by Charles McGuigan
Just two years ago, on our way back from Maine, my son Charles and I visited with my cousin Kosh and her family in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. It was a tradition that had started ten years earlier. We would see them on our way up to New England, and again on our way back down the coast, and sometimes we would spend New Year’s with them, and other times Easter. They had welcomed us—my daughter, my son and me—into their family, and to this day Charles still calls Kosh’s sons “The Three Brothers”, male siblings he would not otherwise have.
Late at night, as the house activity died down, as lights flicked off one by one, Kosh and I sat at the kitchen table and talked. When the dishwasher, with a warm purr, began its final rinse cycle, we replenished our wineglasses and retreated to the back porch of the old stone house where we sat in steel mesh chairs around an oblong table with a glass top. At the far end of the property, practically kissing the rear fence, a large rectangle of turquoise glowed in the surrounding darkness. The day before, The Three Brothers had worked through the entire afternoon with Charles, teaching him how to swim, not simply tread water, and just a few hours ago, even after sunset, he swam laps from one end of the pool to the other with strength and confidence. When Charles flipped over and simply floated on the surface he seemed to be impressed into an enormous emerald-cut jewel.
The rasp of steel on flint, a flurry of sparks, a jet of flame, and Kosh lit a cigarette. She inhaled, released smoke, considered the lighter clenched in her right hand, then spun the serrated wheel with her thumb, and again made fire, studying the flame for a moment before removing her thumb from the fork, which instantly stopped the flow of gas, and the flame died. The third time Kosh lit the lighter, I touched my own cigarette to the flame.
We talked until a little after three that morning. Kosh had been a lawyer before her children came along, had practiced with Barnett and Brown, and knew a lot about labor law. Our conversations would often revolve around politics, religion, travel, art, and, of course, her three sons and husband. Kosh also told me scores of family stories that I’d never heard before, shedding light on the odd dynamics of our family, the causes of ancient alliances, the sources of enduring animosity. Through high school and then college, she practically lived with Laura Cosgrove, my maternal grandmother, and they would sit in her kitchen on Moyamensing Avenue in South Philly, and Kosh would listen to story after story about our family and its history. We were all born of immigrant stock, and at various times our forbears were treated with contempt as aliens in a new world, a not-so-nice world at times. I’d heard parts of these stories before, but Kosh was able to flesh them out and give them context.
Mainly though, she would talk about her three sons— Grigorios, Antonios, and Andreas—and her husband, and their father, Antonis Papadourakis. She would tell me about their progress in school, their interests, their distinctive personality traits, their successes in rowing. That first summer we visited the Papadourakis clan, Kosh’s children embraced my son as if he were one of their brothers. Charles is younger than The Three Brothers and they were protective of him, and helped him out of his shyness, and Kosh treated him as one of her own.
At about three o’clock that same morning two years ago, Kosh’s speech became slurred, but we’d been drinking for hours, so there was nothing unusual in this. In a short time she went to bed, and much later that same morning, after Charles and I returned from a bike ride along the Schuylkill River, Kosh was still slurring her words, and, as she stood behind the granite-topped island, a coffee cup raised in her hands like an offering, she lost her grip and the cup fell into the stainless steel sink. It didn’t shatter, but Kosh looked at her hands as if she had never seen them before. “I don’t think that’s ever happened in my life,” she said. She didn’t say anything more.
Eight months later, just sixteen months ago now, Kosh told me she had been handed down a death sentence in the form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, a disease which is always fatal. It is the most insidious of maladies.
Nourishment to the muscles ceased, and one by one they wasted away. Motor neurons began dying off, and slowly Kosh began to lose control of her own muscles, these marvels that had responded to her every whims even before her birth. Suddenly it was gone. Even simple voluntary movements like holding a coffee cup or stepping down from a curb became increasingly difficult. In time she would lose the ability to speak, to eat, to walk, to text a message. To breath.
In those first few months after the diagnosis, we talked on the phone regularly, and in the beginning her speech was just barely slurred, but as time went on it became increasingly difficult to understand what she was saying, and when she spoke it sounded painful, as if each word formed in her larynx drained her of energy. She often seemed exhausted after uttering a single sentence.
On about that time I sent this letter to Kosh.
I have been trying to compose this letter to you for more than three months now. I’ll get so far, then just scratch it all out, because words do have limitations, and they cannot adequately express the fury, the bitter anger, the deep sense of injustice, the profound sadness and, of course, the overwhelming love I have for you.
