I think I could sit here and look at this screen all night, not exactly sure where to begin. As I went about my day today I had so many thoughts playing over and over in my head; things I thought I wanted to say, but the words aren’t coming out yet in the way I hear them internally. I listened to a few songs today over and over and over again and cried so many tears…I thought I had cried enough this past weekend, but still more kept coming. The music was cathartic, helping me to process and giving me solace in the only way that music can do.
On July 5th, my cousin Nick, died in Chicago. I spent this past weekend at home with my family to be at his memorial and celebrate his life. He was 36 years old and left behind so many people who loved him dearly and deeply. The circumstances of his death have left us with many questions, but few answers. At the end of the day, no matter what gets answered or not, he is still gone and there is no changing that.
My family has been struck with so much grief and sorrow this year…it almost seems surreal to know that we have lost 3 family members since February. I have to think that this should be the end for a while, but as we learn from going to funerals and memorials…life is precious and there is no rhyme or reason to its ending. In these times of grief there has also been so much joy and laughter and it has been a time of great strengthening of our family bonds. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and pride for the family that I come from, for our resilience and optimism towards life even in the face of so much sadness and heartache. We are an amazing tribe.
I grew up with my cousin, Nicky. I was 5 when he was born and there was my brother Garrick in between, so for the first 8 years of my life, it was always just the three of us. It’s true what they say about cousins and siblings being our first real friends in our lives and both of mine were exactly that. Even after all the other kids came (and there were many!), I stayed closest to Garrick and Nicky, mostly because of our proximity in age. I was raised in a very close knit family where my aunts, uncles and grandparents played a huge and important roll in my upbringing.
The night after Nick’s memorial, several of us went back to my parents’ house for a “get-together”. We toasted Nicky, played songs for him, danced like maniacs, drank entirely way too much wine and told stories. We cried lots of tears, some of sorrow, but many of laughter, recounting the good memories we had of him. Nicky would’ve wanted it that way. He loved life and his motto was, “Go Big or Go Home.” He had a heart of gold, would’ve given a stranger the shirt off his back and he loved his family so much. He was generous and giving, had a free-spirit and laid-back style, yet had an appreciation for the finer things in life. He loved to be outside in nature, especially in the mountains of Colorado and California where he lived for most of his adult life. The one thing about Nicky that no one will ever forget was his smile…he had a smile that filled the room with light. He smiled from his toes, until it looked like his face might crack…and it was so genuine. I see that smile in Calvin now when I look at him as I realized from looking at a lot of Nicky’s baby pictures over the weekend, how much they resemble each other. But there was some darkness that followed Nick’s life. He struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety and had several chronic physical ailments too. Pain existed in equal measures to the pleasure he sought to chase it away.
On the plane ride to Chicago, I had a notebook with me so that I could write while I was there. In it, I found some old journal writing from a trip I had taken to Italy in 2004. I hadn’t read through it in years and one of the passages just struck me as so kismet for Nicky’s passing. I incorporated it into what I prepared to read at his memorial. (I’m including it here because honestly, I am writing this blog post for my family more than anyone else out there in the world who may read it.) And as for the title of this blog post…yes, it is definitely in reference to the Beatles song. My family, especially my dad, understands why.
(2004) I have been thinking a lot about “choice” lately; what it is and how it manifests itself in our lives. Sometimes we possess it yet we don’t realize it. Other times we may need it, yet it is not given to us. I think about making choices as a stepping stone to growth. Since we’ve been able to take our first steps in life, we’ve made choices. Some we may now call mistakes or experiences or rewards, but at the moment of impact, at the first conscious recognition of the situation about to take place, we decided to make a choice. “Do I touch that hot stove?” “Do I pull that dog’s tail?”, “Do I fake my mom’s signature or lie about being sick to get out of going to school.”
Do I follow my gut and listen to my heart? Choice…it’s in our control to make the right ones, but unfortunately we sometimes make the wrong ones.
(2013) In 2007 I moved from Chicago to California, a choice that I had pondered strongly for several months and in the end one of the best I have ever made in my life. A few weeks after my arrival, after the proverbial dust had settled and I started to see clearly again through my bleary eyes and foggy head, I got to spend the day with Nick who was living up in Ukiah, about an hour and a half north from where I was Napa. It had been well over a year since we had last seen each other. Not that it mattered though, because as is usually the case with a close family member, it felt like it was just yesterday.
Nick greeted me standing on his driveway, with that big, goofy Nicky Felz grin on his face…looking like the Cheshier Cat , in shorts and a t-shirt, flip flops and a lid, a cigarette in one hand. He gave me one of his big, bone crushing bear hugs. “DEW!!!!!!! Welcome to Cali, Cuz!!!” Nick was the only one in my family to still call me by my childhood nickname (Dara Dew) and it made me laugh to hear him say it.
He showed me around the house that he was renting and the construction work that he was doing to it. We made small talk and went outside to throw balls to his two dogs, Aspen and Porter. After a while, we got to really catching up and shared some funny memories with each other about our childhood and talked about what was happening with other people in our families. What I remember most about that conversation, and the day in general, was the feeling of optimism and hope we both shared about our personal futures. We talked at length about the idea of reinventing our lives, about new beginnings and starting over and what that felt like. In the end we determined that things were going to turn out just fine for both of us.
After our heavy conversation, we took a drive to go find a bite to eat. More than any other memory I have had of Nicky over the past week, the one from that car ride sticks out in my mind the most. It was a beautiful spring day, we had the windows rolled down to catch the breeze on our arms, watching the treetops whiz past us. The sky was bright blue without a cloud in sight and up there in the mountains it just goes on forever. Nick was driving his truck with one hand on the wheel, the other hanging out the window, a Phish CD on the stereo and a content look on his face. This is how I will always remember him, as his carefree self, driving through the mountains of CA on a road that was wide open in front of him, not completely sure of where he was going, but certainly enjoying the ride.
Our hearts are so heavy from his loss, from the questions that we have and the hurt that we feel. The fabric of our family has been permanently altered and our lives will never be the same in so many ways. But we have a choice in how we want to go forward, in how we want to remember Nick and carry him with us. We may never understand why he made the choices he did or the pain he felt. But I do know that every person in this room will always remember his gracious spirit, his open and searching heart, his huge grin and big hugs and the love he felt for each one of us. I believe in my heart that Nick is in a better place, that he is no longer searching for what he may never have found in this life. He is on a new journey now, a different road rises up to meet him each day, one of eternal light and peace. And I know that he will forever be smiling down upon us all.