I grew up in California, and my cousin Danny grew up in Illinois, so we hardly knew each other. He came out for a visit when we were little kids, but neither of us remember much about that time. I loved his mom, my Aunt Betty. She was my father's sister, and when Dad was dying, she came out to spend some time with us, with him, to say her last tearful good-byes and try to put a good face on losing him. She was kind, caring and nurturing—everything my own mother was not, and I always wished that fate had allowed me to grow up as her daughter.
It was Aunt Betty I wrote to when I was in my mid-forties and wanted some insight into my father. Since I'd been a young child when he died, I knew little about his character apart from the sketchy criticisms Mom would make if I asked her. I wanted to hear about him from someone else's perspective, so I wrote Aunt Betty and asked her what kind of a man my father was.
Many months later I received a large envelope in the mail which contained a letter, photographs, copies of newspaper clippings and an audio CD of Aunt Betty and my dad's brother, Maurice, being interviewed by my cousin Mick about my dad. The information they sent was an introduction to the father I'd never known, and after sifting through all of it for hours, I wept that I had not had the chance to know him better. Turns out he was a pretty good man, all things considered.
Thus began a renewed friendship with my cousins, especially Danny, that grew as the years went on. Via mail, email and, eventually, Facebook, we introduced our families to each other, our children and our grandchildren. But Danny resisted the cyber world, so a couple of times a year, he would call me or I would call him, and now I wish I had a recording of every one of those calls. Somehow, we talked as old friends, even though we'd missed sharing a majority of our lives. And somehow he knew—whether consciously or not—that his time on this earth would be limited. We never chatted about mundane things, though occasionally he would ask about the weather on the mountain where I lived, and I would sometimes wonder how much snow they were getting in comparison. Mostly, we talked about the growth and development of our own psyches. We longed to be good parents and beloved grandparents, but we both were all too conscious of our own flaws. So I encouraged him, reminding him often that his role in the family was to keep everyone connected (a role he took quite seriously), and he would remind me that my role was to write, as that was the gift I'd been given.
And we talked about our mortality. He told me long ago that he was ready to go because we both found the world to be a harsh place. "But I got too many people who depend on me," he would say, and when his grandchildren were born, he found a renewed vibrancy and determination to be around to guide them around the pitfalls of life.
For the past few years, every time I would return from my annual trip to Missouri, he would call and let me know he knew I'd been "close enough to drive to Illinois." In the summer of 2014, I promised him I would not return to Missouri again without coming to see him, which I did this past summer. By then he had already been diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life some short months later. But what a reunion. I had not been in the physical presence of my cousins for fifty years. But we embraced as good friends, and we spent our time together laughing and teasing, just as I remember our times together when we were kids. And despite his rapidly progressing illness, Danny was his usual jovial, loving self.
To say that this man was one-of-a-kind would be an understatement. I have never known anyone like him, and my bond with him began in our first phone conversation as adults, when he told me he loved me unconditionally, without really knowing anything about me as a person. I knew he was sincere, and his love and encouragement have kept me moving forward, kept me putting fingers to the keyboard (yes, cousin, I know you're still checking up on me) for the past fifteen years. Because of him, I will push past the writer's block and the dysphoria and the discouragement, and I will continue to write. Because I want to make Danny Fiocchi proud of me. I want to honor his unconditional love for me.