STANDING AT MY COUSIN’S GRAVE, MAY 2016

William Thompson

I’m standing in a graveyard beside my brother. The grass here is wet, and the rest of my

family has scattered to look for the dead—those family and friends who have lived and died on

this prairie landscape for over a century. We have just said the service over my aunt’s coffin, one

of the three aunts who helped to shape my boyhood. The coffin still sits over the grave, the top

scattered with the pansies my aunt loved.

           This is a quiet place—a secluded place. Trees sea-sigh as the rain drips intermittently

from a cloudy sky.

           “Where are we?” I ask my brother.

           “By the grave where those two boys are buried,” he says.

           Two boys.

           Brothers who never knew one another. Graham, the boy whom I loved as a child, and

Jerard Percy, the infant who never lived.

           Two brothers. Two boys.

           It’s taken me a lifetime to arrive at this graveyard. The accident that took my sight and

killed my cousin Graham happened forty years before, and this event has shaped my life and my

actions ever since.

           Boy, I think again. This moment is forcing a new awareness of this person and these

events. I’ve never thought of Graham as a boy. My memories of him are always filtered through

my own boyhood recollections where he is always my older cousin.

           I say it to myself—Graham was a boy when he died in 1974.

           At the time, he was thirteen years old, blond-haired, with hazel eyes, more blue than

green. He was blind too. He had lost his sight when they removed a brain tumor. He must have

been nine or ten at the time. And it occurs to me as I stand here that Graham and I lost our sight

around the same age. I’ve never made that connection before.

***

           As a seven-year-old, I don’t understand Graham’s blindness. “Can you see anything?” I

ask, with the directness and insensitivity of a child.

           My sister is there, two years older—more sensitive and more aware. “Shut up,” she says

to me. “Jeez!”

           The three of us are in my parents’ bedroom. We are here, I think, because this room is on

the main floor, and my aunt doesn’t want Graham negotiating the stairs up to our rooms. We are

separated from the adults in here—in this intimate space that, for the moment, has become a

playroom.

           My cousin is unperturbed. “I can sometimes see movement,” says Graham, his eyes

looking normal enough, but now carrying a stare I find disconcerting.

           My sister and I jump on the bed to see if Graham can see us moving. His hair is still

closely shaved from the surgery. I can see the stitches on the left side of his head beneath the

stubble.

           He decides to bounce on the bed as well. There’s a bump, and suddenly parents are

crowding their way into the room, scolding and reprimanding.

           My cousin Graham is not my only blind relative. I have an uncle who comes to visit—he

and his wife and children. My dad says Uncle Ed is a mortician, which is a word I don’t

understand.

           Uncle Ed sits on the couch, his nose pointed at a spot in the carpet that covers the old

hardwood. His hands clasp the top of a cane. It’s a walking cane, not a white cane. I sit beside

him, talking freely and interestedly. Having one blind cousin has made me feel I’m now an

expert on the blind people in my family.

***

           In this present, standing by Graham’s grave with my brother beside me, the memories

flick across my awareness like photos:

           Graham and I riding the old, taffy-colored mare;

           Graham and I walking hand in hand across fields of grass and tiny cacti;

           Graham and I camped out at the edge of a field of barley;

           Graham and I lying in our sleeping bags, while I look up at the brightness of stars in a

black sky.

           All this precedes the accident—the event that altered my life, the noun that acquired its

own significance, its own weight within the family. This word told a story. It told of things

talked about and not talked about. It was my story; it was Graham’s story. But it was also a

caution, a warning buoy to tell of difficult waters ahead.

***

           I spent three months in the hospital after the accident. I adjusted to being blind. I went

back to school—a classroom for visually impaired kids in January, then my regular school the

next fall. I believed I was fine; it was important that I believe myself to be fine.

When prompted, I had a story I told myself and those who asked. It went something like

this:

           “I was staying on my cousins’ farm for a week. We decided to go swimming down at the

Oldman River. We took the truck. We were driving along one of those gravel roads—you know,

the ones that crisscross the province. We hit another car at the top of a hill.

