On Cousins Who Care for You

1.

During summers, when Joe Rian and I were little, our parents would send us from our respective neighborhoods — a suburb of Chicago for him, a suburb of Baltimore for me — to spend time with our fathers’ family in Michigan. We are the children of brothers who, by virtue of age, bookend a family of four siblings. Uncle Milton, Joe’s father, is the eldest. My father, Michael Paul, is the youngest.

Joe himself is one of six siblings, though he is his mother’s only child and so grew up living as an only child does through much of the school year. I am an only child all year round. This distinction matters, at least in terms of attachment. Cousins have an elevated significance for only children. We are not usually conscious of this until we are much older, especially if we are of the type who believe we are fine on our own, without conflict or company, without anyone to cheer or to challenge us, but cousins tend to call out to us only-children from wherever we’ve recoiled into ourselves. They lend us reprieve from the frequent pursuit of our peers’ attention. They are the portal into another plane where we are not so often alone.

l to r: G-Mom, Joe, and the author, c. 1987

Most of the time Joe and I spent together was while we were children. We’d find ourselves at the family depot, the gathering house, our G-Mom’s. She lived in Muskegon, a small predominantly white city, where most of the Black residents nodded familiarly at one another in passing, and it was still welcome and rote in the 1980s for children to walk for blocks by themselves to corner stores or playgrounds. This was neither the case in Chicago nor Baltimore, so Joe and I were bound to bond over the ways our lives slowed down and freed up as soon as we dropped our luggage in our grandmother’s living room.

In Muskegon, the air always smelled of ham. Someone told me once the odor originated in a paper mill a few miles away, the press and pulp of whatever churned inside it breathing plumes of porkish smoke into the sky. Maybe this was true; I’ve had no other proximity to paper mills, so I cannot confirm it.

What I can confirm is this: Muskegon was the closest thing to Andy Griffith’s Mayberry to exist in my world. To wit: G-Mom’s milk was delivered to her porch in clear glass bottles well into the 1980s. If I’d never stayed with her during the summers of that decade, I would have believed the profession of “milkman” was mythical.

The mill scent and the milkmen were things Joe and I were the only two children of our generation in the family present to witness. The other kids near our age spent their summers with siblings, in neighboring cities where time wasn’t quite so slowed. Joe and I would visit them, too, in Kalamazoo or Battle Creek or Grand Rapids. But Muskegon, over a sustained period of weeks in our grandmother’s basement or backyard, neighborhood park or church pew, was ours alone. The flakes of bran G-Mom sprinkled far too liberally into our yogurt because she was preoccupied with our regularity, the fact that we had any knowledge of each other’s bowel activity at the ages of 8 or 9 at all: they are our mutual memory, our own modest telepathy, small, immutable moments Joe and I can still glance at each other across a relative’s family room and access without saying a word.

This is not uncommon for him. He can wordlessly conjure a shared childhood with any of his five siblings, extended maternal family I’ve never met, a host of longtime friends. It is very uncommon for me. It is a connection I only share with fewer than a handful of cousins.

But back then, when we were that young, 8 or 9, or even younger, I had no way of knowing what the scrappy little bugger beside me would mean to me once we were grown. Suffice it to say, we did not get along. I considered him a hyperactive pest. He thought I was bossy, mean-spirited, weak. He wanted to bound through the screen door and dash down the block at sunup. I was begging to be let back into the cool of the house to watch TV by noon. I was chubby and his whole body may as well have been a fist. We spoke differently. Joe talked fast, words rushing out and toppling onto each other so that his sentences sounded like dogpiles. He turned phrases differently than I did, saying “it matters” rather than “it depends,” using regional slang I could never quite grasp, reasoning faster than I did.

I used to misinterpret the way he spoke or make fun of it, but I did so because I was enthralled. I’d be grown before I knew that Joe’s speech patterns were poetry. I grin to myself when I listen to the staccato of his every statement now. It’s my secret that, these days, I break the sound of his voice into stanzas.

These days, when I encounter other Black men from Chicago, I note a bit of Joe in them all, in their language, their carriage, their gait. And it occurs to me how, all along, Joe had been carrying a city inside him; he is a region unto himself, and seeing him is a homecoming.

I was about 13 when we decided to get along. He would’ve been 12. By then, I’d stopped spending a portion of my summer months at G-Mom’s. She, the youngest and only sister amid five brothers, was slowly losing her elder siblings to illness. She’d taken in our Great-Uncle Bill, whose Alzheimer’s had progressed to the point where she was the only person he recognized or trusted. Joe still stayed over at her house on occasion, if his father went with him; they helped G-Mom manage the caretaking. But if we out-of-town cousins wanted to convene comfortably in those days, we did so in the homes of our fathers’ sisters.

