It’s Latin. It means “One is flying on its own wings.”, substitute pronouns to taste. Today we buried my baby cousin, a few months shy of her 30th birthday. As usual( I have a usual for funerals, burials, & memorials now... that makes me feel old), I had quite a bit to say. Here it is, plus some notes in brackets to cover things the mourners would have known that general readers would not.
“So here we are, assembled in the strangeness of this moment. Where we all must go, my baby cousin has flown on ahead into the distance.
I remember when our grandparents died, our fathers’ parents, I spoke and she thanked me after; that I spoke, she said, for them. She did not give thanks or praise to me easily... So when I received a call–news of a helicopter explosion? And the unthinkable[, a flight paramedic killed in the crash with her crewmates]... I wondered what I could say to pay her the same tribute. To speak for a life that spoke for itself so clearly.
I realized that I can speak of quiet times, maybe not so in their intensity, but quieter in the world; those moments only we had known.
Rebecca is in so many of my earliest memories, and no doubt I remained in hers. I don’t know how many role models she took on before me, but I may have been among her first bad influences.[ grin] The best of friends we were, in those times–and co-conspirators.
Watching videos, playing games, & always plotting little rebellions against our parents around the corners, behind the doors, under the tables. Although not related by blood to our parents, the fathers who connected us, we had in us many similar streaks to each other. In hushed tones we praised each other’s dads & situations; and we sought freedom from the lives we led, to escape those finite worlds with their bounded edges. Always I was wiser, and often quicker, but although I was first to jump off walls & climb on ledges, she was ever bolder–not that I let her know it. I watched to guard her from what dangers I could, though she was headstrong and liked to show off.
As we grew older, friendship turned to rivalry. I remember a time when she would test me on school subjects, ask for my grades. When I became disinterested, first in such pursuits as quiz questions, later in schoolwork altogether, she professed confusion. “Well what’s it for?”, I asked. She told me I was crazy and walked away. She returned to add “and lucky.”. She came at me with another quiz a bit later; I answered perfectly–such things came too easy for me.
She barely said a friendly word for years thereafter, doubled down on her work, became even more incredibly accomplished. “Cool.”, I said, when she told me of some accolade she had earned. “Must be a lot of fun.”. Always oblivious, I didn’t quite get why a friend had to hold her back from clawing out my throat.
But whether it impressed me or not, Rebecca still had a great love of doing, as others have said, just about everything–and she excelled at it. Even while she revered & then resented me, I always found her fierceness fascinating.
I remember hanging out with Rebecca &[ her step-brother, when her father remarried,] Jakub. In my mid-late teens, I came out as gay & was diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder. She never blinked. She smiled, they asked questions and for once I felt happy to talk. Maybe the most in my life until then, happy to talk. About my theatre stuff, about boys, about being different. After that, she always seemed not to be looking towards me, but into some unknown horizon.
She let me know in no uncertain terms when she was a young woman who no longer needed protecting. I made a point of protectively threatening her boyfriend anyway. Some time later, after they broke up, she hollered at me for it–then burst out laughing.
When she first began to pursue her eventual career path, I told her it was an impressive one, but tough. She explained that she needed to learn more about who she was, and she knew that best in a crunch; plus she loved the idea of making a difference, a tangible difference that she could see in front of her & touch with her hands. I have heard the story of that first call[ when she handed off her patient to a flight medic crew], the dream of the sky that drove her thereafter.
Our grandparents passed, and I remember, as she spoke, the point when she was overcome. As she fell, I rose to catch her. I held her for a long moment as she sobbed, and we were young again, on the playground, with them watching us.
