The Love From a Loss

Life is a journey, and it’s the people you get to know and the relationships you build with them that mean the most. Take advantage of the time you have with people. Love others, for when we’re gone, our impact on them is all we can leave. Nothing here can last forever.

I rarely got any sleep on Christmas Eve growing up; too much excitement just hours away, you know? My dad would always wake me up around 7:30 a.m., and my sister and I would gather around the tree to open presents before church. But the gifts weren’t what I was looking forward to most that day. After church my mom would continue preparing for what would surely be the greatest meal I would have in months. My anticipation grew, but again, it wasn’t for the food, either. As the afternoon went on, my extended family would start to arrive; we were getting closer.

To note: my dad is one of seven children to my beautiful grandmother. Of my six aunts and uncles, I was blessed to have 14 cousins who were all relatively close to my age and most of whom lived in Florida. Even the few from out of state would make the trips down for the holidays.

As my entire family began to trickle in, all of us cousins would all look at each other and as we said our greetings we’d ask, “you playin’?” What we were referencing, of course, was the holiday family football game (and we were all playing).

There was a talent discrepancy among the group, partially due to age, others for lack of genetic athleticism. I was typically one of the two captains (after all, it was my house). The other captain would usually be my cousin Ryan. He was two years older than me and played linebacker, fullback, defensive line and special teams for the varsity team at my high school. Ben was a family friend of mine (who is basically all but legally a part of the family now). He usually assumed all-time QB duties. He and I had a QB-WR connection like Culpepper & Moss.

C.J. was usually the first pick every year; he’s five years younger than me, but man is he fast. If we played two-hand touch, he was hard to stop. After that we had four or five solid choices. Dan and Steve were the oldest cousins in the family. They weren’t afraid to tackle or guard anyone. Duncan, six years younger than me, was scared of catching the football for years, but once he reached junior high, he grew to 6'4" and was basically unguardable for the rest of us normal human beings. Carl, Corey and Jake, all two years younger than me, were the most reliable after that, though Corey was from Philly, so he had that mean streak when he got the ball. Whenever Joey decided to play, he was that extra player that usually tipped the scale. My two younger girl cousins Priscilla and Kelly would just split up and guard each other. It was always annoying when one of them beat you sneaking into the endzone on a short yardage play, but hey, they won a few games over the years.

We’d play on an open field in a housing community that wasn’t fully developed right behind my house. We kept the boundaries simple using shoes as the endzones and sidelines. Sweat and dirt made for one gross game, especially if we played tackle. I remember one year I think I had five interceptions. I thought I was Champ Bailey back there. It was always fun if Dan and Steve got matched up against each other. The two brothers would go head-to-head all game. I think Steve got the better of Dan more times than not, but that rivalry was as physical as they come. As the years went on, Duncan developed into a pretty good quarterback, too. For a kid who’s 6'4"-6'5" in a family full of 5'11" kids, he had that rare QB/TE potential. I remember back in 2011 when Jake came down and lost all this weight, we called him “New Jake.” It was funny (and maybe a little mean), but I swear he broke the family record for receptions that year. We’d go at it for hours; no clock, no score limit.

As the sun began to set, we’d always call, “next score wins”, rarely knowing what the score actually was — I suppose that was the best part. We were all looking to win, but no matter who got that last score, we all had fun. We all left that field hungry for the big family meal, laughing and telling stories of the game we just played at the dinner table.

As those Christmas days came to a close, one-by-one the family would leave depending on how far they had to drive. We hugged and said our, “until next times”, mainly referring to the next family game.

That’s what I looked forward to most on Christmas day. Not the presents, the food or even the weather, it was the people; my people.

It was still dark when I awoke the morning of October 5th, 2014. The time was 4:15 a.m.. My parents were about to embark on their 25th wedding anniversary vacation to Hawaii, and it was my duty to drive them to the airport. As we drove, my dad began the car ride by saying, “Trevor, we have some serious news. We felt we needed to tell you before we left… Your cousin Danny killed himself. We found out yesterday.”

As a man who tends to talk too much, the only word I could formulate was the word, “what” to the tone of disbelief.

As my dad explained all he knew (which wasn’t much at the time), my mother began to cry listening to the account. My stomach turned upside down. My mother reached out her hand to me and I held it as she squeezed. It was tough to say anything or react in any way. He was just 29 years old.

When I dropped my parents off, it was a strange goodbye. I began to drive, but the more I dissected the news, the worse my stomach felt until I finally pulled over on the side of the road to dry heave a few times.

As I got back in the car, I thought of Danny’s brothers, my cousins Joey, Jake and Steven. I thought of my uncle John. I thought of my grandmother, whose heart must have shattered into one million pieces after hearing of the news. She’s poured so much love, all the love she has into us grandkids. We are her greatest joy.

As the drive continued, I reminisced of how I had seen Dan a few weeks ago at my grandmother’s house for a big dinner with just us kids. Sure, we were all a bit older now, but getting together for our grandmother’s sake was always a top priority. I remembered what would be the last words I said to him, “It was good to see you, Dan. I’ll see you at Thanksgiving.”

And then, I thought about family football.

We still gather as a big family for the holidays, Thanksgiving and usually Easter, too, but the family football games aren’t as often as they once were. The housing development behind my house is now completely full, no empty lots. Instead of coming to the house in raggedy clothes you’d expect to get dirty in, most of us now show up in nice attire like the rest of the family. We never made an executive decision to stop playing football games, it just wasn’t a priority like it used to be. It’s not like we would ever NOT be able to all play if we wanted to, right? We all made the trip for the holidays. The option was always there for all of us to play… Or so we thought.

I’ve seen and read so many cliche things about losing people and not knowing what you have until it’s gone, but it’s rarely hit close to me in my lifetime — I guess I was just lucky. I’d never experienced a feeling like I felt when my dad broke that news to me. My heart was overwhelmed with sadness, anger, regret, you name it. You think about if there were things you could’ve done, if there was something you could’ve said. In the end, the most nagging regret I had was that I didn’t get to tell my cousin how much the memories he and I made meant to me one last time; how much I cherished my growing up with him and the rest of my cousins. That I don’t get to say, “I love you, dude” to him one last time. It’s not fair. He deserves to know that I love him. I didn’t tell him enough; you can never tell anyone enough.

It’s not fair. He deserves to know that I love him. I didn’t tell him enough; you can never tell anyone enough.

This Christmas things will be different. As the family gathers, each member will give condolences to my uncle John’s family. I’m sure there will be laughs had and things will get back to “normal” eventually, but I can’t help but think about my youngest cousin Brin. She’s six. Her memories of Danny are very little, and that is all they will be. She’ll never get the chance to truly know him, and know what ALL of the cousins were like when we were together. It’s a bond like I’ve rarely seen in this world, and I’d give anything for her to one day know, but I can’t.

I hope that you love the ones you have in your life while you can. The happenings of this world will go on whether you’re ready for them or not. People will come and people will go, but it’s your job to make sure they know what love is, in speech and in deed. When it’s our time to go, our greatest legacy will be the impact we had on those who remain.

I hope, if nothing else, this story challenges both you and me to be better people, to love others before ourselves and to take each day knowing it maybe be all we have to impact someone’s life for the better. I hope that this world my cousin felt the need to flee becomes a better place. I hope we as people can take the tragedies of a few and turn them into love spread to the many. And I hope that my family will continue to play football, because the next game might not be the “best game”, but it could also be the last we all share together. And the memories with each other are more important than any score or play we’ll ever remember.