My Cowboy Cousin
Family vacations as a kid meant road trips in the summer. For three weeks in August, we drove and camped, sometimes visiting friends or relatives, every other year making the drive into the mountains to see my grandparents. I would stare out the car window at barbed-wire fences, telephone poles, field after field of canola, and pointing excitedly when we passed a herd of cows or horses. I always thought the horses more interesting than the cows.
Visiting my cousin's farm in southern Alberta was for me the highlight of the summer. When we stayed on the farm, my cousin Graham and I buckled on our holsters, pulled on our hats and boots, grabbed our air-rifles and headed off to fight bad guys in the fields. We would wander all over the farm, riding the old taffy-colored mare bareback whenever we could.
Graham, older than me by nearly three years, lost his sight because of a brain tumor when he was seven. In all our cowboy adventures, on foot or on horseback, I was Graham's eyes, and we walked hand‑in‑hand wherever we went.
My family was a pretty standard product of the working class '60s. I was an energetic kid—restless, awkward, not very good at anything, at times painfully self-conscious, with an overdeveloped sense of shame. I was irreparably attached to my immediate family, but it was from Graham that I learned to love in a different way.
I wrote him letters in a heavy, awkward cursive, pilfering the notepaper from my dad's desk in the living room. I felt important as I walked to the corner store to post my letters to the blind school in Vancouver, where Graham spent the year. I received in my turn letters in Braille on thick, creamy paper, with tiny handwriting between the lines as my translation. The fall I turned ten, I saved my allowance and bought a pair of cowboy boots that I would wear on my next trip to the farm. The boots were for me, but I wanted Graham to know that I could be every bit the cowboy he could, and my hero worship carried me through the long winter before I could visit the farm again.
That summer, my parents were going to leave me to spend a week on the farm by myself. Graham and I had a plan for spending a night out on the prairie like real cowboys. We were tired of doing kids' stuff like chasing the cows or having shoot-outs with the bad guys at the barn, and we hated interrupting our adventures to come inside for meals. If we were going to be cowboys, then we had to sleep out on the prairie, cook over an open fire, and live the way cowboys lived. We were furious when our mothers said no to our plan for camping out, and we had to sulk for almost an entire afternoon before they understood we only wanted to camp out in the fields, not down by the river as they had thought. My aunt put together a box of food and supplies. It never occurred to us that real cowboys wouldn't have their mothers put together their kit.
Our cowboy supper that night was cheese, bologna, and mostly raw potato burned in a frying pan over an open fire. Graham was hopping mad when his older brother showed up—to check on us, as we thought—but once Graham cooled off, the three of us sat for a while by the fire to watch the sunset. The clouds were banked low on the horizon, burnt-orange and blood-red fading upwards to a pale pink. The sun lighted the western sky, and overhead the deeper blue of evening was darkening to night. Later, lying in our sleeping bags, Graham and I told one another jokes, and I saw more stars than I had ever seen before in my life, burning bright and clear in a black sky right above my nose.
The afternoon of the day my parents left, my older cousin agreed to take Graham and me swimming at the Oldman River. We took the old farm truck. It was a hot, sunny afternoon. Just off the main highway we hit another car head-on at the top of a hill.
My memories of the crash have always been vivid but patchy, like audible snapshots, giving me a fragmented sense of what happened immediately afterwards: my older cousin was shouting our names—his voice coming from somewhere above me; I was being lifted on what had to be a gurney, and the voices of two men—probably ambulance attendants—spoke in low, urgent voices; I was apparently conscious on the ambulance drive from Fort Macleod to the Foothills hospital in Calgary, but I don't remember it.
My face hit the dashboard of the truck, and my left femur was broken. I was blinded in that accident, and Graham was killed. My first real memory after the accident was waking in a hospital bed.
My mother is beside the bed to my right. A doctor stands somewhere near my feet.
The doctor tells me, "You're going to be blind for the rest of your life."
My first question: "What happened to Graham and Darrell?"
It's my mother, crying, who tells me, "Graham is dead." Then blackness again.
I was in rough shape for a while, but I recovered, spending that fall in the hospital, going to rehab, learning braille, and learning to walk again once I was out of traction. It wasn't until the next year that I returned to my old school. By that time, I had a story about the accident, one that I would tell to people who asked, and one that mostly satisfied my need to understand what had happened.
Oddly enough, I could remember those bits after the accident, but never the few minutes just before. I remember piling into the truck with my cousins and leaving the farm, but I could never remember taking the turnoff to the river. Occasionally, I tried to fill in the gap, but I never had all the facts, and of those I had, I never felt I had all of them straight. For one, I thought we were on a gravel road and way off the main highway when we crashed—wrong on both counts.
Those few minutes remained a blank spot in my brain until my thirties. By that time, I had two kids, my marriage had broken up, and I was in the midst of wondering if it was worth completing the Ph.D. in English I had barely started.
I was talking with my mom on the phone one afternoon, and I got back that fragment of memory. I don't even remember what we were talking about. Between one sentence and the next, I was handed this two-minute fragment of memory. Just like that—a fully formed picture quietly dropped into my brain, unannounced and unlooked for.
