As the oldest of four children, I have often been the one whom my younger siblings looked to for guidance. While I have always been glad to be an eldest child, I also found comfort in the fact that I had four older cousins on my dad’s side of the family. I found it reassuring on many levels to know I had these four older boy cousins—Matt, Ian, Alan, and Brian —who were always there. My Grandma was always telling me stories about them, and I would often meet and play with all of my cousins while at my Grandma’s house while growing up. Matt and Ian were brothers, and so were Alan and Brian. Matt was the oldest, then Ian and Alan were both in the same grade and four years older than I was, and finally Brian’s birthday was just about six months before mine. (At Christmas Eve at Grandma’s, we always opened presents in order of age from youngest to oldest. No one could ever remember whether Brian was older than me or not so I would always have to remind everyone.) On some very basic level, it was just nice to know I had older cousins who would look out for me, just like I looked out for my three younger siblings. I always assumed all of my cousins would always be there.
I still very much miss my cousin Ian.
Of my four cousins, Matt was the more quiet, studious one. Alan was always the goofy one; he could be counted on for many very enthusiastic games of “capture the flag” at his house. Brian was the musical one, writing his own compositions. Ian, however, was the coolest (sorry other cousins, I still love you too!). I always really admired Ian. He was very athletic and a very good soccer player—I pretty much always thought of and still think of Ian whenever I think of soccer. I wanted to be an athlete too, and it gave me hope that an older cousin was so good at a sport! Ian later went on to play soccer for Allegheny College. In the summer of 2013, I visited Manchester, UK, home to the International Football Hall of Fame—I thought of sending Ian a postcard from here and still regret that I didn’t do this. It is hard to write anything that very completely sums up someone’s personality without you having met this person; however, Ian just had something about him that was so kind-hearted. Something about his voice just put you instantly at ease, and you knew he was a good guy. I always thought of Ian as being very cheerful, steady, and fun. I always thought of him as the coolest of my guy cousins, and I was so proud that he was my cousin.
In the middle of the summer of 2013, we lost Ian to suicide. This is something that is extraordinarily hard for me to write or to talk about still. Dealing with a suicide is not like dealing with another kind of death. If you think too hard about it, you become overwhelmed with despair and wondering if there were anything that you could have done. It also made me initially very angry. It did not seem fair. My dad told both my littlest brother Dan and me after we had driven home from swim practice. Dan and I had stopped at Five Guys after a good workout and had some ideal sibling bonding time; now we were standing in the driveway and my dad was taking a very long time to tell us some very bad news. I have never been this scared in my entire life. Witnessing my brother’s reaction was awful. Just thinking about it now makes me cry. I remember just a few days after I found out about Ian: I was at the swimming pool in the middle of the summer, looking up at this blue, blue sky, and the sparkling water and thinking how unfair it was that Ian would never get to be old in this world, to be a father or a grandparent, that he was not here to see this beautiful blue sky and sunshine on this summer day which seemed to me to be the very essence of being alive.
I have had more than my share of days when I have cried myself to sleep or something has suddenly reminded me of Ian while I’ve been driving in my car. Running has been a great coping mechanism. The week after Ian’s death, I went on some good, hard, overly long trail runs—if you run long enough, you can distract yourself from thinking about other things.
That fall, I returned to UVa to finish the dissertation fellowship year of my Ph.D., but I was largely overwhelmed still by Ian’s death. At times, I would just feel very down. I thought a lot about Ian and my Aunt Judy, his mom. Why did God let Ian do that? Does heaven even exist? These were pretty intense thoughts for someone who spent as much time at Catholic schools as I have. It seemed nothing that anyone said could make me feel better. I really just couldn’t imagine that he wasn’t here anymore and wasn’t capable of just walking around the next corner.
In October, I had signed up to do the Waynesboro 10k. The day of this race was very cloudy, rainy, and gross outside. During my warmup, around a somewhat desolate rainy section of this small town, I felt like the world was kind of a lousy place and that a heavy burden was weighing upon my spirit. This feeling of despair over my cousin felt more overwhelming than it ever had been. I ended my warmup at the registration desk, where I gave my name to the check-in person and picked up my number and pins. Rather than walking away with my pins in my hand, for some reason I decided to take the unusual step of pausing at the desk and put the pins in my race number right then and there. As I was doing this, a man next to me was also checking in, and gave the registration person his last name: “Fisher.” At this, my ears perked up. My cousin Ian’s last name was Fisher. The registration person then asked for this man’s first name; he said, miraculously, “Ian.” I have never felt such a heavy weight lifted as at this moment. The world does not have many Ian Fishers, and here was one next to me, at the moment where I had felt utterly inconsolable and the most down about my cousin Ian’s death. I stopped this man in a hooded sweatshirt, and exclaimed, “that’s my cousin’s name!” I don’t even remember his reply, though I remember that he smiled at me. I ran back through the drizzling rain to the car where my boyfriend was waiting and told him this story with the sense that everything was somehow okay. This felt like my cousin letting me know that he was okay.
During the race that day, I am sure that Ian helped me out. A girl was right behind me for most of this 10k, and at a certain stretch, I called upon Ian in my mind to help me, and he did because I had some type of second wind that I didn't deserve to have. I won that race, but I knew someone had my back up there. That moment at the registration desk was the first time since Ian’s death that I had felt that anything was even remotely okay. Interestingly enough, this race was also a type of turning point in my running career—this led into a large string of races and running successes. I feel like Ian, my athlete cousin, is still helping me with my running. At the Frostbite 15k this January—another race in pouring, though this time freezing, rain—I again overheard a “Fisher” at the registration table through a large hubbub of noise in a crowded room of runners.
This May, I am racing the Tinkerbell Half Marathon in Orlando to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). I greatly appreciate any support of my participation in this event, which goes towards a cause very close to me. If humanly possible, I intend to win this race in my cousin’s honor.
AFSP is at the forefront of research, education and prevention initiatives designed to reduce loss of life from suicide. With more than 38,000 lives lost each year in the U.S. and over one million worldwide, the importance of AFSP's mission has never been greater, nor our work more urgent. Any contribution will help the work of AFSP, and all donations are 100% tax deductible. Please visit and share my donation page below:
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