My mom was the youngest of eight children, evenly split with four boys and four girls.
The next generation started off in a sequence of eight grandsons.
Rumor is, my grandma used to bring both pink and blue blankets to the hospital for her new grandchild. She eventually just started bringing blue blankets…
I apparently changed the trend. After I was born, my sister and two other girls quickly followed.
Despite the size, my family has always been very close.
To us girls, none of whom have brothers of our own, the older cousins have always been our idols.
Each boy was unique: Charlie was the leader. George was the artist. Sam was the adventurer. John was the jokester. Jason was the soft-spoken voice of reason. Mike was the musician. Will was the military man. And James was the protector.
I love each of my cousins in different ways, but I was always particularly close to James. He was never too short on time to take a moment to simply listen, even if I was rambling about something pointless.
James also had a sparkling personality and an innate way of uniting the family.
For example, the week before I turned 18, I texted James.
“Guess what?” I asked, eager to remind him of my upcoming birthday.
“You better not tell me you’re engaged,” he jokingly replied. Classic James… Always looking out for me, while still making me laugh.
I wasn’t alone in the connection I felt with James. He cared for everyone and was never too proud to make light of himself for the sake of a smile.
This Christmas Eve, the tone of our family celebration was mildly somber. Will, James’ younger brother, had recently been deployed to Iraq. The gathering seemed incomplete.
In that instant, everyone burst into laughter. That was simply James: able to unite the family.
One week later, I flew to Connecticut to visit an aunt on the other side of the family.
Shortly after arriving, I received a call from my dad.
“I have some unfortunate news to tell you,” he said. “Your cousin James was taken to the hospital with a brain aneurism this morning…”
Suddenly, the air was stripped from my chest.
Aneurism? I had heard of this before… people don’t live from aneurisms.
My dad continued to talk, but I struggled to comprehend his words.
“He’s dead?” I asked.
Obviously full of regret for the news he had to give, my dad answered.
I let out an involuntary sob and my world began to spin. How could my cousin be dead when he was so full of life just the week before?
The next week was a blur. I went forth with my planned vacation, but thoughts of James were inescapable.
After a quick turn-around, I flew back to the place my family had spent a joyful Christmas just days before.
This time, instead of sharing presents, we shared memories. We laughed, we cried, we reminisced and we mourned.
It was comforting to be surrounded by family, but the reality that we would never again be complete was inevitable.
At James’ funeral service, which his brother was allowed to return home from Iraq for, it was clear that I wasn’t the only one who considered James special: The church was packed with friends, as well as dozens of other people whose lived James had touched.
After a few days with family, I was shoved back into reality. The second semester began and I started a new job on the newspaper.
Readjustment was a struggle. For the first real time in my life, my faith was tested—I just couldn’t comprehend why someone so amazing should be taken so young.
I spent a few weeks dwelling in shock, able to talk about James’ death as fact of the matter, but never allowing myself to let the actuality sink in.
Then, life went on.
In the time since, I’ve experienced some of lows, as I’ve struggled to find balance in life.
However, these months have also been some of the most rewarding. I’ve tested my strength and come out better on the other side. I’ve raced, I’ve written, I’ve reaffirmed my faith, I’ve even fallen in love.
Today is what would be James’ 25th birthday. Although he isn’t around to blow out any candles or open any presents, I know he is here in spirit… Laughter doesn’t die.