I've been avoiding this post.
Even as I sit and trying to write this, I spend more time hitting the backspace key than any letter. It would have been even worse, trying to think of something to say at the open mike.
On the night of December 21st, 2009, Jesse Lee Buzzell - my 22-year old cousin - was driving with his girlfriend and their baby girl, after a holiday celebration with his girlfriend's family. It doesn't matter what happened in the car on the drive back; to ask the question is to lay the blame. Either way, having had a few too many drinks, Jesse stepped out of the vehicle to walk the last two kilometers home.
That was the last time he was seen.
Police were dispatched when he wasn't seen the next day - or the next. Volunteers, police dogs, helicopters and divers were all deployed in the search; but after a few days, they stopped looking. The dogs had led the volunteers to the side of a river, where his trail simply ended.
Saturday, January 22nd, 2010, we held his memorial.
With funerals, you can at least say goodbye, and be done with it. But with this memorial, you can only say au revoir, and trust that you will indeed see him again some day, be it in the flesh or otherwise.
I learned more about Jesse in those scant few hours than I had in his short lifetime. That, primarily, is why I had nothing to say at the open mike, and therein lies my grief. I didn't even know he was a Christian - I mean, how could he be, since he was so often in trouble with the law, and so quick with his anger, and so often subdued by his bad choices? But he was a Christian, and again, this is why I can say: come what may, I will see him again. (And I hope the angels turn a blind eye, because I'll have some choice and unsaintly words for him when I find him!) As troubled as he was, when advised of a friend's untimely death, he asked: "Did he know Christ?"
Most of what I know of him came from his later years - his trouble with the law on both sides of the Quebec/Ontario border, the dodgy friend or two he'd had, his little daughter...And yet, during the memorial, I learned how complex and frustrating and beautiful this young man really was.
As a child, he was so painfully shy, he had his best friend ask to go to the bathroom on his behalf. ("Teacher, can I go to the bathroom - for Jesse?") He loved to hear how he came to the family (born of an Inuit mother, who knew she couldn't give him the home he needed), and how, only days old, he had spent a night in an Edmonton hotel room, sleeping in a dresser drawer. As a child, I personally remember him as an absolute rascal, who loved to get yours truly in trouble! The whole family - every member, young and old - had rented a campground and held a reunion. One morning over breakfast, immediately after someone said grace, Jesse piped up and said, "She had her eyes open the whole time!" To which someone else replied, "And how could you have known that if your eyes were closed?"
He loved to learn. As his counsellor said, he simply had an allergy to certain elements in the educational system! He learned with his hands. He learned by exploration and by experimentation. As a child, in his father's workshop, I remember he could deconstruct lawnmowers and power tools and bicycles and put them back together again, without ever cracking the spine of any handyman's manuals. He loved to hard work, work that left him glowing and aching from exertion. And yet, as shy and soft-spoken as he was, he was headstrong, determined - and as one person called him, a warrior in his own self-defense.
How could I have missed so much?
With help from his father Steve and mother Nancy, my cousin Jodi, Jesse's elfin elder sister, built a slide show. Jesse's life was replayed in pictures, from his first days with his new family, to giddy school pictures full of mischievous and brave laughter - and a cloud of curly black hair that I'd always loved and giggled at; through later days when his smile had faded, and his eyes had aged with a profound familiarity with injustice, as the shrapnel of some unknown torment finally worked its way into his heart.
But the picture that was captured on the front of the memorial pamphlet was one of bliss, and contentment: Jesse, with his eyes half-closed, a soft smile playing on the corners of his lips, with his workman's hand gently curled under his newborn daughter's chin while she lay sleeping. It was a picture of quiet intimacy, a portrait of peace and hope for a new start. For her, the picture seemed to say, he could lay all else behind him, and he could walk tall, with her safely in his arms.
That picture had been taken at the beginning of December. No one could have guessed what was in store for the young father.
How could I have missed so much?
Being the eldest cousin on this side of the family by 7 years, I'd always felt a strong responsibility to set a good example for those who followed. I had to be good in school. I had to be a strong worker, and get a job as soon as I could - and later, to get a good career. I had to be someone they could look up to, and be proud of. All my time and attention was set on it. Perhaps I got so wrapped up in being the example that I'd forgotten why I wanted to be an example in the first place. I'd never stopped to look behind and see who was following my example, if anyone at all. And by the time I'd realized it, two cousins had married, three cousins had had children, and most weren't even my friends on my Facebook account!
At least on my mother's side of the family, I can name all my cousins and their wives. If I sat down with a calculator, I could probably even tell you how old they were! But on my father's side, I am a ghost. The details of that may never be written. There are some stories that don't need to be told.
On the morning of the memorial, I woke from a vivid dream: an uncle of mine, on my father's side, whom I hadn't seen in more than 25 years, approached me and handed me a slip of paper with his phone number on it. He wanted me to call. He'd been searching for me all this time. I woke out of breath, clenching my fist against my chest. Someone was searching for me! It was me who was lost! What was my quarrel with this uncle? What was my quarrel with any member of that family?
I am ghost to them. As I woke, trembling, trying to get myself dressed and ready for Jesse's memorial, I wondered, if it was me who had fallen through the ice, would they even know? Or had they already had their memorial service for me? Was I already dead to them? And by my own steady drift, how close had I come to disappearing from my mother's family as well? Had my friends become more important to me than a perfectly good family? Jesse has become a lesson learned nearly too late: my past, my heritage and my continuity is my family.
As long as there is life yet in me, I will reclaim what I had let go, so that the next time I go to a funeral, I will only sit and nod, thinking, "Ah yes, I remember that story," and never be surprised again.
Had I stood up before that open mike, I doubt I could have said much about Jesse (beyond that story about how that rascal got me in trouble).
But I would have said this to the young people in the crowd, and to the parents who had left them to their own devices: See the anguish in my Uncle Steve's eyes, hear the fury, the grief and the regret in his voice, and for his sake and yours, forgive and be found.