My friend Trish saves the Sunday Times for me, and in a recent magazine section I read a series of short articles celebrating wonderful, unusual people who have died. It made me think of my cousin Andy Barchas, an amazing, unusual person who died too young.
My family moved to Freeport, Long Island, when I was thirteen, and we lived near the Barchas family. My Aunt Faigie and her husband Davie had four brilliant children, Richard, Andy, Jay, and Margie, and I relished every moment we spent over there. Our apartment was dark and sad, but their house was full of life. Their home was unconventional in every way: they weren’t big on housework or cooking (on holidays we would convene there and my aunt would have pans of meats coated with Saucy Susan Barbecue sauce and burned black set out on the stove to serve ourselves), but it was teeming with creativity and warmth.
Unlike my sister Meri and me, my cousins were not held to schedules or bedtimes, and if they wanted to stay home from school, they could. Instead of going to Freeport High School, Andy and Richard built a large telescope, and even ground the twelve-inch lens themselves. They were self-directed and intellectual, and even though they attended school just some of the time, they both went to Cornell to study engineering. Teachers at the high school revered them and were surprised that we were cousins.
Richard, the oldest, was quiet and aloof, and Jay and Margie were closest to my sister’s age and formed a gang with her. Andy and I were closest in age and temperament, and so we became close. I looked up to him and studied everything he did and copied his catch phrases and relaxed air. I loved his group of friends who were both smart and cool. Occasionally I dated some of the guys and would sometimes be invited to join some of the girls at get-togethers, but the reason they tolerated me was because they loved Andy so much.
The college I went to was not far from Cornell, and Andy would frequently come get me to hang out with him at Cornell, and I would attend lectures of his favorite professors and attend parties at his fraternity. One professor he really liked was a History of Science prof whose lectures made me learn to love science. I had always hated science classes because we had to do experiments that had predicted results. I wanted to do experiments where we didn’t already know what was going to happen. I wanted to be like Andy and read everything and figure out how to build a telescope. But at Cornell I learned there was more to science than boring classwork.
At fraternity parties Andy and Richard and some of their friends who had formed a quartet would sing a cappella and bring down the house. On vacations, Andy would drive me back and forth to school, entertaining me the whole way up and down the interstate, singing and joking, always stopping in Roscoe for something to eat. He graduated two years ahead of me and I missed having him nearby. Life was less fun without Andy nearby.
Later Andy and his wife Karen moved to the Bay Area and the distance was an impediment to people with kids and busy lives, but on those occasions where we were together we picked up where we left off.
Andy got sick and because of the force of his intellect and the magnitude of his personality, we all expected him to shake the Cancer. It was touch and go for a long while, and I intended to scrape up the money to go to Truckee to visit, but Cancer got him before I could make it.
There are people who are larger than life and who leave us but never disappear. Andy was that person for me. When I am trying to be cool, I ask myself, “WWAD?” What would Andy do?