Stupid decisions can haunt us all of our lives. We all have made them. I have, most with little or no impact. But back in the summer of 1977 I made a very stupid decision, and it has haunted me for years, decades really. That summer, while hanging out in Greenwich Village, I went up to the roof of a building in New York City with a stranger. It was stupid and dangerous. And it still haunts me because a few months later my dear cousin was found dead on the roof of another building in New York City.
I was at that age and stage when I didn’t think anything bad would or could happen, and certainly not to me or anyone I knew. But that all changed in October 1977 when my cousin was murdered and left to die on a rooftop near Columbia University – just three months after I was attacked on a rooftop in New York City too.
I wish I could say that nothing happened to me that night on the roof in NYC, but that would not be accurate. Many things happened to me that night. And, of course, I am haunted by the similarities to my cousin’s death a few months later.
The death of any relative is hard, but when it is someone you are close to, under circumstances that are relatable then it is terrifying. In many ways, I still am terrified. It is like the experience got into my nervous system, and just won’t let go. Maybe this is because I looked up to my cousin in so many ways.
My cousin was more like an older sister to me. She was the oldest of the 8 cousins, the beautiful, accomplished ‘rock star’ of the family. And she lived with us when she was 16, and I was 7. I still remember going with her to the temple on Friday nights and sitting with her by the pool on sweltering hot Dallas afternoons.
But I also remember the dark side of her stay with us: food fights and whispered secrets. You see my cousin lived with us because she was suffering from anorexia. It was live with us or be hospitalized – she was that sick. Her illness made a strong and lasting impression on me. I remember her hiding food in her napkin, tears, doors slamming, food thrown in frustration. That was also when I learned to ignore my body’s hunger signs, eating all of my food to please my mother.
Over the years, through adolescence, I always assumed that my cousin would be there for me, just as my family had been there for her. But all that changed in the fall of 1977 when we got that call and time stood still.
I don’t know why I survived, and my cousin didn’t. Why I got a lifetime of joys and sorrows and she didn’t. But even with the highs and lows, in some ways it feels as if my nervous system has been stuck on high alert all these years. I have been waiting for the next time the phone will ring, my world will turn upside down and finally that other shoe will drop.
I have talked about the death of my dear cousin over the years, but rarely, if ever, shared the details of what happened to me on the rooftop three months before. It was shocking and embarrassing and shameful. I was 17, innocent and so naïve.
The reality is that I survived a frightening experience that my cousin did not. It still haunts me and probably will for the rest of my life. And maybe instead of the other shoe dropping after all these years, I am finally ready to put it down. Maybe I am finally ready to give myself a break for living when she did not.
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