[This blog post is unusually long. But it’s about my cousin Pam (pictured above), who was unforgettably unusual. So in memory of her, please stick with it and I hope you find it worth your time.]
Relaxing on my pergola swing recently, I reveled in the greenery and inhaled the scent of fresh grass and spring air. The trees were sprouting first buds, and everything smelled of new growth. I was peaceful and serene and swayed on the swing, taking in nature and reminiscing. Then melancholy swept over me, and I couldn’t help but recall all the nights I sat on that swing, arms locked with my step-cousin Pam, watching the sunset.
The first time I met Pam, I was thirteen, and she was fourteen. She was strikingly beautiful, and I was skinny, lanky and—awkward. It had been a stressful week leading up to the memorable Sunday that I met Pam back in March of 1966.
My mother had recently gotten engaged. That was her good news. Her bad news was that she and my soon-to-be stepfather had never told his family about me.
I didn’t know if his family even knew that my mother had married once before, but they apparently knew nothing about me. So according to my mom, she was going to have a sit down with his family to break the news. I called it “The Telling” when I wrote about it in my diary that night. I wasn’t privy to The Telling outcome, although I did overhear bits and pieces when my mother spoke about it to my grandmother— and it didn’t sound like it went well at all.
A few days later I was informed that my mom was taking me to meet my soon-to-be step-family for Sunday dinner. Oh, joy. My diary entry called it “The Meeting.”
[Going back and reading through my ancient journals has been incredibly cathartic, but they have also brought back those deeply recessed feelings of imperfection, inadequacies, and downright fear. Why I continue to torture myself reading through the volumes of my diaries is beyond my comprehension. But I simply can’t stop myself.]
Back to The Meeting.
I was scared to death to meet the step-folks, but I felt better when my grandmother said that she was coming as well. She was always my rock and protector, so I was very relieved, although still a bundle of stress and nerves. In preparation for The Meeting, my mother was running around with a new purpose, buying fancy clothes for the three of us. Since it was a struggle to put food on the table, I thought the clothing purchase was excessive. And then there were the do’s and the don’ts. Do be polite, do be quiet, do be respectful. Don’t embarrass, don’t blab, don’t overshare.
In the days gearing up for Sunday dinner, I prepared myself for being observed, analyzed, and inspected. And based on my nearly perfect eavesdropping skills, according to my mother and grandmother, this turkey was probably not going to win any prizes.
Some soon to be step-family members were not attending the dinner at all, mortified at The Telling, which made the event even more worrisome and dramatic. On the day of The Meeting, I overheard a conversation between my mother and grandmother and picked up the word “awkward” as my mom described me. I immediately ran to my dictionary to look up the definition, while my grandmother responded with “She’ll grow into herself.” Awk·ward adjective. In the wrong direction, lacking skill, turned the wrong way, causing or feeling embarrassment or inconvenience.
I ran from the dictionary to the mirror. My dark, frizzy, out of control wavy hair was pretty awful; even I had to admit. My nose was big and my skin a little too dark. It seemed doubtful that I was going to “grow into myself.” And most certainly not by Sunday dinner.
The Meeting started out uncomfortably unpleasant, and I was a self-conscious inner mess—until Pam walked up to me and gave me a genuine and honest feel-good hug. “I have always wanted a girl cousin my age,” she said as she welcomed me into the living room, genuinely excited to meet me. And just like that, The Meeting was behind me. Pam had saved The Meeting day.
From that day on, the two of us were sisters from another mother. I was closer to Pam than anyone else in my new family, or for that matter, anyone else in my old family. And since my mom was an only child, I had no aunts, and no cousins, so I treasured my close relationship with Pam. And to my surprise, so did she.
We spoke on the phone often, had sleepovers at her house, sneaking out to smoke cigarettes, and rendezvous with her guy friends. I always told Pam that her beauty was a huge bonus for me. She was a magnet for all the cute guys, and as her plus one I got to reap the benefits of her good looks. And she also helped to transform my awkward self into a substantive, confident woman. It sounds corny, but she was hugely instrumental in my personal growth. Were it not for Pam, I might still be that gawky, klutzy, meek wallflower.
Thirteen years old, turned into high school graduation and I went away to college while Pam stayed local, so we didn’t see each other very often. But we made sure to keep in touch via letters, cards and phone calls.
She became a clothing buyer for a well-known Connecticut store called Brooks Hirsch—I became a Delta Flight Attendant. Pam got married; I got married. She had kids; I had kids. She lived in Connecticut; I lived in New York. Time, distance, and everyday life made it harder and harder to stay in touch, but we made sure to speak on the phone regularly.
Pam had the perfect life—a gorgeous, loving and successful husband, two beautiful children, a magnificent home, and genuine happiness. Me? I was in the throes of a divorce storm. I respected and looked up to Pam for her advice, her compassion, and her unconditional love for me. And just like when I was thirteen, all I wanted was to be like Pam.
And then came Pam’s storm—one of epic, and incomprehensible proportions. Her son was diagnosed with bone cancer when he was a toddler. She was beyond devastated. There was no consoling her, but I so tried. When I would speak to her on the phone, she was weary, distant, broken. But she would always thank God for her husband.
