My cousin Gregg is pictured in the image above, next to his brother Bruce who is wearing blue. (I’m third in from the right, wearing a black t-shirt.) This photo was taken some years back, at a family reunion at my Grandmother Polly’s house in Pennsylvania. Cousin Bruce has his hand on Grandpa Warren’s shoulder, and Warren died some years back. Bruce left this earth in 2014, quite suddenly. We’ve lost others, too, all in the progression of time and grief. Yet, as the Bhagavad Gita says, “Self is eternal,” and while my cousin Gregg was in hospice care, on Sunday November 20, I stood by his bed and said, “Let me read to you from the Bhagavad Gita.”
“The Bhagava-wha-huh?” Gregg said.
“The Bhagavad Gita,” I said, opening my mother’s copy of the book, an edition from the 1970s that she’d covered in red paisley cloth.
“Ah, okay.” Gregg nodded. He knew the book, though he wasn’t someone who’d studied it. However, he was familiar with it, and had an idea of what I was about to read to him.
I read the following out loud, paging to each bookmarked passage:
He who looks on the Self as the slayer, and he who looks on the self as the slain– neither of these apprehends aright. The Self slays not nor is slain….
But if you think the Self repeatedly comes into being and dies, even then, O mighty one, you should not grieve for it….
For to that which is born, death is certain, and to that which is dead, birth is certain. Therefore you should not grieve over the unavoidable.
Some look on the Self as a wonder; some speak of It as a wonder; some hear of It as a wonder; still others, though hearing, do not understand It at all.
I am not sure whether I read this to comfort him, or me. Or perhaps both of us.
He asked me to get him McRibs, but I couldn’t find a McDonalds that had them, so instead I brought him a meatball sub and the chocolate milk he asked for.
“Can I have my chuck muck?” he said, extending his hand over the bedside.
“What?” I asked.
“Chuck muck. That’s what I call chocolate milk.”
Annoyed by the fact that the woman at Subway had forgotten to put cheese on his meatball sub, Gregg’s last decision on earth was to sue the company– an effort that got no further than his declaration that Sunday night.
We knew that Gregg was sick, but I was sure he had another year, five or even ten. The decline was so fast I couldn’t see it coming, so quick that by the time I blinked, I was standing beside his body and saying goodbye. Then I was pulling the remainder of the chuck muck out of the fridge at the hospice house, staring at his name written on the side of the carton.
But before that, on Thanksgiving Day, I put my Grandmother Polly on speaker phone by the bed, and she said, “I love you, Greggy. I love you so much!”
“I love you, too,” he said, his voice pained, trying so hard to speak. It was the last thing he said, and he died the next morning.
I spent all of Thanksgiving Day in that room with him, talking aloud, making noise– just to remind him he wasn’t alone. That I would never leave him. That we would always be connected. I would’ve done anything for him, anything he’d asked of me.
Though I grew up with Gregg, and he was always in my life, we became close in a different way when he moved to Florida. It was the kind of camaraderie that only two close cousins could have. We also had the understanding that exists between two people who know what chronic pain is like. We understood each other on a level many others could not.
It’s been a week since he “dropped the body” and moved on to the next plane of existence. He was so tired. I think about when he was in the hospital for the second time in November, and he was talking about death.
“You’ll see Miles,” I said, thinking of my brother who killed himself in August of 2015.
“Yeah, I know, and I’ll see my mom,” he said, thinking of his mother who was murdered when he was only a baby. “And I’ll see Bruce, and Gram. And your father, Dennis.”
He’s with them now. After so many year of thinking of his mother, June, and wondering why. He’s with her now.
I woke up this morning and my first instinct was to check my phone to see if he’d called, because we talked every other day, and at the very least, every week. The voicemails he left on my phone are like little tiny presents I will save and treasure. His voice, frozen in time.
Here’s my message to Gregg:
You said to me, often, “I love you, cuz.”
I love you, too, Gregg.
You were cousin, friend, confidant. You said, “You’re like a daughter to me,” and I know you didn’t trust just anyone. For some reason you trusted me. I don’t really know why.
I know you’re with me, and one day I’ll see you again.
As the Bhagavad Gita says, “Self is eternal.” Never forget.