I'm ten years old. I'm sitting in a farm truck. Graham is riding shotgun. Off to the right, I see a grain elevator, standing up like a finger from the flatness of the prairie. I point to it and comment. I feel like a grownup.
We turn off the highway onto a secondary road. A steep hill is just ahead. My cousin shifts gears as we start up the hill. I look up at him and laugh in the exhilaration of freedom. Nobody is wearing a seat belt.
The memory of this exchange of looks and my feeling of jubilation completely undid me. My life felt turned upside-down. I was unsettled, ungrounded, disoriented, and generally just fucking disturbed. There I was, in my thirties, and for reasons I couldn't fathom I suddenly felt guilty for something more than twenty years in the past. Part of my brain was telling me the accident was my fault—the crash that killed my cousin and left me blind—somehow it was my fault.
None of it's rational, I know. Why I felt guilty for causing both the accident and my cousin's death made no sense. How could I be at fault? I was a kid. I was a passenger. The only thing I had done was live while my cousin had died.
I understand more now about memory and the long-term effects of trauma on the brain than I did then. My ten-year-old brain believed I was somehow responsible both for what happened to me and for Graham's death. Processing that degree of responsibility is impossible for a child, and I didn't have anyone at the time to tell me that it hadn't been my fault. To be fair, no one in my family, immediate or otherwise, would have thought anything so ludicrous. It was an accident; it wasn't anyone's fault, and certainly not mine. But as a newly blinded kid who had lost someone he loved, my brain did the only thing it could: it walled up the guilt and the grief and put it away. Recovering that fragment of memory meant my ten-year-old self and my adult self were ready to have a conversation.
I spent several years sorting out my feelings of guilt and culpability. I read what I could. I learned about addressing trauma, and I read about survivor's guilt. In all the sorting, it became clear that I had never fully addressed the loss of my sight or my grief over Graham's death, and both were bound up with the memories of the farm. I hadn't been back save once, two years after the accident; but it hadn't been the same, and I didn't know if I could go back again. Recovering the fragment of memory just before the accident made it feel as though Graham had died all over again, and I felt I had lost my connection to both the person and the place.
After a few years, my sense of responsibility began to fade, and revisiting those feelings and memories enabled me at last to return to the farm.
In August of 1998, I visited the farm with my daughters—then nine and seven. My older cousin had taken over the land from his dad, who had died a few years before. He was living there with his daughter, Cheryl, a very together teenager who was happy to entertain her younger cousins from the city.
We got there around six in the evening. It felt odd to be once again on the farm. But I was excited, and I wanted to show my kids everything I remembered.
We checked out the barn, now dilapidated with pigeons roosting in the rafters, and we walked down to the old watering trough to see the cows, me holding each of my daughters by the hand.
That evening, I went for a walk by myself. I took the old road, little more than two wagon ruts that ran around the back of the bluff sheltering the house. I use a white cane, and it was tricky at first to find the road, but once I found it, it was easy enough to follow. The sun had set, and it was nearly nine o'clock. I walked down the road until I came to the fence that separated the field from the pasture beyond.
That had been where Graham and I rode the horse, where we wandered back and forth playing at cowboys. I think I expected to feel a sense of familiarity standing there, but I didn't. I wanted to feel again what I had felt twenty-five years before, probably more than I would have cared to admit, but the day had been telling me something different. I didn't actually know what I was looking for anymore—maybe closure, maybe just an end to the story.
What I felt standing there was a tremendous sense of space, both on the land and in the air, a feeling I tried to line up with my memories of the place when I was a kid. An immense, clear quietude was settling down over the fields, and the distant whirring of crickets formed a counterpoint to the sound of cars passing on the highway a quarter-mile away. In the immediacy of those sounds, my memories seemed to slide into the background, leaving me feeling mostly alone amid all that space. Graham and I had felt a part of that landscape when we were kids, but I was having trouble feeling the same thing now.
I was suffering, I think, a particular poignant nostalgia on that visit. I thought going back to the farm would help me resolve my feelings around the accident. But I didn't credit the full power of those feelings, and it was going to take many more years and time spent with a therapist before I could begin to sort them all out.
That night in 1998, my kids and Cheryl wanted to sleep out in the yard. I went along with the plan, but I was worried about my kids spending the night in sleeping bags on the hard ground. I decided to join them.
By eleven o'clock, the four of us were inside our sleeping bags, and my kids wanted to hear a story. I told a folktale I had often told at bedtime. Everyone grew quieter as the night settled. We could hear a car passing on the highway, and the sound of crickets all around. I was ready to go home. I had come back, and I didn't find what I wanted to find.
"Listen," whispered my youngest. "What's that?"
"Just a coyote. Don't worry," said Cheryl.
The wail hung on the air, piercing and lonely. Then, quiet again.
"Look at the stars," said my eldest.
I knew she must be staring up into the receding vault of the thickly starred sky.
"I've never seen so many in my life," she said.
This essay originally appeared in Zone 3: A Literary Journal (Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring 2020, pp. 24-29).