleland 1218Here’s a picture of a picture of Scott on the evening we officially became cousins, at my mom and John’s wedding.

4 thoughts on “O Cousin My Cousin

  1. Thank you for this tender and loving tribute to Scott, written this morning. At 7 PM, alas, Scott died.
    At least he lived long enough to squeeze this blog post out of you.
    When your blog posts are all collected for publication, you might add to your small world observation that Father Mike Houlick not only performed the funeral service for my wife Nancy — but a few years before that he conducted the December marriage service for your sister Terry, outdoors in deep snow at a mountain park.


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