Lawrence Everett Forbes celebrates the life of his cousin, a goody two-shoes who wasn’t supposed to die before he did.
I came home on the evening of August 31, 1998, exhausted from helping a friend move out of her apartment. The last thing I expected was to be asked to confirm the death of my cousin, Camille.
“Is it true?” an aunt asked me over the phone. “Is she dead?”
She didn’t sound drunk, but I was certain she had to be—until I heard her say Uncle Leo had left word that his daughter had passed away from arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD), a rare heart condition.
I threw myself into cleaning my bedroom. Camille had graduated UPenn law school that May, turned 25 that June, taken the Bar Exam that July, and had just settled into her new job as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington D.C.
I tore into the dishes, washing the cabinets and the refrigerator. I had seen her less than a month before and had spoken to her a week earlier. The kitchen completed, I scrubbed the toilet. A coworker had seen her ten minutes prior to her death, and she had shown no signs of sickness.
My arms exhausted from scouring the shower tiles, I wrapped them around my knees and wept while listening to Stevie Wonder’s “I Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer,” from the CD I bought during one of our shopping excursions.
Biologically, we were cousins because our fathers, from the island of St. Vincent, were brothers. Emotionally, we were siblings because we grew up in the same house in the black middle-class section of East Flatbush, Brooklyn. She lived upstairs with her folks; my nuclear unit lived downstairs.
Camille loved West Indian culture and was a much-adored goody two-shoes. I embraced my American mother’s Southern roots and was not. If a relative called the house and asked to speak to my father without saying hello to me—because I was a child—I dropped the phone or let it smack against the wall before alerting him.
People who were rude to me when I answered the door had it slammed in their faces. I was the Madonna of my clan—the one whose flamboyant behavior fueled the furnace of family gossip.
Still, Camille defended me. When Aunt Mary and Uncle Leo worried about me being a negative influence on their daughter, she managed to talk them into letting us play together. This was how I knew she would end up being a lawyer.
I used to pick on her obsession with Rainbow Brite dolls, earrings, stickers, and cartoons. The rainbow mocking would come back to bite me years later, when I came out to her as gay. Worried about being shunned by my straight-laced sibling-cousin, I stammered the words I was still uncomfortable saying to myself.
Strangely, she was neither ashamed nor surprised. The absence of a girlfriend had long clued her in. My homosexuality gave her an ally in male ogling. Our favorite object of affection: Denzel Washington.
As we got older, our paths diverged. Camille studied pre-law at Cornell University, where she bonded with Afrocentric students. I majored in conceptual art at the San Francisco Art Institute, where the majority of my friends were white.
Our differences caused conflicts. She took offense with black men who dated outside their race, whereas I felt the decision was ours to make. I thought her decision to maintain her virginity seemed odd but worthy of respect, while she worried my promiscuity would lead to me dying from AIDS. Yet in the end, the pure one would die, and the playboy would continue to live an HIV-negative life.
As the oldest, I accompanied Uncle Leo to the morgue to identify her body and held Aunt Mary as we walked through Camille’s apartment. My courage crumbled in the graveyard, when they lowered her casket into the ground.
The girl whose Strawberry Shortcake canopy bed we laid on and giggled about grade-school crushes was dead. She saw the scared queer behind the abrasive jerk and loved them both. The first person I told that her half-brother Wayne had molested me: gone.
I felt the sinking of that casket in the autumn and winter of that year, when I sobbed on subway trains, shopped my way into credit card debt, and vomited on bouncers and New York City streets. Her absence stung less when I slept in her sleeping bag, which I did during every night of that entire first year.
Our last conversation was about student loans: mine for grad school and hers for law school. Both ran into the six-figure range.
“But lawyers make money,” I whined.
“Not if they’re going into family law,” she countered.
“Well, hell—you should have gone to art school, then!”
I found out months later, over Thanksgiving dinner, that she had passed the Bar exam. It was the only solace during an otherwise painful first holiday without her. I missed pretending to be a chauvinist and making fun of her cooking, only to be reminded I had done nothing but open the cranberry sauce.
Instead, I stared at the turkey, peas and rice, plantains, Aunt Mary’s candied yams—Camille’s favorite—and longed for the woman who helped define the man I had become. I still do.
—Lawrence Everett Forbes