The horrible thing about death is that it doesn't stop the world. It feels for a brief period of time that it does, but then you realize you still have to get out of bed and make meals and take your kids on adventures because they don't understand that a light went out and the world is that much darker.
I've been in a fog. I find my hands shaking uncontrollably as I go about my work. "Reuben is dead" plays through my mind relentlessly, making my throat clench and chills run down my arms and legs. And still, its message is no clearer. How can it be? It can't be. For blissful, brief moments, I pretend it's not.
I was born into an extraordinary family. Though we live all over the world, we have metaphorically and electronically reached for each other this week. Aunts, uncles, and cousins are doing all we can to hold ourselves and others upright through Facebook and email and text messages and phone calls.
Several in this community have reached out to offer condolences and prayer. Thank you. The concern and care from friends I've never met is so deeply moving to me.
May I please tell you about my cousin Reuben Summerlin?
I was fortunate to know him and even more fortunate to be related to him.
I could write about his intelligence and his aptitude for languages. I could write about his impressive work in international micro-finance and his work with the UN, and these are marvelous traits and accomplishments, and much has been written about them; but this is not how I primarily knew Reuben.
One of my earliest memories involves him. I remember he and his brothers asking, in the way you talk to a small child, which of them I liked best. I believe this was probably in 1978, when I was two, and my mother and I were 'babysitting' them.
He was an older cousin who paid little mind to me in my youngest years. But I found him fascinating with his head-to-toe freckles and red hair and intimidating with the wildness and excitement that always seemed to accompany him. I remember the summer he had a broken arm from a horse-riding accident, seeing him playing a ball game in the swimming pool. He had fun, and the cast suffered the consequences. Oh, he had tales of danger from his and his brothers' adventures. How I admired his sense of adventure and his fearlessness!
It seemed our family laughed loudest and longest when he and his brothers were around.
Reuben was an extraordinary storyteller. Whether it was stories of jumping from moving trains or crossing canyons on rickety bridges or stories of the people he met around the world, we were rapt. He had the gift of mimicry and could replicate accents and tones of voices, and he was a subtle and intelligent enough of a listener to know which line to borrow to illustrate a character. We met people we will never know through his stories, and we listened--gasping, crying, and laughing--even if we'd heard the story before.
There was nothing like the anticipation of a visit from Reuben.
He teased me mercilessly all my life. My sensitivity to heat and my unimpressive few months as a violinist, he thought them worthy of regular mention. It took years for me to realize that teasing was love.
I don't think Reuben saw me as an adult of much interest until the day I gave him a ride in my car (which had been his), and my Bill Monroe tape came on. After that we became friends. We talked about everything--music, travel, my decision to not change my name when I got married (he decided I must have a secret boyfriend named Jimmy Shitsandwich), our disappointment in our chins, what it means to be an NF. We slept off hangovers together. And later, more seriously, we talked of marriage, finances, careers, and parenting. He didn't waste conversations in small talk, and he didn't let anything interfere with his listening. When you were talking to him, you were the most important person in the room.
One memory that made me smile this week was a time he and I were having lunch in a restaurant while Maggie toddled about. A woman sitting nearby had on low rise pants that showed her butt crack. Maggie lost her balance and reached out for the waist of those pants for support. What a shock that woman got, and what a laugh Reuben and I had!
The night before Brian's and my wedding, Brian got grease on his dress shirt at our rehearsal dinner. Reuben immediately took off his sports coat and gave it to Brian to wear. When I was pregnant with Maggie, he and his wife gave us all their baby girl hand-me-downs and baby equipment. Once, he and his wife had tickets to see Greg Brown and couldn't make it so they sent the tickets to us.
Long before I was a contestant in our family bowl pools, I was copied on the emails. I don't know who first put that amycake in, but I knew enough to keep quiet about it or lose my privilege. I was far from home and relished reading the hilarious smacktalk and references to family stories and favorite movies. When Reuben wrote anything particularly colorful (such as taunts involving his little finger) he'd add "hi, Sarah" in parentheses behind it.
In a family of clever people, one of the most clever among them had a way of making me feel included and valued.
In the spring of 2012 my sister and I decided to visit Chattanooga in 2012 with our children. We knew Reuben and his family were moving to Fiji for his work with the UN, and we wanted to say goodbye. This is the last time I saw him, holding baby Leo.
Reuben was killed when he was hit by a van last Sunday while cycling in Fiji. He was 44. He leaves behind a wife, two young children, four parents, three brothers, three sisters-in-law, and four nephews. Not to mention the countless friends and extended family he loved and who loved him.
I fully expected to grow old with him in my life, to continue to exchange silly and serious emails and messages on Facebook even if we didn't see each other frequently. I was sure he'd see his children grow up. I hoped someday he'd come back to live in the US. There is an emptiness in my life without him. I grieve for the end of the good he was doing in this world; I grieve for the end of my relationship with him; I grieve for those whose loss is far greater than mine.
We watch a lot of Finding Nemo around our house. Have you seen it? Dorie, the fish with the short-term memory loss, repeats as her mantra, "Keep on swimming." That's what I keep thinking--get out of bed, next meal, next adventure, etc. Keep on swimming.
A Fly on our (Chicken Coop) Wall, Amycake and the Dude, Considerings, Finding Ninee, Getting Literal, I Want Backsies, The Meaning of Me, Thankful Me, Uncharted, The Wakefield Doctrine
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