On the Thursday before Thanksgiving, my cousin died. He tested positive for COVID-19 and got admitted to the hospital a few days before then. “You guys used to be close,” my wife said after my mother told me of his hospitalization. “You should call him.” A day later, my mother said the same.
At one point in my life, my cousin was more than that. I considered him an older brother. Together, we left El Paso and were roommates for the couple of years we lived in Phoenix. I was 17, he was 26. I knew nothing, and we owned just a few things. The first several weeks on our own, we slept on the floor—next to each other—and shared a comforter.
We never had a falling out. There was no big fight or disagreement. No tragic reason for seeing each other less and less. We just grew apart. You get married, move away, and have kids. That’s more than enough to alter life.
And while we once spent every day together, eventually, we saw each other a handful of times each year, mostly during holidays. On those rare days we saw each other, we’d talk and laugh about things from long ago. About how, in Phoenix, we didn’t know how to manage our money. Each Friday afternoon, we’d cash our checks from working construction, then ate like kings. By Sunday night, we braced ourselves for a week of eating like paupers.
It was during those talks when I’d always think to myself, “I should call him more often.” For a variety of reasons—none of them feel good enough now—I never did. Because of the pandemic and everything else, it had been more than a year since I last saw him.
When I called him at the hospital, it went straight to voice mail. “Humberto, es Tohui. Nada mas quería ver como seguías,” I said. I just wanted to see how you were. He always called me “Tohui” and because he did, everyone else did too. And because everyone called me that, while in Phoenix, I got that nickname tattooed on my left forearm.
I called the next day, again. And again, it went straight to voice mail. That time, I didn’t leave a message and I’m not sure why. I suppose I assumed he’d be alright. That he would recover, just like every other family member who contracted the virus did, except for one. So, even if hospitalized, I assumed I’d see him again. And that the next time I saw him, we’d talk about what it all felt like, before talking and laughing of things from long ago.
“I called, but he didn’t answer,” I told my mother, in Spanish, when she asked how the phone call went. “I left a message.”
During that same phone call with my mother, on that same Thursday, she told me doctors intubated him. A short time after, my cousin died alone, surrounded by unfamiliar faces.
When my mother told me, she cried. It’s always startling to hear someone in pain on the other end of the phone, more when it’s your mother. I felt helpless. I had nothing to say, and hearing her sobs felt surreal. She’d always been the calming voice. When my uncle died earlier this year—also of COVID-19—her untroubled tone said that at least he, who had battled his own demons, was no longer suffering. Even as I cried, her serene voice said it was alright. But with my cousin, it was different.
She cried, and even when she wasn’t, her voice sounded somber. The way all our voices did. The way my aunt sounded when I called to tell her how sorry I was. The way my cousins—his brothers—all sounded when I called them to tell them the same. The way I assume, my voice sounded when I tried to tell them how sorry I was that we’d all grown apart. So far apart that, at the end, I had to make a few calls just to get each of their phone numbers.
My cousin’s funeral was on the Thursday after Thanksgiving. Today. I won’t be there. I never thought I wouldn’t see him again. Just like, when I was 17 and knew nothing, I never realized that as we get older, relationships don’t have to get fucked up for them to just fall apart. That it takes an almost invisible effort to keep families and traditions together or they’ll also die. Never considered that, perhaps, chasing ambitions is stupid when it means losing something bigger than what’s selfishly gained.
Among the 53 names listed in the obituary section of the December 1 issue of the El Paso Times there’s Humberto Rosales. That was my cousin. We saw less and less of each other, but I once considered him my older brother. The last time I saw him, we talked and laughed about things from long ago. We talked of what had become of our lives. I assumed I’d see him again.