I find myself fascinated with this photo of late. From left, you can see my aunt Peggy, my grandmother Pearl, my uncle Teddy, my grandpa Ted, my mom, and my aunt Janet. It’s on the desktop of my computer along with a few others from my mom’s childhood, because as happens from time to time, we’ve recently planned a funeral.
Of the four children in this photo, taken sometime in the mid-1950s, only the two on the right still are with us today. My aunt Peggy left us on Mother’s Day, 2015, and Teddy, holding the bright blue ball in this image, died this past March after a series of emergency heart surgeries. My grandfather, Teddy’s namesake, died two days after Christmas, 2008.
Death and tragedy seem to stalk our family in ways that seem strange, intentional, and karmic for anyone else not named Kennedy. My mother is the only one of her parents’ four children who’s never buried a child. I’m one of ten cousins now whittled down to seven by cruel fate and car accidents. We’re a family that knows how to funeral.
Losing my uncle Ted cuts particularly deep, because he went so suddenly: He went into the hospital on a Saturday morning and died that evening after an aortic rupture that the surgeons said was one of the worst they’d ever seen. My cousin Adam, Ted’s son, noted on Facebook that his father—who was himself a doctor in Tulsa—would’ve taken a strange sort of pride in that.
Now, we are left with the usual platitudes: He’s in a better place, etc. I just keep thinking about how I could be prepping for my own funeral one week from today. These thoughts don’t feel morbid to me; there’s no sort of sadness or fascination that comes with them, just a simple truth: Death comes for us all, and we only get to see it coming if we’re very, very lucky and very, very unlucky.
I was six years old the first time I realized that I was, without a doubt, going to die. Though that was the year my father’s father died, I don’t recall his passing as a catalyst for this realization. I simply understood at some unremarkable point that my body would quit working, I would be dead, and that would be that. As such, I’ve never feared death so much as just hoped to put it off for as long as possible. But I do remember this realization changing my relationship with time. “You should go outside and play,” I’d tell myself at that young age. “Childhood is short, and it never comes back once it’s gone.”
Strange thing for a six-year-old to tell himself, but I was a strange kid and am a strange adult. And I come from a strange family. We tell each other we love each other often; those who’ve married into our clan occasionally have found it strange and off-putting. Crossing paths with tragedy as much as we have has made us incapable of taking anything for granted. Even when we go entire years between sightings of each other at Christmas; even when we have disagreements; even when we drive each other nuts, we know we love each other. My uncle Ted knew I loved him; I told him so at the end of a text conversation last month. I knew he loved me too. It’s how our family works.
This isn’t me saying to make sure people know you love them, because tomorrow etc. etc. This isn’t a bad country song. It’s a photo that will, one day, also be gone, as will all the faces in it, as will these words, as will the person who wrote them and the person who is reading them. We are swept up in time’s current, and it will take us where it will. If we are very lucky, we’ll have a family—biological or chosen or some mixture of both—who makes sure to say, at least once in awhile, “I love you.”