After her son’s diagnosis, she was never the same lighthearted and radiant Pam again. How could she be? But she had hope. She had faith in God. She had her beautiful daughter. She had her beautiful son. And most of all, she had her strong, determined husband to comfort her and keep her going.
Until she didn’t. While Pam was in Boston at the Children’s hospital trying to save her baby son, her husband had a massive heart attack and passed away at his office desk. He was in his thirties.
I tried to comfort her, but she was heart shattered and despondent. Who wouldn’t be? And the Pam I knew and loved was gone, replaced by someone else in Pam’s beautiful but broken body.
Her beloved son survived his toddler bout of cancer, but he passed away at age 20 from a recurrence. Pam and I spent countless hours before and after his death, trying to figure out what the hell happened to God.
I am a convert to Judaism, and one of those High Holy Day Jews who go to temple for an hour here and there on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the most reverent and solemn Jewish day of the year. A day of fasting, praying and reflecting, and known as the Day of Atonement, all prior sins will be forgiven on this somber day. It’s also the day for remembering our lost ones—those who have left this world for another.
In the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God opens the book of life and begins with the first name in the book, reviewing each name—each life—one by one. Who shall live and who shall die? That’s the question asked on Yom Kippur. The great book of life lying open and exposed, revealing names—some re-entered into the book of life—some left out. It is of the utmost importance for Jewish people to survive the ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah, which begins the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur.
Why am I telling you this? Because Pam’s son died the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Pam accompanied me to temple the year following his death. As a Catholic, she knew nothing about Yom Kippur, the prayers or the service, yet every prayer uttered that day had a haunting significance for her—and me.
“On this day life and death shall be written in the Book of Remembrance…Man was not created but to perish… Love and faith leave their imprints in the hearts of loved ones…All must crumble, in their time be shattered…When the memories of our dear departed spur us on to nobler aspiration, in our hearts they live enshrined forever…Deathless, timeless, living on in others.“
The mood of Yom Kippur is dark, so I suggested to Pam that we leave. But she firmly grabbed hold of my arm and wanted to stay. The prayers were commonplace to me—I had read them hundreds of times, but she was deeply moved, and more mentally and physically present than I had seen her since her son passed. She needed to hear more.
So we participated in the Yizkor service—something I had never done before. Yizkor is the memorial service for the dead, and together we tearfully read the beautiful passages from the High Holiday Prayer Book.
“Though we are separated, dear mother, in this solemn hour, I call to mind the love and solicitude with which you tended and watched over my childhood, ever mindful of my welfare, and ever anxious for my happiness. Many were the sacrifices that you made to ennoble my heart and instruct my mind. What I achieved is because of your influence, and what I am, I have become through you…the lessons that you imparted unto me shall ever remain with me. If at times, I have failed in showing you the love and appreciation, which you so worthily deserved, if I have been thoughtless and ungrateful, I ask to be forgiven. I pray that your spirit inspire me to noble and intelligent living, so that when my days are ended, and I arrive at the Throne of Mercy, I shall be deemed worthy of you, and to be reunited with you in God. Amen.”
Pam asked me if she could keep my High Holiday Prayer Book, and I gladly gave it to her. Over the next couple of years, she told me that she read those passages often and even shared them with her Grief Recovery Support Group.
Soon after, Pam started complaining of headaches. I told her it was stress. Her headaches turned out to be cancer, and I had no response for her when she sat me down to break the paralyzing news. She had a year or so to live, and I was hearing her words but mostly concentrating on not screaming. WHY? Why did all this ruinous devastation happen to one beautiful inside-and-out person?
After her diagnosis, we seldom spoke about it. She brushed it off as if it was nothing, and she made it so easy for me to feel comfortable and free of guilt. She never led on to anyone on the outside that she was terminal. Only her close family knew.
In between her radiation and chemotherapy, I would drive to Connecticut and take her out for dinner and drinks. It was always an out of body experience—me so full of life, and Pam barely hanging on, wearing that wig she despised, but as always, dressed to perfection. The two of us tried so desperately to make sure cancer couldn’t stop Pam from glamming it up and having an enjoyable night out with me. And we desperately tried to recreate the old days—before her son passed. But those days were over.
Pam held her head high the entire time she was sick, and she walked with dignity until the end.
We only talked about her imminent death one time. We both had a little too much to drink one night, and while watching the sunset on my swing, she told me not to worry. She was going to be okay. She was looking forward to seeing her son and husband. She was tired. I cried, and she consoled. Can you imagine? Pam consoled me. But that was Pam.
Two days before she passed away, I sat at her bedside for a last unfathomable goodbye. I was trying to compose myself and be strong for her. And then my best friend and cousin Pam was gone.
For the next few months, I thought non-stop about Pam and contemplated the meaning of life, the finality of death—and why her. I asked my friends and family for guidance—for answers, but they had no answers for me.
How many times had I picked up the phone to call Pam, to gossip about one thing or another—only to painfully remember it, and clutch the handset close to my heart.
And then life and time took over, and Pam became a beautiful, sad memory.
But as I sat on the swing she loved, with no Pam to lock arms with, I was lonely and mournful, and no closer to the answers I so desperately sought.
Happy 63rd birthday Pam. I pray that in death you finally found the peace and happiness you so deserved in life.