Friday, July 10, 2015

TToT86: Keep on swimming...

I wrote this on Tuesday but saved it for the TToT. Not feeling much like coming up with other thankfuls this week other than for this life, this family, and the friends who have reached out.


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.
I missed his most recent visit to the US. He didn't come to DC, and I didn't drive to Chattanooga. I wish I had.

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.

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34 comments :

  1. Big hugs to you. Unexpected death is probably the hardest, because it comes as such a shock. May you find peace and comfort, and may the just keep swimming routine help you through this difficult time.

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  2. I'm so sorry, Sarah. I've been selfish and too wrapped up in my own world to be in touch. I'm glad you have people around you who are supportive and able to offer comfort, scant as it is in times of grief. Thank you for sharing Reuben with us - he sounds amazing, and his death is shocking and vastly unfair.

    Be gentle with yourself *hugs*

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  3. Oh, Sarah. Thank you for sharing this here. I've seen the posts and stories on FB, but I'm glad to know Reuben through your eyes. Keep swimming. I'll keep praying for you and your entire family and all those who have been lucky enough to know this wonderful man. I wish I could do more for you.

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    1. You know what's it like to have a large, close family, Christine.

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  4. I'm so sorry for your loss. Reuben sounds like he was an exceptional guy. I felt much the same sense of emptiness when my dad died last year. The only comfort I can offer is that you do adjust to a world without the cherished loved one in it.

    Having said that, I think about - and miss - my dad every single day, and if I could have one wish granted it would be to hear him say "I'm proud of you, son" (he died before I started transitioning).

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    1. I wish he could have done the same for you, too. Thank you for your condolences.

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  5. Oh Sarah, Im so sorry. I dont get to Facebook unless it comes to me usually.... Im weird that way. I glad other friends and family are so supportive. How sad for your family and for you personally. He sounds like a wonderful guy. He looks like he is exuding happiness in that photo with Leo! Im so glad you have really cherished memories of him. And swimming is totally the way to go! Keep treadiing that water and keep your head above the current. People often will say about someone who has lost a loved one ..." Its so sad they are just going through the motions" but that is really all you can do until life makes sense again. It wont be the same but it will make sense. Thinking of you. xo me

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  6. I have some much-older-than-me cousins that I thought hung the moon when I was young. To them, I was the pesky little girl they saw a couple of times a year. But when I got older, we somehow got closer in age, just like you and Reuben. They might actually think of me as an adult by now, even! I feel as though I knew Reuben from your words, and I'm missing him a little now, too. Keep swimming, sweetie.

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    1. Yes, the difference between 2 and 7 is different than the years between 36 and 41. I'm glad I knew him. Thank you.

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  7. This is a beautiful tribute to Reuben. His smiling face in the picture speaks to his wonderful spirit. Prayers and hugs to you and your family.

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  8. Oh friend...
    I have no words.
    Just love.
    I am holding you in my heart and in my thoughts.
    He sounds like he was awesome. That smile. I'm here for you. xoxo

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  9. First , Keep on swimming has gotten me very far. Either that or short term memory has. I can't remember. Second I envy you your relationship with your family. I have cousins, sure, the last time I saw even one of them was ....I think Maggie was around two. My mother and her brother had a falling out but agreed to not let it affect the kids. It did even though they tried not to let it. I think regret plays a big part of grieving. I called my dad the day he died to go to lunch. Our schedules didn't mesh and it didn't happen. he was returning from his lunch hour when he died. It took me years to accept that no matter what I did that day, I couldn't have known and I couldn't have changed how things went. And now I don't know what else to say other than to offer hugs and thoughts.

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    1. I am fortunate to have been born into this family. I have an uncle who says he wanted to marry my father's sister before he was even sure he loved her because he wanted to be a part of the family!!!
      Thank you so much for your condolences.

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  10. Thank you for sharing your memories about a wonderful person in your life. I feel like I got to know him, and I have been blessed by that. There is no making this better. It is just sad and you will miss him and think of him at all those important times you wish you could share. I send hugs to you and your family. Please do know, however, how blessed you were to have such a wonderful person in your life. It wouldn't hurt so much if he hadn't been such a great guy, but you are lucky you got to know him.

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    1. And there's so, so much more to him. I am just overflowing in memories and learning so much more about him from reading others' memories on Facebook. Thank you for recognizing what a great guy he was.

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  11. What a loss. What a gem of a man. I am so very sorry. May your treaure trove of memories give you comfort over the months to come. Sending you and your family a series of jumbo hugs.

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  12. Oh my... this is so clost to home right now I could have written (parts of) it myself... 'keep on swimming' is the perfect description for this daily, nightly muddling through.

    I'm so, so sorry for your loss...and what a loss...your cousin sounds like a lovely man...my prayers are with his wife and children this evening, and with you.

    Thoughts and prayers, Kimmie x

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    1. I'm sorry to hear it hits close to home. Thank you so much for your empathy.

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    2. You're welcome... and Thank you, for yours x

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  13. This is such a fabulous tribute to Reuben. Like Christine said, I've seen the Facebook stuff, etc., and this is such a beautiful portrait of someone who is clearly well-loved. Sudden death of a loved one is terrible to face - not that we're ever prepared for death, but losing someone with no notice, no time to prepare...sad and tragic of the greatest magnitude. And his age...my age...I can't even get my brain around that. I am so so sorry for your family's loss and your grief at this time. You are all in my thoughts, in my prayers, and in my heart. Call me or message any time of day or night for anything. Always.

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    1. That's the thing. He's the first young, non-sick person I've known and loved to die, and I think that's why it was such a tremendous blow. 44. I know.
      You're a true friend. Thank you.

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  14. ah shit, Sarah. Keep on swimming. xoxo

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  15. oh my - I am so so very sorry for your loss... you honor him so wonderfully, what a wonderful person, your memories are gems that actually does one thing and that is celebrates his life...how lucky you are to have witnessed all that your cousin accomplished, how he made you feel and the special friendship you both developed.. a bond forever.

    remember that bond and how he lived:)

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  16. I am so very sorry, Sarah. I saw your posts on Facebook, but I'm glad I came here to read your words about Reuben. Keep swimming, my friend.

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