My cousin Anna arrived in this world four months after I was born. We were the first of our paternal grandparents' eight grandchildren, and we naturally paired off according to age: me and Anna, Roger and Gary, Daphne and David (and once the rest of us were older, Hillary and Sara).
Anna, Roger, Me
We spent our afternoons in our parents' Chinese restaurant, where we made fortresses with cardboard boxes, played baseball in the parking lot, concocted our own signature (read: inedible) dishes in the kitchen, watched Tom & Jerry on the TV set in the back room, snuck out to the dining room to fill up on root beer from the soda fountain, and generally got in the way of the adults. We traveled in a pack -- roving around downtown in search of candy, baseball cards, ice cream, and -- in summertime -- fireworks from the temporarily-erected wooden shack down the street.
In the evenings, my grandmother would take us home, where we'd raise even more holy terror. Between snacks and bath time, we'd transform the couches into trampolines, coffee tables into crayon-streaked spaceships, and Gary into a doily-covered, lipstick-wearing girl. We skated around the driveway, threw shoes into the toilet, and filmed our own Weird Al Yankovic music videos.
On Tuesdays -- my aunt's night off -- my grandmother would get a reprieve. Anna's and Gary's mom would treat us to dinner at their house, where we'd play with Gary's truck collection and settle down in the front of the TV for new episodes of "Laverne & Shirley" and "Happy Days."
We were a fearsomely tight little gang. And we were more like siblings than cousins.
Anna & Me, Dancing on Countertops
Being the same age, Anna and I were particularly close as children. As the oldest, we were the first to venture to preschool, which we hated. (Our parents would drive up to find us sitting on the schoolhouse porch, holding hands and bawling.) We learned to ride bikes together, and confided in each other about our first-grade crushes (I was going to marry my buddy Jennifer, and she was going to run off with the oh-so-dreamy A.J.). I got Superman Underoos and she got Wonder Woman ones. We were best friends.
At the same time, Anna and I were incredibly competitive with one another, too -- in school, at piano, in commanding the hearts and minds of our younger cousins. For years, in our house, the phrase "Why can't you be more like Anna?" was as commonly heard as "Good morning." Anna and I weren't siblings, but the sibling rivalry was always there.
As we got older, Anna and I drifted apart. We went to different high schools, hung out with different people, developed different interests and views. After college and law school, I moved to San Francisco -- just 45 minutes away from the rest of my cousins, but enough distance between us to limit our interactions to family dinners and special occasions. Then came marriage, kids, and more work. Facebook became the primary means of staying in touch -- and I've always been terrible about updating my Facebook status.
Me, My Pop, & Anna
As adults with young families of our own, Anna and I didn't see each other often. And there were plenty of things we disagreed on -- everything from politics to Prius drivers (she had a less-than-favorable opinion of them, and I happen to be one). But through Anna's whole life, certain constants remained: She was fiercely intelligent, confident, talented, assertive, protective, and loyal. From afar, I admired her dedication to running (she was a marathoner), her success in business, and her passion for her family. Anna and her husband Josh have an incredibly charming and happy-go-lucky little boy, Ryan. He just turned three, and is one of the awesomest little dudes I know. Anna absolutely adored him.
On Tuesday, Anna was scheduled to deliver her second baby. She had regularly updated her Facebook status throughout her pregnancy, so we knew she'd been put on bed rest, and was eagerly anticipating the birth of Ryan's little brother. Her last update was a little after 4 p.m., when she wrote: "Ahhhh... Epidural..."
That night, Anna passed away unexpectedly from complications of childbirth.
I still feel like I can't breathe.
Anna's beautiful baby boy is still in the NICU, but appears to be improving. When I saw him on Tuesday night, my heart broke. He looks so much like his mommy.