           My older cousin was able to get out of the truck and try to go for help, but he didn’t get

far. They found him wandering by the river. My cousin Graham died on the way to the hospital.

My face hit the dashboard, and I broke my left femur. In the hospital, a doctor told me I would

be blind for the rest of my life.”

           That was the story as I constructed it. It was a neat package. No loose ends, no extraneous

detail; something I didn’t have to think about, something I could simply deliver to the curious.

I negotiated my teens. Then my twenties. As my twenties ran into my thirties, the

narrative I had told myself began to unravel in important ways. I began to realize I wasn’t fine,

after all.

           By the time I got to my forties, I had been in therapy for several years. I was having a

harder time holding myself together.

           One day, a friend said to me, “I saw this documentary on Vietnam war vets. It was about

post-traumatic stress disorder. It reminded me a lot of what you’ve talked about—with your

accident, I mean.”

           I had heard of PTSD. And I wondered, but I didn’t necessarily want to go there—I didn’t

think I wanted to go there. At the time, I was barely keeping my life together—drinking far too

much and on the way to alienating my children. But I had to know. So I asked my therapist the

next time I saw her.

           “Post-traumatic stress disorder. Is this what I have?” I asked.

           “The simple answer,” she said, “is yes.”

           I couldn’t take it in at first. I watched it go straight past, like a bus I should have been on.

But the drinking, the depression, the anger, the anxiety—all of it began to make sense. As I

slowly learned about PTSD, I began to see how this disorder has shaped my life. PTSD isn’t one

thing: it’s a constellation of symptoms, resulting from a physical or emotional trauma, that add

up to a debilitating disorder, which, I also learn, wasn’t even recognized by the Diagnostic and

Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 1980. It was all a little scary, but it gave me

something with which I could work.

***

           I kneel in the wet grass—over Graham’s grave. The headstone is marble, lying flat to the

earth, the letters cut deeply into its face. My fingers trace the letters, feeling the grainy wetness

of the stone. The past and present overlay one another here: I’m a boy, walking hand in hand

with my cousin, guiding him around the farm through all our adventures; yet here he lies, the boy

he was, sleeping beneath the grass with so many others.

           This place has a quiet and gentle quality. The trees sigh and the rain drips. I can hear my

relatives calling to one another in the distance. Everyone is on the hunt for names they recognize.

And there are many—Dillinghams, McFarquhars, Schuitemas, Zoetemans, and others. The dead

rest beneath the quiet sadness that gathers over and around these scattered stones.

           I’m aware that I’m imposing my sorrow onto these surroundings—my sorrow, my grief,

and the lifetime it took me to get here and not find the ending I wanted. I know the importance of

this present—my head understands, but my body is on hold, processing this day, absorbing these

events. I will be able to understand all of it later. But something tells me I haven’t arrived at an

end. It’s yet another point along a narrative continuum.

           And at this point in the story, I’m kneeling by my cousin’s grave on a rainy May

afternoon in 2016. It’s the day of my aunt’s funeral, and this is her son who died in 1974. They

lie not twenty feet from one another—son and mother, cousin and aunt.

           I’m here this day because of my aunt; I hadn’t anticipated finding my cousin all over

again. I had always looked for an end to the story of the accident—a way to close it off, or

simply close off that part of my life.

           And here I am, somehow back at the beginning. Maybe it’s the beginning I need to

understand. But these beginnings and endings get in each other’s way. A funeral is a way for the

living to say goodbye to the dead—isn’t it? My aunt’s life has now ended; Graham’s life ended

decades ago. Somehow neither is gone. Graham lives with me still—he is here with me now, one

half of the narrative I create and recreate of the accident that separated us as boys yet has

inextricably bound us ever since. If I take this day as another way to begin, then I can move

forward knowing I have recollected and re-collected these events, these people, in my effort to

revise and redefine the events of the accident and allow myself to enter a new part of the story.

© 2015 Cogswell College •  191 Baypointe Parkway, San Jose, CA 95134 800.264.7955 • www.cogswell.edu