I don’t know how to tell this story.
I don’t quite know what the story is.
Because I don’t know when it starts. Or how it ends.
Maybe the story started with the awful day in January when I got the call I had imagined getting for almost two years but believed and hoped I’d never get. “Owen has been given hours. His tumor didn’t shrink enough where they could start the new treatment Monday. They will make sure he’s in no pain, and he’s surrounded by Ed and Laurel and Leda and his girlfriend, Stacia, and Sasha, his best friend since childhood. Soon he will go into a coma and then he will pass away.” I kept saying “No, no, no, no, no, no.” Not my little Owen. My little cousin Owen. I don’t know how long I sat frozen on my bed making these guttural wailing sounds. At some point I picked up my phone. I was in California. I was supposed to fly to Philadelphia the next day for a wedding. Owen was supposed to beat brain cancer.
That night, I took moments to glance at the clock on my phone, wondering, where in time and space was Owen? What part of his journey was he on at this particular moment? I suppose I have my own magical thinking that began in earnest this night, that Owen would somehow beat this, too. I didn’t know how. But if anyone could figure out how to beat time and space, it would be the smartest and most wonderful and bravest human I knew. My cousin Owen.
Maybe the story is a different story, and it starts at a Christmas party last winter with my friend Kevin. I’m a bit down, but we are having fun. At the very end of the night, I’ve had too many and my new agent comes over. I don’t know what we even talk about, but he insists, “Just come meet the guy over there with the mustache.” The guy over there with the mustache is handsome. I almost say yes. But then I say no. I’m 35. I’m very used to being single. The majority of my male friends are gay. The two men I’m with at the table are gay. I think it’s sad that everyone wants to set me up, like it’s sad to look at me or something. I’m doing great!
Okay, but I do like to smooch, and it’s Christmas, and I feel cute in my outfit, so I talk to the man with the mustache. He’s very cute. I have social anxiety, and I’m drunk and tired, so I have no idea what we talk about. He comes home with me. The next morning I’m a little more shy. He is less shy. “Can I give you my number?” he asks. I hand him the pink-flamingo pen my psychiatrist gave me that week. I find an old receipt, and he writes “Jack” and his phone number on the back. Now I have to text him first in order for him to have my number. I text him right after he leaves. I like him. Our timing isn’t great. We both live in New York, but I’m about to go to California for a month. He’s going to Cuba for two weeks. They don’t have great internet.
Maybe the story starts March 2018. My dad has started a new thing I love, where he sends me a text almost immediately after each show: a little summary that is, of course, always complimentary of his “girlie.” This Saturday he doesn’t text me. That’s odd, but maybe he’s just asleep. The next morning he texts and says to call him. His tone immediately scares me: “I have some bad news about Owen.” Of all people this is not who I expect. Owen is 28 years old and in great shape, and what could be wrong with Owen? “He was having migraines, and he took himself into the ER. He got an MRI, and they found a tumor.” We cried together on the phone. Brain cancer is a death sentence, right?
I went to see my cousins, Owen and Leda, at my uncle Ed and aunt Laurel’s apartment. I had no idea what to expect. What’s it like after you find out you have brain cancer? I’m nervous on the way there. Owen’s had surgery to remove the tumor. Will he be bald? Will he look sick? I am holding back tears in the elevator. I get to the door and Owen opens it, his normal, towering, skinny, string-bean frame greeting me, arms wide open for a hug. “Hey, cuz.” I immediately feel okay. He’s smiling. I hug Ed next, who is less confident than Owen. Then Laurel, who is always Aunt Laurel — determined and on some task or another. She seems busy. This is the first time I see it as an armor. She’s going to make sure that we have snacks on the table and that everybody has water. She keeps the most beautiful home and always has — it’s a magical skill to someone like me.
Owen flops on a chair. Laurel is deaf in one ear, so he’s always been used to talking loudly. I’m not sure what to talk about, but Owen leads the way. Soon I’m laughing. I love this kid so much: “You know how everybody goes online and goes on WebMD and panics and convinces themselves they have brain cancer? Well I’m the one who actually had brain cancer.” His doctors are great, he says. They’ve got a plan. He’s got a plan. His only problem is boredom.
I hug him good-bye. I think I needed it more than him. Owen has this quality of being the one who supports everyone around him, even while being the one who is undergoing vigorous treatments for glioblastoma. Uncle Ed walks me outside. He’s visibly upset and nervous. I say, “I think he’s going to be okay. I really do.” And I really did. I saw that kid up there. He’s fearless. And he’s really special.
Does it start near the end? It’s Sunday, March 8, International Women’s Day, and Jack comes with me to watch the U.S. Women’s National Team play against Spain in the SheBelieves Cup. He’s excited to be there, to watch women’s soccer with me. He gets choked up when he sees the number of little girls who get to have sports heroes, as it’s still rare even though they are the most badass team in the world. But I digress. Jack is loving the game. U.S. wins. Duh. Jack says he thinks women’s sporting events might be his new thing. No loud, drunk guys. We go out to eat and wait for traffic to die down before getting a Lyft home. As the restaurant starts to fill up, I wonder if this is a bad idea. The coronavirus is coming, isn’t it? Although, I wonder, what is that really? I am more nervous than most people, so I shrug it off.
