rex dwight. that wasn't his full name, just first and middle. his eyes were the color of exotic waters in faraway places. he was handsome from birth till death, the latter being only two days ago, after only thirty-two years on this earth.
rex dwight was my first cousin—is my first cousin, some light years removed now. as children, we biked up and down the street, climbed the thick metal fence, and sat atop farm equipment "on the hill," as everyone referred to my grandmother's quasi-farm homestead in north central west virginia. we played like crazy, especially ornery rex, who once shot me in the face with a bb gun. and we never lacked playmates because there were endless cousins—because we come from a family of ever-bountiful fertility. grandma helen gave life to seventeen, although two of our would-be elders didn't make it past infancy. helen was a chocolate-dipped pretzel of a woman: sweet and salty. she was a spendthrift with syllables, so when she had something to say there were no frills. she didn't know or care if she was funny about it, but as we all grew older we realized just how funny she was. after grandma died, because she and hers had lived on that hill for so long, its official address was changed to helen's place. that struck me this morning as i read my cousin's obituary: rex dwight of helen's place.
my countless cousins and i, we are all a little bit of helen's place.
i didn't know rex dwight much after childhood. we went to different schools and went our different ways. helen's place changed with the years too. the big green house where grandma raised her brood, which was home to many manifestations of nuclear families within my family, saw its last occupants in the 90s and would eventually be demolished, leaving a big grassy expanse that would serve as the future home for family reunions. as the 1980s passed over that hill, a heyday began to expire too: there were fewer farm animals; fewer long summer days spent exploring fields and riding bareback through the woods; fewer family gatherings spent in the much smaller house helen had moved into just a few hundred feet down the road.
into adulthood, i didn't know my cousin rex dwight at all. i moved one, two, three ... 23 times at last count ... to various states and cities. i became a girl after a dream deferred, and deferred and deferred. my path led me farther and farther from helen's place, although those roots did their job in my heart, holding it fast to west virginia. did rex dwight have dreams? i wonder that now, as in right now as i type. if i could impart one thing to anyone in the throes of trouble, it's this: always dream. always know there is more than this, whatever this may be. my cousin had struggles i'll never understand. should i have reached out? or is it naive to think i could have possibly entered a place in his consciousness that nothing and no one else could? hindsight is a target and thoughts are badly aimed arrows. the bullseye is gone.
rex dwight's mother, my aunt, gave her son the shape but not the color of his eyes. unlike her son, whose coloring reflected the irish-german of grandma helen and pap aubrey, my aunt is all shades of southern italy, with black curls as the highest point on her short, round frame. in the late 90s, auntie and i both worked for doctor b., a physiatrist whose calls i answered by day and whose office bathrooms i cleaned in the evenings for extra money. my aunt and i got to know each other better in the handful of months i stuck around before running off to florida and then south carolina for brief stints: we shook our heads in shock and hilarity at doc b.'s f-bombs and between-patient tae kwan do kicks; whispered about a certain elder patient's odd son; ate bland lunches in non-recyclable containers from the nearby hospital cafeteria.
my aunt is married to my mother's youngest brother, the gentle, quiet, high school football standout who chose a welding rod over the pigskin. at every opportunity, uncle—just like that, sans first name, as he is often called by younger cousins—tells me "eat you a fatburger," in a semi-joking attempt to cure my meat aversion. i barely remember my uncle without a welding cap, which always seemed to be the same blue one with white polka dots, but given the endless grease and filth and spitting sparks, it's more likely he had a steady supply. uncle worked his whole life along with his brothers in the family's welding shop, which was in business for over 100 years and served as a gathering place and occasional employment for just about every son in the family. he was the last one standing—or bent over a welding rod, that is—recently closing the shop for good at the behest of his ailing lungs.
tomorrow, my aunt and uncle will enter into another day of this week full of the worst days of their lives. they will bury their only son, also a brother and father. tomorrow i too will mourn the passing of rex dwight, a man i didn't know as an adult but a child whose face will always be imprinted into my sweet memories of helen's place.
good night, my cousin with the ocean eyes.