Yesterday marked a major milestone in Normal Family: Rowdy Cousin graduated from college. I couldn't make the event, busy as I was with preparations for work and the summer sessions of graduate school, but I sent my congratulations by text message and viewed the Facebook photos of Rowdy Cousin surrounded by happy family members. This relative of mine, whom you've gotten a few glimpses of over the years, received his pseudonym in 2009 or so, when he was a rambunctious boy of fifteen. Back then, when he wasn't playing hide-and-go-seek in our grandmother's basement, he occasionally pulled me aside to ask questions about relationships and college drinking. Rowdy Cousin is twenty-one years old now, and the pictures of him this week reveal unmistakably what those close have known for a while: the boy has become a man. Broad shouldered, tall, robust, and handsome, he smiled into the camera beside his mother and long-time girlfriend.
Rowdy Cousin long ago passed the point where I could teach him anything. He once asked me about what parties were like; now he's been to more than I have. He once asked me about how he'd know what he wanted his major to be; he already has a job offer from a prominent accounting firm and will begin work--at a very competitive salary--next month. He once asked me about dating; he's been in a relationship with a lovely girl for more than four years. Rowdy Cousin is one of those rare people who makes other people happy with just the fact of them. He's athletic and outgoing, hardworking and good looking, intelligent and accomplished and humble and courtly. On top of all that, he's pretty damn funny. He understands he's a gem but has no ego about it, understands he's a walking cliché and sends my brother Snapchats of himself on the toilet just to remind everyone that he's still capable of being an idiot. I am pleased to see this young man blossom so spectacularly, and I am very aware, as is everyone else, that his success is the culmination of the tremendous investment his parents made in his education and emotional development. Rowdy Cousin paid no tuition. He worried about no bills. He covered no cell phone. He spent four years devoted to study and, yes, fun. And it worked.
"It's like Uncle Responsible says," my grandmother told me on the phone today. "You invest in them when they're young, then you see it pay off down the road. And now it's really paid off."
I would never tell Rowdy Cousin this, but beneath my joy at his accomplishments, all of which he has earned, there is a tinge of sorrow. I can't help but look at this person, six years younger than I am but already so strong, and see the things I'm not. Self sufficient. Successful. Confident. Possessed of striking good looks. Rowdy Cousin is a high-achiever in a family of high-achievers, and at twenty-seven and without a career, even if I'm headed in that direction, I'm not. At least not yet.
"I guess sometimes I feel like I'm bringing the group average down or something," I joked to my grandmother this evening by telephone. I've never had the kind of parents a person is thankful for, but I am grateful every day for my grandmother. I would have been lost many times without her, and she's the one person I can talk to about truly anything. "I love Rowdy Cousin , but it's like I don't measure up. You know?"
"Oh, BB, he's never felt that way about you."
"No, I know. He's not like that. I'm saying that I feel that way. I look at what he's done and I look at what I've done. I know I'm getting there now; it's just a few years later than I wanted it to be."
"Honey, you've had a lot of things thrown at you," she said. "He hasn't. Of course he should be proud of what he's done, but it's not the same thing. You have no idea how proud I am of you."
And then my grandmother did the last thing I imagined she would do. She started crying.
"Oh, don't cry! I'm fine! I'm really not upset."
"But you don't remember. You were so young. When you first got sick we talked to so many doctors. We were in and out of the hospital, meeting with different psychiatrists, and I read everything I could get my hands on. So I know what it does. I know what you were going up against. And I can tell you, it's a miracle that you are where you are. The recovery rate is so low."
That depressingly small number--I've seen it quoted as low as 3%--means that I ought statistically have been condemned to a very different kind of life than the one I am leading. I suppose for a while I was. And my transition around age twenty, for reasons that are unclear, into the exceptional group who are able to regain their health is something I am enormously thankful for every day.
"You're on the right track now, and you shouldn't feel any shame. Of course it took a few more years. And when you add the parents you got on top of that, it's really incredible that you pulled it off."
"Well, I haven't pulled it off yet."
"But you will. I know you're going to be okay."
I know I am too, at least now. I look at where I was even five years ago, at twenty-two, and can see in my decisions disarray and impaired judgement, chronic confusion atop foundational disorganization. I finished my undergraduate studies with a 2.7 GPA, avoiding any discussion of my health issue, let alone treatment of it, out of shame and a desire to be viewed "like everyone else." But I wasn't like everyone else. And in light of that, maybe it's okay to give my past self a few breaks.
"I still have hazy moments," I confided to my grandmother. "They're very quick, and no one ever picks up on it. But my thought process now, my work ethic, my priorities, my plans, everything else is totally different."
"I know it is. I can see how much you've changed."
Summer sessions start next Wednesday, and Russian lessons start the Monday after that. This fall will mark my last semester of academic work, and after a semester of student-teaching in the spring I'll graduate with my master's degree in education. Ready to work and ready to go. I'm not playing it by ear anymore, not by any stretch of the imagination. Hell, I have an eight-year plan that rests substantially on my mastery of Russian grammar.
"I'm really proud of Rowdy Cousin today," I told her. "I know you are, too. And in a year, you can be proud of me."
"I already am."