As adults, we did not often speak. Sometimes she was impatient, could not sit as I did, to just be; other times I could not get myself worked up as she did, to go, or to do. We occasionally celebrated things together, holidays & foreign visitors, talked about deeper matters only twice that I can recall.[ Of all we talked about] I remember what she told me[ about herself on those occasions]. The one time, that she wanted to be her own woman, not her father’s baby girl; I told her that she had shown herself to be that woman already–but she was still my baby cousin Worm anyway. She slugged me, then hugged me. The other time, as she sought to become a paramedic, she told me that she wanted to make her parents proud, but do it in a way that could let her feel proud of herself on her own terms; I told her that I could offer no more advice, as I’d stalled out & she had long since passed me on her way to living that life–she was now my role model & inspiration. Her eyes gleamed for a moment, then she nodded. Her gaze wandered far again, became steel.
I worried, that in her frantic life she never took the time to appreciate herself, to come to terms with the past, to forgive. But who was I, now, tell her what to do? Still, we were always solid to call on each other... we knew it, though we never found occasion. Even when we were frustrated with each other, trust was in it too.
When the news came, I thought I was in shock[, as I had so little sadness in me]. This was my precious friend & rival, follower & companion. I had not protected nor saved her. But, no, I gradually grew to feel certain she was at peace & I could be. Now I only wondered how.
Slowly at first, the pieces came together. The simple reality with which she responded when a New Jersey friend suggested she come home[ to where she had grown up in NJ] in response to frustration–days before her death, she firmly answered that she was home[ in New Mexico]. It soon came to my knowledge that her mother was to have visited[ would have been there on the funeral date]. [Her boyfriend Brandon’s] children were coming to stay[ in NM, to live & attend school there,] soon. Brandon was planning to propose[ at a renaissance fair; she had loved such events]. She had truly found her heart & her home in the west, in Brandon, in the desert, in the kids, in the sky. By the time she turned 30, she would have it for everyone to see, everyone who had doubted her, everyone who had supported her; for herself to see, and for God to see her.
Finally, I heard a story. At the last exchange between her & our other cousin, on the weekend before Rebecca’s death, she had been dejected over missing an intubation, her last perfect record blown after a dozen years. A few days before she died, they talked as cousins do, as pros do. Rebecca fretted, and Nicki reminded her that we are not machines. That Rebecca was human, & incredible either way. That high standards were good, but it was what she had done, not what she hadn’t done, that would remain & stand testament to her existence. Rebecca thanked her and began to work at getting over it. In the end, Rebecca had everything, including self-honesty, wanted for nothing, nor self-acceptance.
The night before she died, I found the Christmas card she had sent me, and thought about what I might say if I called her. I like to say, nowadays, and wanted to tell her–in explaining me, explaining our past, and to help her secure her future–that we all have strengths & weaknesses, so everyone deserves to have his or her unique strengths recognized & relied upon, and his or her weaknesses known & covered without hesitation. The outpouring of grief on faces here shows she was loved. The gratitude expressed shows she was relied on; her strength was recognized, no doubt. But it’s when I hear about how she & Nicki would talk, when I see Brandon & his family–her family, now ours too–that I know her weakness had a home too, & that she was covered. I am so immensely grateful for that; and that we can all rely on & cover each other in this difficult time.
She wanted more than anything to share that life she built with her loved ones, she & I did not have to talk for me to know that. I say a lot with language, but I have always loved best they to whom I could speak without saying a word.
Sometimes the first instinct is best... so to all of you, I offer the part of her life that was mine. To her, again, the first thing I wrote to her on Facebook when I knew she was gone: ‘[O]ne day short of 5 months after hearing about my friend Bender, I am painfully reminded yet again to never wait to speak one’s heart. I kept thinking of you, found your Xmas card just last night, but said nothing, & now no words are enough, Worm–no, wait; you’ll always be my baby cousin in my mind, but no more teasing... Flyin’ Lion: I salute you, & love you always. Glad you went out on top, living the life you wanted. We should all be so blessed & so accomplished. Peace be with you in the next life.’
One last thing, now, that came[ into the conversation] from another friend of hers on Facebook. This I find most appropriate for such a Lion Heart, one that strove so hard to be free & came free at last in binding herself, beyond words & beyond life, to purpose, to sky, and to all of us:
alis propriis ea volat–“[on] her own wings, she flies.”