This past week my cousin, a young mother, lost her long battle with cancer.
Though she and I weren’t very close, I’d visited her and the rest of the family sometimes, and more often as of late.
Over the past month or so, sometimes when driving in places I consider beautiful with music I consider beautiful blaring, I burst into tears. I can’t put my finger on exactly what triggers this, but I think it’s a variety of factors: the beauty of the world, my own struggle to figure out how this infrastructure project fits into my life, day-t0-day stress (which has been high as of late), and sorrow for my cousin and her/our family. It’s been cathartic, though I remain sad.
This day was my cousin’s funeral. I listened to the tributes, cried, and tried to do anything I could to help the family. But I knew my true mourning was not to occur in church or in the arms of a family member.
I drove home from the day with the extended family across the George Washington Bridge just as the sun was setting. I was struck again by the tears and knew absolutely what I needed to do. I took the Henry Hudson Parkway exit off the bridge and then the Fort Tryon Park exit just a mile or two north of that.
Though I’d been to this park a couple of times before, I didn’t remember its layout so specifically, so I just chucked the car into a random parking spot and headed vaguely south on the path towards my destination. The sun sank lower and lower, threatening to set before I could get to my spot. Tears were in my eyes already. I hurried.
I almost powerwalked right past an uncommon and tender scene. A man stood next to a low stone wall, dishing cat food into plastic bowls. Three cats – I’m guessing strays -flocked around him. I was struck so much by the selflessness of the man’s act and the way he took care of these other living creatures. This reminded me of my loving cousin, whose first priority had always been to take care of her tiny daughters and look out for others around her.
I couldn’t spend too long here though, the sun insisted on continuing to set.
I stopped once more, near the place where this image was taken. I remembered first seeing that picture, thinking it looked like something out of a fairytale, then putting the pieces together about where exactly it was taken.
I continued my brisk walk, passing scattered people whom my brain didn’t have time to process. I finally arrived on top of Billings Terrace, my intended destination.
I’d been here before – one of my best friends shot photographs of my sister and I inside this structure almost a year ago. We gifted these photos to our parents for Christmas. My recollection of this experience was strong now, although today I was 50 or more feet directly above where the photos were taken.
This memory of being with my sister here seemed so appropriate for this day – my cousin’s brother and sister had both read moving tributes to their sister that morning. I know she was as important to them as my sister is to me.
I was a bit distracted from the beautiful view and sunset by herds of young people in formal wear, maybe on their way to a homecoming dance, being photographed by slightly smaller herds of photographers. But even among the bright flashbulbs, I found a way to smile about it. Because of our age difference my first real memories of my cousin are of her as a cool preteen and teenager. This was her once – getting dressed up and ready for those exciting milestones in her young life.
I stood and watched the traffic rush by below on the Henry Hudson Parkway. So many times I’ve driven that stretch and looked up at the enormous terrace structure.
As the teenagers in fancy dresses migrated, I moved to the northern corner of the terrace and watched as the streaks of pink in the sky got dimmer and dimmer. I could see both towers of the George Washington Bridge now, a proud bridge that used to take me to see my cousin.
I watched until it was quite dark, sadly too dark to go inside the terrace, though I looked around the corner to see if I could make out anything of its shape – not so much.
I knew it was time to start my walk back, this time at a slower pace. My mood shifted. No longer was there a rush to see the sunset. The darkness gave the sadness on my face cover, but was also almost scary in a way. I’ve always wondered how safe parks are at night, and now I realized I was alone in one. The darkness was a metaphor for death, with its dual sense of peace and potentially frightening unknowns.
As I continued to make my way back to the car, things looked different without the sun’s light. I hoped I’d actually be able to find the small parking lot. I kept a lookout for the place where the man fed the three cats, wondering if they’d still be there. The spot wasn’t where I thought it’d be; the landmarks looked so different only by the light of lamps on the path.
But I did find them. A young couple watched him and the cats, and I did too. The man petted and brushed one cat as the other two lounged.
I watched for a long time, until he packed up to leave. I wanted so badly to ask the man about why he took care of them, but I felt I couldn’t without bursting into tears or oversharing my experiences of the day. So I let him walk down the path first and followed some fifty feet behind. Maybe one day I’ll see him again here and get up the courage to ask.
Still overwhelmed by the whole day’s experiences and now feeling the exhaustion too, I got into the car to complete my drive home. I know my fits of crying won’t stop just because my cousin’s pain has stopped. And I know, for whatever reason, thoughts of her will always be tied to these places of beauty in my mind. Perhaps one day I, and her family, can find some peace in this connection.