Aunt Melita’s house was where we were when we began to understand each other. It was one of our nights there, the night of our respective parent drop-offs, when we were up later than the adults, watching movies and trying to cram the contents of an entire school year into a single conversation.

Our mothers had married a few years before — mine for the first time ever, his for the second — and though these situations were a few summers old by then, we found that, that year, we somehow had the vocabulary to articulate how we felt about them. We learned that it is different to have lived with your father and to lose the daily expectation of his presence than it is to have never observed your parents as a couple at all. It is different to call your stepfather by his first name, as Joe did, than it is to call him “Dad,” as I did. It is different to live suddenly with a man if you are a boy than it is to do so as a girl. It is different to welcome the presence of the person your mother has married than it is to resent it. We went on that way, comparing, for a long time. And I began to identify for the first time what continues to occur to me whenever I see Joe, even now, during a winter holiday or the more familiar setting of summer: he possesses an uncommon thoughtfulness, an empathy that allows him to be diplomatic even when he is uncomfortable and a willingness to adapt to new realities without lingering too long on what was.

You must catch those sorts of thing about a cousin while you’re young — at least if you do not see him often. For you will never be as close as you are before your lives become yours to mold. You will never again have as much time to sit together and talk till 3 in the morning, not after you fall in love or marry or begin raising sons and daughters of your own. The opportunity slips when you find yourselves standing beside each other as adults, most often at weddings or funerals, towering over your circling tots like specters, watching them forge their own tentative bonds as cousins.

2.

Joe, c. 2006

We had barely turned the corner into our 20s, when Joe nearly died in Virginia. He’d moved from Chicago to Norfolk for college and I’d traveled the shorter distance from Baltimore to DC for the same. Geographically we were closer than we’d ever lived. But in college, when your time and your plans become yours to control, you do not prioritize spending your summers retreating to your childhood haunts. Neither of us were in Michigan as often then. We saw each other less. We could not take stock, as we had every summer after 12 and 13, of who we were becoming.

I imagine that Joe was only settling into himself. We are in our late 30s now and the traits I recognized in him in adolescence have never faltered: geniality, diplomacy, the ability not only to judge your character but to compensate for its shortcomings, if he cares for you.

Joe did not almost die because he was risking himself or daring his fate or rebelling against a destiny. It happened because he simply trusted an acquaintance who was, quite suddenly, in no position to be trusted.

The details are not mine to tell. I do not know many of them anyway. But this is what I’ve retained after all these years: Joe was behind the wheel; a supposed-friend was in the passenger seat. The friend had a gun on hand, alcohol and prescription drugs in his blood, a chemical imbalance in his brain.

After the bullet passed through my cousin’s head, his “friend” fled the car on foot. A motorist eventually discovered Joe, unconscious, on the highway.

I do not remember who called me with the news. I remember trembling. I remember how useless I felt as family, for not having a driver’s license or enough money to fly to his bedside, and also for having no idea what good it would’ve done for me to be there, even if I could have been.

There were no words for it. This was no country respite, not a time to talk his ear off in the middle of a night nor to glance across time and space to call him back to a Before, where the air smelled of ham, where we taunted each other, where we were once two summer travelers, ensconced in our paternal relatives’ particular brand of love.

I did not know futility until I listened to a parent’s voice carry across the echos and beeps of an ICU, explaining, with as much composure as could be mustered, the uncertainty of his child’s condition.


I have always wondered if love has limits. If it wanes in long absence. If its texture and properties change, when we begin to understand how powerless we are to rescue one another with deep affection and admiration — with love — alone.

I wondered if love could be willed across borders of distance and anguish.

I still do not know.

But Joe lived. We loved him fiercely, and he roused. We loved him with vigilance, and he regained his strength. We loved him as though we knew his future, and he returned home. For me, this has long been the part of the story that feels most like a fable. He does not know this but whenever I see him now, I get the sense that I am living in a more benevolent realm, existing along a more generous timeline, where Black life has compound value and Black time can be wrenched away from where it nearly stopped. It can be reclaimed.

There are nickel-sized scars near his temples. My eye no longer searches for them whenever I see him. There are, of course, other alterations: physiological ones, borne of being pieced back together and psychological ones even more foreign to me than that. But any impulse I may have had to ask about the incident has passed in the nearly two decades he’s spent outliving his initial odds of surviving it.

When I see him now, I only think: I almost have my answers. It may, in fact, be possible to know about the limitless nature of love.

