Dennis and I were almost exactly the same age. Our mothers are sisters and we saw each other fairly often while we were growing up. Dennis and I were both unusually sensitive children, but the subtle differences in our families made a huge difference in our lives. My father was a great dad. He was a steelworker back in the days when unions were strong, and there were only two kids in the family so we were able to have a house and a car. There was money for music lessons and occasional family vacations. Neither of my parents went to college but when I graduated from high school I left Trenton for college. Dennis wasn’t so lucky. His father drank a little too much and worked at less well-paid jobs. Their family lived in apartments in a rougher part of town. We would visit Dennis and the other cousins in those apartments from time to time and it used to make me sad. If you’ve never seen the living conditions of the urban working poor in this country then you might not understand how hard it would be on a sensitive child. Conditions are crowded and noisy. Dreamy kids, like Dennis and me, need to dream. To dream you need a certain amount of solitude, quiet and the soothing presence of Nature. I had all these things but Dennis, just one more rung down the economic ladder, had none of them.
I went off to college, majored in philosophy, dreamed and lived my dreams. Dennis was stuck on the streets of Trenton and eventually turned to drugs. He didn’t use drugs very long but his body and mind were so damaged by them that he never recovered. On my last visit to Trenton to see my mother, I also visited Dennis. We sat together on the porch while he smoked cigarettes and we talked about our lives. He marveled that I had been able to become a college professor. There was no trace of jealousy in his wonderment. There was no trace of anger or bitterness over how his life had turned out. There was just joy and appreciation for my success. I was glad that Dennis wasn’t bitter. I am not at all sure I wouldn’t be.
I got the news recently that my cousin Dennis had died of lung cancer. They found the cancer when he went to the hospital and it was already very far advanced. He died within a month of his diagnosis. I'm sure that some would read the story of our two lives and draw the conclusion that I am a success because I worked hard and earned it and that Dennis was a failure because he used drugs. But to me it is a sadder story of one sensitive boy who got what he needed to thrive and another who didn't.