That night, Jack does this thing he does where he grabs my hands when I’ve absentmindedly started picking at the skin behind my nail. It’s a thing I do. I pick at things in every way. It’s nerves, it’s anxiety. He notices. He says, “I want you to feel like you can hold my hand instead.” I don’t tell him, but it’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me. We talk that night. Like, the talk I haven’t had in six years. Are we dating? I like you. Let’s be dating.
At first I thought it was so difficult to meet someone right as I was losing someone I loved so much. I knew he’d have to be patient with me. He’d have to let me grieve. It would be easier not to even try during that process. But grieving for Owen was like nothing I’d ever experienced, and I promised Owen and myself to continue to let all that love be there along with the sadness.
So when Jack leaves that night, after the talk, I say, “I think you were a gift to me from Owen.” And I like thinking of it that way.
Jack calls me that Friday morning and says, “I have a fever.” Jack’s got the coronavirus. What bad timing. So now you know how it could start.
Now it’s time I tell you (if you couldn’t already tell) I’m a bit lost. So here are some more parts of the story, in some order.
Owen told me in August about a great new doctor he has, Dr. Henry Friedman. He’s the head of neuro-oncology at Duke. He’s leading the way in using polio therapy for GBM. That’s the acronym for Owen’s brain cancer. I’m learning the language of cancer now. Owen says Henry is the first doctor to bring up the word cure. I love this doctor. Owen starts polio treatments. I have no idea what that means and what it means for his body. In fact, I will never know what Owen experiences because he will never let on to the extent of his struggles. I’m not the only one. Doctors looking at his final MRI say later that because of the size and position of his tumor, they didn’t know how he was standing and laughing and talking as long as he was.
I’m in the middle of my two-week quarantine in my tiny apartment in New York. I’ve cried every day. I’m scared about Jack. I’m really scared. He has had a bad fever for a week. He didn’t answer his phone yesterday. I text a doctor friend who suggests a police welfare check. I have had anxiety and depression since high school. I take Wellbutrin. I’ve gone to years of therapy. I take Xanax when needed. This is a really bad time for mental health. Today I decide the anxiety is worse. I’d rather be depressed. I get really low. I wake up Friday and I turn my phone on airplane mode and I start drinking. I think it’s going to fall apart with Jack now. I’m upset with him for not understanding why I constantly need to know he’s okay. I’m upset with myself for needing to constantly know he’s okay. I’m upset with friends talking about missing their fucking birthdays. What if Jack dies? What if I die? Owen just d—. I can’t say it or write it. I’m so low and I’m so afraid. I’m afraid of the water coming out of my pipes. I’m afraid of outside. And I am so alone. I’ve never felt so alone.
I ask Owen out loud to please help Jack. To help me. I immediately feel bad for asking. I just feel bad.
The next morning Leda texts me that she’s upstate. She says she’s heard a lot of birdsong, so we are in good hands. Thank you, Leda. Thank you, Owen. Perfect timing.
I send Jack the video of Owen’s beautiful service. I spoke about the weird little red-haired boy I first met as a kid who came back into my life as an adult and taught me about family and what it is to feel that kind of love. I talked about his love for birds. The boy who loved birds flew away. Jack tells me he went to high school with one of Owen’s friends, Nate. Nate from Antarctica!
“Nate’s coming from Antarctica. Can you believe it?” Laurel had said as she went through letters and emails and flowers in a much quieter apartment, days after Owen had gone. We ate dinner, and I tried to make them laugh a little. I think Owen would want that. I know he would want that.
Jack’s roommate sends me a video after Jack’s chest X-ray and doctor visit. Jack is in a mask and gloves. He’s out of breath. He’s tired. He looks sick. He says the X-ray looks good. He coughs. Then, even though he’s out of breath and sick, he still says, “My doctor is such a great doctor.” I rewatch this video in my quarantine. It makes me laugh a little. It makes me cry. He’s really sick.
Leda tells a story at Owen’s service. She had asked one of Owen’s doctors if she was scared when she told him they couldn’t do anything more for him, that he would have hours to live. I had this thought, too. But I knew he wouldn’t be scared. The doctor said that while most patients panic and try to bargain in this moment, which makes me really sad to hear, Owen didn’t. Instead he thanked her for trying her best. And for all she’d done for him.
So I don’t know what this story is. The world is upside down. I’m holding devastation and love in equal measures. What is bad timing when the timeline seems irrelevant? What’s the ending? Would you even know?
I’m at the Knicks game. Bulls vs. Knicks. I’m with Owen and Leda and Michael Che. The photographer gets photos of us crazy cheering. Owen’s got his fists in front of his face and I’ve got one raised in the air and my mouth is wide open. Leda is doing the same. We are crazed. We are family. I don’t remember if they win or lose. We go out afterward and get a drink at an Irish bar. We laugh at Michael Che ordering bangers and mash. Owen orders a beer. We are laughing. It’s a normal night. I like seeing him like this. It makes me think he’s gonna be okay. I know he’s gonna be okay.
It’s the last night I will see Owen. But I don’t want to end that way. I don’t like that ending for any story.
Here’s a thing I know for sure: I had a cousin named Owen who had red hair as a little boy and he was a serious kid and he loved birds. He taught me about love during his life and he’s teaching me about love after. And I’m really lucky.