This is our family’s outrageous fortune. Joe, aging and working and fathering, is our family’s outrageous fortune.

3.

Not long after Tahj Malik Chandler lost his cousin Walter, he began writing his second studio album, Care for Me. It is a body of songs clearly intended as a work of resurrection.

I had already been a fan of the artist whose stage name is Saba for over a year, having kept his debut, The Bucket List, on repeat for the better part of 2017.

Saba is part of a larger Chicagoan millennial cohort of musicians that includes Chance the Rapper, Noname, and Jamila Woods. Before becoming associated with those fellow national acts, he spearheaded his own more insular collective, the Pivot Gang, among whom his cousin Walter was a central figure.

Saba’s “Care for Me” was released in April 2018.

Care for Me is an elegy to Walter, who was killed just as Saba and, by extension, the Pivot Gang, were feeling the first adrenaline spikes of accomplishment: concurrent tour dates as solo acts, a dervish of travel and texts, of girls, of promise, of fine print, of proud parents, of trauma. They were reckoning with the fairly new experience of receiving critical acclaim as a placebo for PSTD.

I wasn’t expecting to think so much of Joe the first few times that I listened to Care for Me. Enough years have passed since he nearly left us that it is no longer the first (or second or even third) thing I think of when he crosses my mind.

I didn’t expect to be transported to that raw and precarious month when we were not certain what life would look like on the other side of his shooting. But Saba’s oeuvre is just that evocative. It hones right in on what’s tenderest; it presses down on what’s remained too long untended inside you.

On his debut release, The Bucket List, he used voicemail messages from family, peers, an incarcerated friend, and even an “ex or whatever” as connective tissue. Each caller had been prompted to consider what they might want or need to do before they die. The album asks the same of the listener: contemplate the finality of death; reaffirm what is urgent to you in this life.

The Bucket List is harrowingly autobiographical. It recounts a childhood spent witnessing violence, addiction, and incarceration, while concurrently experiencing grief, depression, and isolation. But it’s also a bop.

Is there any truer aural corollary for Black life in urban cities? Harrowing, but also a bop.

If The Bucket List contemplates the Angel of Death’s close calls and near-misses, if it invites us to dream up our loftiest aims (One of Saba’s is air-ballooning on his wedding day, for instance), then Care for Me is what comes of holding the Angel of Death accountable for what it’s claimed. It is the desperate, panicked sound of wrestling with a celestial being, unable or unwilling to bless you. With its re-enacted gasps and voice samples of the dearly departed, the album is a claustrophobic bargain-and-beg session: take everything he’s gained without him; Saba just wants his cousin back.

Care for Me contains rage, agony of the frenetic sort, grief as glacial as everything else is supersonic.

“I’m not mad at God; I just can’t get out of bed,” Saba says quickly in the album’s fourth track, “Calligraphy.” “My best friend obituary really hang on my wall, by the dresser./I’m tryna see it a life lesson./No time for mourning in my schedule…”

The album is rife with survivor’s remorse. More than one song notes that Saba’s career began to take flight, post-Bucket List, before Walter’s upcoming debut could leave its runway. Saba’s success is catapulting now, with Care for Me, an album all about someone who will never get to hear it.

The rapper wishes he’d had some premonition, longs to have been the one who’d left Walt behind. But it’s precisely because Saba survived that the world can know just how well Walt was loved.

No one loves with the clarity of a close-aged cousin. This is a love singular in its mission. It just wants to lift you, to hoist you onto its shoulders and watch you win.

For Saba, there is no higher height than the heaven that houses Walter, no better vantage from which to witness his victories. He may be powerless to resurrect him, but it’s clear Saba intends to keep winning on his cousin’s behalf.

4.

Six years ago or so, about a decade after we came too close to losing him, Joe married his best friend Shakia in Jamaica, their eldest son at their side, their youngest but a promise soon to ignite between them.

I could not attend. I was just beginning to realize how having a baby of my own would sometimes come to necessitate being broke when I least wanted to be. But I imagined us there, as I stared at every picture. I stared until I realized what I was seeing. A storybook, a paradise, a man who’d touched the surface of eternity and managed to return. Joe Rian, living. Joe Rian, vowing. Joe Rian, winning.

He is an allegory for how best to live when the God holding onto your life hands it back to you. He has been both Walter and Saba, both The Bucket List and Care for Me. I listen to them both when I want to feel close to him. I listen when I want to situate him in time or celebrate how he transcended it.

I imagine this is what Saba does, too, though I do not guess that it comforts him. I pray that, with time, his own work reaffirms for him what the closeness of cousins can do. It may not resurrect the lives we’ve lost, but it holds the lives that are left together.