It was because of you that the two sides of the McGuigan/Cosgrove clans—divided by a deep rift that cleaved the two families decades ago—reunited, at least somewhat. Your honesty and kindness, your willingness to listen, made all that possible. No one else in these families could have done that, for you possess that rarest of human qualities—the ability to truly see beyond self. You do not judge, you do not mock human frailty, nor do you hold transgressions against the perpetrator. I’ve often thought that those who espouse Christian values should study your actions carefully; they might learn a thing or two, put into practice the clear words of their Savior as framed in His Beatitudes, but unfortunately, all too often, they are swallowed by their own self-righteous judgement, delight in casting stones, counting their beads, thumping their chests, parroting their empty words in the desolate spiritual chasms of their churches.
I learned more from you about what godliness really is than from any religious text I’ve ever read. You embody the profound truths of Buddha, Christ, Mohammad. You live as they lived. You are the best of what they preached, and within you it is a constant. I do hope that all who know you understand the sort of presence they are in when near you. You shower grace on all who are open to it, and it is not some hokum magic grace, emanating from some mythical spot in the heavens. It is real, the sort of grace that makes all feel welcomed and loved: This is Divinity.
You have lived all your days to date with seemingly effortless grace, and your life work glows in the home you created, and the husband and the three sons (Charles’ “three brothers”) you nurtured. Each of those boys, now men, know what unconditional love is, and will be forever guided on a path of acceptance and kindness in a world where far too many pursue a road that leads to intolerance, pettiness and sheer meanness.
You have created a future for our world through your children, a much better future than the world has ever known, and those future-bearers you created will no doubt one day create more promising futures through their own children. This spark, igniting gentle warmth, was generated by the flint of your kindness.
From the moment my children and I first entered your home in that long-ago summer 2006, you bathed us all in your love and hospitality. Both Charles and Catherine look upon you as another mother. That olive oil bottle and recipe book you gave to Catherine are still two of her most prized possessions; they were among the first things she packed when she moved into her own apartment.
You always allowed Charles to be just Charles. You never raised your voice to him, never said a cross word to him, and your sons captured him in their netting of acceptance, making him one with them. What this did for Charles over the years is beyond measure. You and your family helped him become who he is.
Our long, meandering talks through the night and into the morning, either in your kitchen or out on the back porch, punctuated with tobacco and spirits, glowing and flowing, are among my best recollections, and always will be, as long as memory persists. We all love you very much, and we think about you often.
Late last July, Charles and I drove up to New Jersey and spent three days in the old stone house with Kosh. My aunt and uncle, who live just across the Cooper River from Kosh, were frequent visitors at lunch and sometimes dinner. Kosh and I talked almost constantly, including late night sessions on that back porch.
A mysterious vine that grew up along the stone garage in the backyard had all but covered an entire wall. The leaves were something like Virginia creeper, except much thicker and waxier, more like English ivy. For years this vine had remained a mystery, and Kosh had no idea how it got there. It hadn’t been there when they bought the house. When Kosh went to bed, I continued sitting in the backyard till well after three in the morning, and at times, just to move, I’d go to the garage and run my fingers through those curious vines, and there was a film of dew on the leaves. Overhead I could see stars, along with Mars and Venus, the wanderers, among them.
A few years back my mother died at the age of eighty-two. Several years before, like Kosh, she had been handed a death sentence by another gruesome illness, one that would ravage her mind for years before she finally gave up the ghost. In my mother’s case, the culprit was Alzheimer’s, which systematically drained all the lagoons of her memory, yet her body remained healthy. Toward the end, when her mind had all but evaporated, her body persisted.
It was just the opposite for Kosh: Her brain was in perfect shape, while her body died around it. And one of the more horrific things about ALS is that all five senses remain on the alert. Kosh could see, hear, feel, smell and taste the external world because her brain still received all of those messages, but she could not respond to a one of them.
Just last month I received a call from Antonis, Kosh’s husband, who is one of the best men I have ever had the privilege of knowing, and who is more like a brother than the spouse of a first cousin. Kosh had died, he told me, with her family gathered round her. She died in her home with hospice support, and the week before her passing, the only parts of her body she had control over were a thumb and an index finger. The disease had whittled away the rest of her.
The next day, Kosh’s eldest son, Grigorios, posted the following on Facebook:
I don’t really know what to do or say right now. I still remember that day sitting in the waiting room at Penn before your diagnosis and thinking it was just going to be a routine visit.
