I’ll never forget the day as long as I live: It was Monday, November 12, around 5 pm. I was listening to the haunting, 80s-esque, synth sounds of Class Actress, and I was elbow deep in my aquarium, scrubbing algae off of the sides. I heard my mother’s ringtone, but I let it go to voicemail. My hands were wet and it wasn’t a good time to talk.
I had a to-do list a mile long.
I was starting a producing job for the Academy Awards the next morning, and I was trying to get my personal life in order before taking on the project.
My mother called again moments later, and I figured it was probably important.
In retrospect, I wish I had been kinder when I answered. My hands were still dripping with water, so I swiped my iPhone with my elbow and put her on speaker. “What?” I said, sort of annoyed.
“I have sad news.” Her voice was faltering, and I could tell she was trying to hold it together. I wiped my hands on my legs and picked up the phone so I could hear her better. “It’s Justin,” she said. Then she lost it. Like, gasping for air — sobbing — lost it. If you know my mum, you know she doesn’t break easily, so I knew something was terribly wrong. Yet somehow it almost didn’t register when she told me my cousin had hanged himself that morning.
He was 25.
Justin was a vegan, a home brewer an organic gardener, and an avid cyclist. He was also an absolutely brilliant mathematician who had always struggled with the strict structure of school.
Earlier that morning I had received an e-mail from my his mother, my Aunt Myrna, asking me to pray for him. He had sent her an e-mail on Saturday saying that he wasn’t doing well in some of his college classes, and she was concerned about him. By the time I opened the e-mail and said a prayer for him, he was probably already gone.
After I hung up with my mother, I called my aunt. The police and a priest were still at her house. She asked me if I had gotten her e-mail. “I did. I said a prayer for him,” I told her, my own voice breaking. I barely managed to get out the words, “I love you,” before bursting into tears.
The rest of the evening was a blur. I cooked dinner. I continued to cross things off my to-do list. I called friends. It all felt hollow and unreal. I barely remember setting my clothes out for work. I think I may have pulled out old photo albums, but I really don’t remember.
Even though Justin and I were separated by nine years and more than 1,200 miles, we spent a lot of time together as kids.
The next morning as I drove to work, my mother was simultaneously en route to my grandmother’s house to tell her that her only grandson was dead.
THAT I remember.
My aunt and mother had decided my grandmother needed to hear the news in person, so that fell to the only person still living in Michigan: my mother. Understandably, she was terrified to deliver the news.
“I’m praying for you. You can do this. I love you.” I texted, as I walked through the polished lobby of the ABC building, head held high. On the outside, I was perfectly put together. It was as if my bright smile and my professional ensemble hid my broken heart. I told no one at work what was going on. I put my head down and crossed tasks off of my to-do list.
Later that afternoon when I was trying to access a work document on Google Drive, I clicked on Google + instead. I never go on Google + and almost forgot I had an account until I accidentally clicked on it.
Staring right there at me from my news feed was this photo of Justin.
The caption read, “Keep it real. Keep it vegan. Keep drinkin’ beer.”
It had been uploaded Sunday night. It was the last thing he posted before he died, and I’m grateful I accidentally stumbled upon what may be the closest thing my family has to a goodbye note. Justin loved kale and grew it in his garden, so it’s somehow fitting he’s holding it in this photo. His roommates later told my aunt and uncle he had made himself a late-night meal on Sunday when they were heading to bed. Some time between taking this photo and the next morning, he took his own life.
I haven’t had much closure since losing my cousin. Work got in the way. (Or rather, I let work get in the way.) I didn’t attend his memorial because I was working on the Oscars.
On January 10, on what would have been his 26th birthday, I was locked in a room at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for 13 hours without access to my cell phone because it was the day the Oscar nominations were announced. Still I told no one about my loss; I put my head down and did my job. I was torn between feelings of relief for the distraction on his birthday and feelings of intense resentment that I couldn’t let my guard down and miss him even for a moment.
The week of the Oscars, My boss put me in charge of the massive “In Memoriam” gallery commemorating all of the filmmakers and stars who had died that year. It took all of my strength to hold it together as I put endless hours into a gallery paying tribute to strangers when I had hardly taken a moment to honor my own cousin. Still, I told no one at the office.
About a month later, I had a conversation with a close friend who was going to the beach to light a candle on the anniversary of her mother’s death. She has done it every year since losing her mother to cancer, and it struck me that I had done nothing personal to pay tribute to my cousin. Sure, I had contributed to Wheels 4 Life, the charity my aunt and uncle selected, but it didn’t feel like enough. I admitted to my friend that I felt guilty I hadn’t found my own way to honor my cousin.
Last night I had to absolutely drag myself to the grand opening of a new CorePower Yoga location. They were offering a free yoga class, but somehow that didn’t feel like motivation enough for me to drive a mere three miles to the studio. Yet something deep down was telling me to go, something stronger than a desire to take a free class. Something deep inside me kept telling me, “GO,” so I did. The class was great, and I even won a Manduka towel in the raffle.
But the best thing that happened was sort of unexpected… and it didn’t hit me right away.
During the reception after class, I tried a kale and cashew smoothie provided by a local vegan restaurant. I was surprised to discover that it was delicious. See, I’m crazy carnivorous and typically I steer clear of vegan fare, but this thing was actually awesome.
I’m on a bit of a Paleo/health kick right now, so I decided to make my own version of the smoothie today. It wasn’t until I looked over at this note from my aunt and uncle while my Cuisinart was macerating the kale that I realized I was making a smoothie my cousin and I could have shared.
Food is at the center of our lives. Not only is it essential to our survival, but it can also be an expression of our emotions. We mourn with food. We celebrate with food. And today as I sipped my smoothie I somehow felt like I was closer to my cousin — like I was honoring him in a way.
As I enjoyed a vegan kale smoothie, I realized I had finally found my personal tribute to my cousin.
I haven’t seen his mother (or my own mother) since he passed away. They’re both coming to California next month for their sister’s birthday, and it will be the first time we’ve all been together since we lost Justin.
I decided today that I’m going to make these smoothies when they’re here, so we can all toast him together. We can raise a glass of kale to honor a cousin, a son, and a nephew — a beautiful soul who left us all too soon.
Justin Russell Drawbert, this kale’s for you. Bottoms up.
If you want to make this simple, healthy snack for yourself, the recipe is below. Even though they’re vegan they’re actually Paleo diet-friendly since the ingredients are mostly alkaline and fairly low on the glycemic index. (More on the whole Paleo thing another time. I promise.)
Justin’s Kale Smoothie
1/3 C coconut water
1/8 C unsalted nuts (I used pecans, cashews, hazelnuts and almonds)
1 ripe banana
1 T agave nectar
2 C fresh kale
Add the coconut water, banana, and agave nectar to the blender and mix to combine. Add the nuts and blend until smooth. Add the kale and blend until you achieve a uniform consistency.