It was one of those sunny, warm days we've experienced lately and it didn't take much to talk myself into going outside. I used the excuse of needing to buy Halloween cards for my kids to escape my windowless office and take a walk downtown.
I had just stepped into a shop when my cell phone rang. It was my cousin Mark in San Pedro. Except for greetings we exchange annually around the holidays, the only time Mark calls is when some tragedy has befallen that limb of our family tree.
Mark's father and mine were first cousins who stowed away on a ship together in 1936 with several other cousins from Yugoslavia. The cousins lived in New York for a few years, then some came west. In San Pedro, Mark's dad was the cook on a fishing boat. He and his wife Jennie and their two sons, Mark and Vince, lived just a few houses down from my parents and me on a street full of immigrant relatives.
Mark and I were born in the same year, but he's a few months younger. Mom said we waited for Mark so we could be baptized together. Our double baptism is documented in photos that I have tucked away somewhere.My parents moved from North Palos Verdes Street to start a business, but we didn't move far. We remained a close family. There were picnics and barbecues nearly every weekend in the summer, and, on Halloween, my cousins and I went trick or treating together. We celebrated holidays at each other's homes, and attended the same weddings and funerals.
When we were freshmen in high school, Mark's father fell from a ladder, hitting his head on concrete. My father rushed to the hospital and stayed until, a few days later, Mark's father passed away. Dad took charge of the funeral and vowed to watch over his cousin's family.
So, you see, Mark and I have special ties. I rely on him now, because he is there in the heart of it, to keep me in the family loop. The other morning, in a slow and steady voice, he asked me if I remembered our cousin Cathy. Cathy's mother is Geraldine, the daughter of my father's only brother. Gerry and her husband had six daughters. Cathy was the second oldest, 12 years younger than Mark and me. As a kid, Cathy was a real clown. She had wild, crazy, curly hair and a big laugh. Of course I remembered our cousin Cathy.
Cathy and her 14-year-old son Sam were riding their bikes in their Seal Beach neighborhood Sunday afternoon, Oct. 12. A drunk driver hit them. Sam had scrapes and bruises. Cathy had serious head injuries. Three days later she was taken off life support by her family and her organs were donated to several recipients.
"Oh, one more thing," my cousin Mark said as memories of a happy Cathy played randomly through my mind, "her son is autistic."
Mark's wife Virginia emailed me articles from the Orange County Register and a column from the Daily Breeze about my cousin Cathy. From all accounts, she was a model mother, a "Warrior Mom" they call her. She had finished her education with an MBA, was married and had one special child to whom she dedicated her life. And her son's world revolved around her.
Since Mark's call, I have grieved for Cathy and felt remorse for not making an effort to stay close to my cousins. I regret that I did not know Cathy as an adult or her son Sam. A fragile bond ties us cousins together, and my father would surely be disappointed that I have not done a better job of cultivating relationships among our family.
Just a couple of days after Mark told me about Cathy, I received an email from a woman named Rae. Rae somehow stumbled on a column I wrote about my father being from Zablace, Yugoslavia. That's where Rae was born. Her maiden name is the same as mine, Grgas. We have been emailing back and forth and we're pretty sure we're cousins. In fact, Rae thinks her father was one of the cousins who stowed away with my father. She is four years younger than me and lives in New York City.
It is not easy to make any sense of Cathy's death. Nor can I explain how a woman in New York whom I've never met has suddenly become family. Life is full of unexplainable twists and turns, and if you're lucky, it's full of cousins.
NOTE: The preceding column initially was published two years ago, here is an update: On Aug. 20, 2010, a judge sentenced Alex David Trujillo, 45, of Garden Grove, who had a prior drunken driving conviction, to 15 years to life after a jury found him guilty of second degree murder in the death of Cathy Cafaro Busse. Trujillo's truck hit Cathy from behind when she was bicycling alongside her son on October 12, 2008. Her son Sam, now 16, lives with his father Ben, a police officer. Rae and I discovered we are not related, but still stay in touch.