You lived with such a horrible, horrible disease for more than sixteen months. Every day was worse than the previous one. From losing your ability to eat and drink to losing your speech and mobility. You endured so much and the only comforting part of your passing is that you are no longer suffering.
It still doesn’t make it any easier. You didn’t deserve this. You were an amazing mother and wife, a great daughter, sister, and friend. You taught my brothers and me the importance of love, the importance of family. You taught us to be kind and have integrity. You were an example to us of how to be generous and how to follow through. Mom, you were my best friend and confidant. You had the biggest impact on my life out of anyone. I hope you rest easy– I know you’re watching over us and I love you more.
Kosh had that impact on a lot of people. She hosted scores of parties and celebrations over the years, and she planned out each and every detail to ensure the comfort and joy of her guests. There was only one thing she would not tolerate in her home—intolerance. And she would let offending guests know this. I had often thought that she should have posted the following over her front door, a Polish saying I had first heard from my maternal grandmother, a concise saying that speaks infinite volumes: “Gosc w dom, Bog w dom.” Which means “Guest in the house, God in the house.”
Kosh treated everyone with respect, giving nod to their human dignity, and she could not understand racism, homophobia, classism, or any other form of bigotry.
Charles and I drove up for the funeral on Friday afternoon and spent the night in Falls Church with my sister, Fran, and her husband, Joel, and their daughter, Hilary. From Woodbridge north, 95 had become a slow-moving parking lot. It took us an hour to cover the ten miles that separated us from Springfield. Just as we pulled up the ramp to 495 west, along a thread in the Gordian knot of the Mixing Bowl, Charles suddenly broke down when the enormity of Kosh’s death struck home.
He turned his head to me, his cheeks streaked with tears.
“Why?” he said.
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
“Why Kosh? Why not a bad person?” He named several men known for their callousness, for the hatred in their hearts, remorseless men who have made their names through inhumane acts and words.
“I really don’t know why,” I told Charles. “None of it makes sense.”
We ate dinner with my sister and her family, then rode with them the next morning at five. We arrived in Haddonfield a few hours later, ate breakfast at a diner and then headed over to Christ the King Catholic Church. Hundreds of people gathered for the funeral Mass. An urn containing the cremated remains of my cousin sat on a sort of draped gurney that rested in the center aisle near the altar. In the front pew, Antonis stood with his three sons. They were all dressed in simple black suits and black ties, and the father’s full head of white hair stood in stark contrast to the jet black hair adorning the heads of Grigorios, Antonius and Andreas. Later, at the restaurant where a dinner was held, my sister Fran said that when she saw the father and his three sons walking down the aisle, with Antonis in the lead, she could not help thinking of a drake leading his offspring, now that the mother duck was gone. As we were leaving the church, I stopped by the car that held Kosh’s parent, my aunt and uncle. I held Uncle David’s hand. It was all bone and thin skin. “I don’t’ how I’m going to do this,” he said. I didn’t know what to say; Kosh was just fifty-five years old.
Late that night, back at my sister’s house, Hilary and I sat in chairs on the patio in the backyard. There’s a pergola over the patio, something my brother Chris built years ago. Fran had planted wisteria around the supporting columns, and now, the vines, interwoven and interlocked, are so thick that that they form something of a roof which protected Hilary and me from the rain, which was steady at times. As we relived the day, talking about what we had seen, an odd sound emerged from a thicket of hostas, the leaves of which are the size of serving platters. And as our eyes became accustomed to the darkness, we could see the leaves of these plants trembling with the movement of concealed animals. And then came eerie chitterings, a whole chorus of them, as if they were arguing among themselves, or telling my niece and me to leave. Finally, a raccoon emerged, walked over to the pond fifteen feet away from us, reached into the water, retrieved a gold fish, held it up, as if showing it to his friends still concealed among the hostas, then chomped down on it, and again held it aloft like an ice cream cone. The raccoon was in no way concerned about our presence, and its compatriots soon emerged from the greenery, which is when Hilary and I returned to the downstairs sanctuary of my sister’s home.
“Had you ever seen anything like that before?” I asked Hilary.
“Never,” she said.
After reading for about two hours, I returned to patio. By then everyone else in the house was sleeping, the raccoons had moved off, and the clouds had parted and the moon had already set. I stood near the pond, and looking overhead I could see a fair abundance of stars, and words came back to me that I memorized more than thirty years ago, words from a poem by William Butler Yeats.
“Give to these children, new from the world,
Silence and love;
And the long dew-dropping hours of the night,
And the stars above.”
I said them over and over, even after I returned to the guest bedroom in my sister’s home