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I didn’t know my cousin Rory nearly as well as I would have liked. It didn’t help that we lived at least two hours away from each other at any given point during his life or that I was thirteen years his senior. I remember him being a spry and skinny little kid with a crazy dry wit at an obscenely young age. He motored around in that manic boy way, and if you got him to stop for a moment to talk, his raspy voice would spout a shocking amount of sarcasm wrapped around a dose of insight. Afterward, he would bolt away, all the while rubbing his hands together like a pint-sized mad scientist gearing up to do a touch of evil.

A lack of Generation Xers in my family forced me to learn how to interact with adults at a very early age. When the family baby boom finally began, I was already well on my way to becoming a self-absorbed teenager. As a result, I have a tendency to feel awkward around kids. My children are teaching me how to interact with other children, a skill I seemed to have missed learning while growing up. I feel a deep regret that I let my awkwardness get in the way of getting to know the Tomasello boys. A look through Rory’s MySpace page tells me we would have gotten along well.

Rory died abruptly this week at 22 years of age when he was hit by an SUV while riding his bike. Somehow the death of my elders seems easier to handle. They lived a full life–death being the natural next step. But when someone young dies, well, a bit of my soul dies with them. Sequestered away in my heart, in that void that death created, is a vault that holds the stories of the people I’ve loved and lost. I will pull out Rory’s story when I think about a bacon and white bread sandwich, hear the voice of a small child threatening to kick someone’s ass, renew my license and check off the box that says “yes” to donating my organs, or when I reflect upon my missed opportunity to reconnect with my young cousins at the last family reunion.

Death is a harsh and demanding teacher. Grief pushes aside all of our filters normally clogged full of busy details and allows in a stark clarity. The lessons are immediate when death makes an example of someone we love. In the book, Journey to Ixtlan, The Lessons of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, the shaman teaches his pupil the importance of living life as an impeccable warrior. His lesson is, “In a world where death is the hunter there are no small or big decisions. There are only decisions that we make in the face of our inevitable death.” So I get it, death. I hear you. My lessons are this: push past my awkward shyness and weakness for small talk and get to know people better; slow down and ask questions and make sure to listen to the answers; make decisions with the finality of death; reflect the best of myself; and always drive my car like a mindful Jedi knight.

Below is a recipe for a vegan BLT–a sandwich I am sure my late cousin would have shunned as a young boy for the lack of real bacon and written jokes about as an adult.

Vegan BLT

Ingredients
Sourdough bread
Lettuce
Tomato
Tempeh bacon (Yeah, it is a far cry from the real thing but the smokey flavor kind of makes up for the lack of bacon grease, kind of.)
Vegenaise (There are lots of other types of fake mayonaise out there. This is the only one that comes close to the real thing.)
Olive oil
Avocado (optional)

Directions
Heat a non-stick pan with enough olive oil to coat the pan. Separate and place the tempeh bacon strips in the pan and brown them. A couple of minutes on each side should suffice. While the tempeh is cooking, toast the sourdough and then slather with Vegenaise. Add a liberal helping of lettuce and tomato. If you need some extra triglycerides, Mash on half an avocado. Add the tempeh and cut that baby in half. Close your eyes and pretend you are eating the real thing.

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