The emerald hue of his eyes is freakishly rare, especially for a Latino. Our grandmother teased him when he was a child, saying that he had stolen the eyes of the cat.
He is no good at hiding his emotions, so surprise or happiness or annoyance all dance on his brow whenever they want attention. Or maybe it is the curse of the cat’s eyes that makes him so expressive.
His other distinguishing physical characteristic is a scar on his chin from a mishap that occurred during one of our childhood baseball games. Other scars aren’t as conspicuous, and they flair much less than they used to.
Cousin #2 is entitled to his scars. He came to America when he was a spindly little kid, shortly after his father died. He is the oldest child of Uncle #1, the brave man whom I profiled a few months ago.
On the plane to the United States and his new life, Cousin #2 asked a question of my mother, his aunt, whom he had just met. He was a child of El Salvador, on the first flight of his life, who knew of just one reason for planes to exist. He knew of only one function that they served and one consequence that the whirr of their engines signified.
So he asked my mother why we were going to drop bombs on people.
His antipathy for such childhood memories is so virulent that he refuses to ever set foot back in El Salvador, even for a visit.
“I’m never going back there,” Cousin #2 has said often, as if the statement is explanation, rationalization, and vow all rolled into one.
The last time he told me this, he punctuated the remark by pulling off a hat that he was wearing (which I had praised) and slamming it on my head in a fit of generosity so intense that he nearly decapitated me. Then he repeated his words in his distinctive somber voice.
When he had arrived in America as a child, he became the man of the house for his immediate family. As one can imagine, this is an ungodly amount of pressure for a kid, especially one who has not been given any time to mourn his father. He was expected to help raise his younger siblings (Cousins #4 and #6), learn English quickly so he could translate for his mother, and figure out this culture’s strange new priorities.
As expected, Cousin #2 struggled. His troubled teen years led to poor choices as a young adult. He was no thug, but his friends were often the riff-raff of the barrio. He became a father young, drank too much, and owed too many family members money.
As his problems mounted, he withdrew from the family, and many of us had only sporadic contact with him for a few years. Then, in a scene right out of some hooky Christmas special, he ran into Cousin #3 at a crowded mall, and she hugged him as shoppers swirled around them. She extracted a promise that he would stop by the traditional holiday feast.
He did, and the rapturous welcome that he and his toddler daughter received convinced him to return. Most important for him, he found an amazing woman to love him and guide him back to the land of the living. They married, and they had their first child last year.
His children – two sons and a daughter – were among the first members of our family’s next generation. In many ways, they are the first in our line to be wholly planted in this county.
Cousin #2 works hard and stays out of trouble. The man who several of us were once concerned would get into a fatal bar brawl has been known to go for Sunday bike rides with his wife. This stability, and the life that the two of them have built together, mocks his troubled early days.
He is proof, more than anyone I’ve ever met, that a person can always turn it around. He is evidence that we are not slaves to the past and are more than the sum of our scars.
He has my undying respect.