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I credit my independence solely on being an only child. I grew up playing, exploring and learning mainly by myself. Not to say that my parents weren't attentive. They were probably more so than most of my friend's parents. But as far as the growing up goes, I was in it alone. I wasn't antisocial. I had friends, and I did the normal "kid stuff". But it was a want, not a need. I would later learn that the difference between the two was crucial.
Throughout my whole childhood, even in my teenage years, people would feel sorry for me. When asked about my non-existent siblings, I would explain that I was an only child. The words would barely escape my lips before an unmistakable look of sympathy would pass across their face. I never understood it. I'd never felt any sort of remorse about my lack of siblings. When I was younger, it was all I knew. But as I grew up, I began to see it as an advantage. When my friends were losing their sister to college, or their brother to another woman, they had to learn to cope by themselves. I, on the other hand, had been doing this since I was born. It wasn't until I was about 16 that I started wishing I had someone. Not a best friend, or a boyfriend. I had both of those. But someone who shared the same blood. Someone that I could look at and say, "I got that from you,". Someone that I could share secrets with, knowing that they wouldn't be revealed for the simple reason that we were family. When I look back, it's some kind of miracle that Garth showed up when he did.
I don't remember the first time I met him. I was only four, but my grandparents used to tell me that as soon as we had arrived in Tennessee, I wouldn't leave his side. I remember coming across a picture of this trip in the summer of 2007. In the picture, a 22 year old Garth was smiling, and I was crying, with my little arms wrapped around his leg. It always seems ironic to me, looking at that picture, and knowing that I wanted him to protect me, even back then.
Having a cousin was something new to me. My mom was an only child, like myself. My dad was adopted, and didn't know any of his family. The only family I'd known thus far were my parents and grandparents. Garth was part of the family my Grandpa had in Tennessee. The family that any of us hardly knew. It's sad to say, but Garth and Tennessee were forgotten by my four year old mind shortly after I'd returned home from this first trip. It'd be almost ten years before I thought of either of them again.
It was the summer of 2004. The first summer of many that my Grandpa and I would make the 2620 mile trip to Luttrell, Tennessee. He was going over there to help my uncle combine, and we both agreed that it would be a good opportunity for me to get acquainted with his side of the family. The drive was long, but the scenery was beautiful. When we arrived, I met Uncle Colin and was immediately intrigued by his good nature and ability to make any situation funny. I think it was the third or fourth day that we were staying at the farm that Garth came over. By this time he was 31, and an adult. Uncle Colin called me over and smiled.
"Well Lauren, this is your cousin."
I smiled, not yet registering that we had met years before. Garth laughed.
"Actually, we've already met. I doubt you remember though. You were only...what? Four? Maybe five? We hit it off pretty good."
I had vague memories of him as a younger man. I smiled and nodded, then went back to helping my Grandpa wash the truck. We headed for home five days later, and Garth was again long forgotten.
I wish I could say that I remembered the first message I got from him, but I can't. I don't even remember what we talked about back when the only things we really knew about each other were names and birthdays. What I do remember is this : The morning that we left Tennessee in the summer of 2007, he sent me a text, asking where where we were and where we'd be staying that night. The most I can remember is that I replied ; and I guess we never looked back.
That was the summer that I began to know Garth in a way that I know very few people in this world. To this day, I'm still amazed at how much trust he had in me. He opened up, telling me things about his childhood and his wild teenage years. I was shy at first. I didn't how long this "friendship" (I think you could call it that) was going to last. And to be honest, I didn't know how much I should trust him. But it wasn't long before he knew things about me that I would never think of telling anyone else. I think one of the things that made this okay in my mind was the fact that he lived almost 3000 miles away. I felt like that was a safe distance. We lived two very separate lives, and nobody in his would care what was going on in mine.
There were times when I would sit in disbelief at the relationship that I had with Garth. How did someone that I had gone 16 years of my life not knowing become one of my closest companions in just a few short months? I clung to this concept. To the concept that you could find the deepest loyalty and trust in someone you weren't even looking for. The funny thing is, he was there all along. From the moment I was born, we had the same blood running through our veins. But it took 16 years for us to realize that our souls matched up in a way that was almost identical to that of a brother and sister.
I remember the first time that he told me he thought me as his sister. I was driving, and talking to him, and he told me to be careful. I jokingly asked him if he was worried about me, and his reply was, "Yeah. I kinda think of you as a sister." I smiled. That simple comment meant so much to me. Garth really was the brother I never had.
He was beside me through some of my worst days when I was a teenager. And to tell you the truth, I don't know how I would've come out alive without him. He was never very deep or insightful, but just having someone there for me was enough. He always listened, no matter how insignificant my problems were. One thing that I loved about Garth was the fact that I knew he'd never leave. A brother just isn't a person who comes and goes in your life. With friends, you never know what kind of drama will get in the way, and you can't ever depend on a boyfriend. But Garth was family, and I never had a doubt in my mind that we'd be this close for the rest of our lives. It was a very significant source of comfort for me. He was always just a phone call or text message away. It got to the point where I'd have a bad day, or fail a test, or a boy would break my heart, and without a second thought, I'd pick up my phone and send a text to Garth, saying "Text me when you can, okay?" And he always would.
I wasn't surprised by my attachment to him, or by the fact that there were days when I truly needed his support. What surprised me were the days when it seemed as if he truly needed my support. Although he'd never admit it, I think Garth needed me to hold his hand as much as I needed him to hold mine. We were the missing piece in each others lives. He filled a space inside of me that I didn't even know was empty. And after I found that missing piece, I didn't want to live without it. He was my rock, and I often told him that. He'd always laugh and make light of it, but I'd later learn that it meant a lot to him.
Garth was in a car accident when I was 18. Right after I had graduated high school. He wasn't killed on impact, but he was badly injured, and wasn't expected to make it through the night. He was in a coma, and we were all told to say our goodbyes. I was devastated. I couldn't see him like that...that wasn't Garth. But I knew that if I didn't say goodbye, I'd regret it for the rest of my life. I didn't say a word when I walked into the room. I just laid my head on his chest and started sobbing. Over and over, the only thing I whispered was, "You're my rock. Don't die, Garth. You're my rock."
I lifted my head up, and saw his eyelids flutter. My heart skipped a beat, and I gripped his hand.
"Garth? Sweetheart....wake up. Please wake up. I need you. I need you to be here. You're my rock. You're my rock." Over and over, I repeated that phrase. His eyelids fluttered again, and then opened. He squeezed my hand.
"No, kid. You're mine."
With those words, I watched my brother take his final breath, and a thin, straight line appear across the EKG machine. I knew that he was gone. My tears fell openly onto the body that once belonged to a man who meant more to me than any boyfriend or husband ever will. To a man who protected me with everything he had, and would've given me the world, had I asked for it. To a man who loved and needed me more than I had ever realized... and didn't tell me until it was too late.