“Anyone who ever gave you confidence, you owe them a lot.” — Truman Capote
My mom, Pam Peterson, died yesterday morning at 8:16 AM. She was 68 years old.
It was, ultimately, a quiet and peaceful death. It didn’t start that way — there was some real panic in her eyes that morning around 5:00 AM, when she just couldn’t catch her breath, and the meditation exercises we’d practiced several times (I’d look in her eyes and smile, hold her face and hands, put her feet on my thighs if I was kneeling at her bed, and lead her in rhythmic breathing until she calmed enough to gain her breath) weren’t working. She was sweaty from cancer fevers and couldn’t get comfortable; she’d sit up and lay down, sit up and lay down, and finally got up a couple of times to go to the bathroom (I’m thankful, and I think so was she, that her dignity remained intact; she wouldn’t let me help her except to pull up her sweats when she was done). By the second time, she had lost all her strength and nearly all mobility in her body, and Joe and I had to carry her to her bed and lay her there, adjusting the duvet and her pillows to make her as comfortable as we could.
I continued to look her in the eyes to try and calm her, and to try to breathe with her and get her through. We gave her an Ativan to lessen the anxiety, which had always helped in the past, but this time was different. When she ushered us out of the room for privacy and asked for the lights to be turned off, I knew that she knew. Mere days before, she told me she didn’t think she had long to live, and on the same day, a little later, she told her doctor she didn’t think she’d make it through January.
I didn’t leave, however. I sat with her on the bed and held her hand (I’d gone through a lot with her, and I selfishly wanted to go through this, too) and ultimately pulled Joe back in the room so he could do the same. Before he returned, I whispered to my mom, “you don’t have to work so hard anymore,” which seemed to make her frown. I didn’t want to tell her to “let go,” in case it wasn’t time (and I certainly didn’t want to scare her or piss her off), but I also wanted to let her know that it was okay if that’s what she wanted to do. Her little body was “slowly breaking down” as the lyric goes, and I just wanted her to know that she didn’t have to suffer anymore.
We sat and watched her for the next hour as her body struggled for breath. Joe sat on her left side. I sat on her right. She had a slight look of consternation on her face as her breathing turned to what sounded like a lion’s growl; this, of course, was the death rattle, the sound of fluids collecting in the airways. I really can’t tell you how long we sat there, just holding her hands. But Joe would kiss her on the forehead and cheek, and then so would I. I’d tell her I loved her and whisper in her ear, like I had every night for weeks, that she was the best mom ever. As the hour went on, and her frail little body started to shut down, her eyes dilated and she continued to gasp for air. At some point, I noticed her eyes were open but she’d stopped blinking. Her grip lessened. Her skin got cold. Finally, her body stopped working altogether. Her heart, which had been beating so fast mere hours before, stopped beating at all. There were a few last gasps. Joe kissed her one last time, and then so did I. Quietly lying in bed, Mom passed away around 8:16 AM.
We never let go of her hands.
The rest of the day was an odd blur. Calls were made. First to Anette, my mother’s home aide, who’d developed a particular affection for mom on their very first day together (“Your mom hugged me with love the first day we met,” Anette told me. “I don’t get that from all my clients.”). I called my mother’s doctor’s nurse, Patty, who had been a godsend, and had felt particular affection for mom the bittersweet day we all met and was there for every call or concern or hospital visit (“I’ve been doing this a long time — and I don’t usually get too close to patients, because I wouldn’t have a husband or life if I did,” she said. “But your mom was special. I could tell — she had a lot of dignity and class.”). My mother’s sister-in law, my aunt Karen, immediately hopped on a plane and flew out from Denver. My best friend for 20 years, Trevor James, who was like a second son to Mom, came up to sit with is for a couple of hours with me and Joe and say goodbye. Barbara, the home hospice nurse, came to declare her deceased but couldn’t arrive until almost 11:45 AM, and we had a terrific conversation about family, death, and forgiveness. We called a local funeral home (although initially I had no idea how to do this — I mean, do you just “Yelp” funeral homes? But Joe’s idea was to keep it in the neighborhood and we lucked out and Googled a very reputable one barely five blocks away) and some very sweet undertakers were able to pick mom’s body up soon after, a little after 12:30 PM or so.
It was just the right amount of time to be with her. I didn’t want the undertakers to cart Mom’s body away immediately; I knew this was the last time I’d ever be able to touch her or hold her hands or kiss her forehead or stroke my fingers on her always soft cheek, and I knew how important it would be to have that bit of extra time to imprint those sensations on my memory.
(As a quick aside — just a few days before, in the early afternoon, I was with Mom in her room while she lay there dozing, weak and uncomfortable. I would often sneak into the room just to kiss her or tell her I loved her, usually waking her as I did. Sometimes I irritated her, but that afternoon, she smiled her big grin smile and asked if I would like to crawl into bed with her. I tentatively said yes (I was really quite afraid of hurting her) and she pulled the blankets back. And I got to curl up with her behind her, and lay my head on her right shoulder and wrapped my arm around her now-tiny little torso — and I napped like a little kid for about half an hour. The best nap ever, I’d say.)
Before Barbara arrived, Joe suggested I take a minute to clean up and take a shower. I’m glad he did. The minute the water started, I cried. Wailed. Released. It was the kind of crying that’s actually very frightening emotionally; the kind of crying that comes from a well of sorrow so deep that it makes you think, “if I truly give into this, I’ll never, ever be able to stop.”
I cried like that a couple of times yesterday.
Joe cried, too. It’s always a little hard seeing Joe cry, because he’s such a jovial, good-natured man, a natural comedian and prankster, and laughter is always his default. So when he cries — truly cries, like he did yesterday — I know that it, too comes from a place deep and powerful and heartfelt. He was an angel to Mom, and I’m so, so glad he was there, and that he, too, was holding Mom’s hand when she died.
More phone calls to friends and loved ones were made, including one to my grandmother — whose husband of nearly 50 years died of emphysma six months before (it was probably lung cancer, too, and Mom had, in a twisted bit of irony, been one of her step-father’s primary caregivers). Famished after the exhausting morning, Joe and I finally had lunch. Paperwork was signed (albeit by a very sweet but nervous young lady at the funeral home, who misspelled almost everything she wrote down). Arrangements were made for cremation. By 4:00 PM, we were headed back downtown from Inwood to meet up with Karen. Not long after that, Joe, Karen, and I were joined by some of our closest friends at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame — people who knew Mom and loved her, and whom she loved in return — for an impromptu tribute to the woman we all affectionately called Pam! (yes, with the exclamation point). Much margarita drinking ensued. Poor Joe has suffered much of today because of it.
My mother was born in Scottsbluff, Nebraska in October 1943, at the height of World War II, to an 18 year old girl whose husband ultimately left her for another woman and another family. For much of my mother’s life she was rejected and abandoned by people that were supposed to care for her and she was shuttled around from home to home to be raised by various relatives while my grandmother sought out a husband that would last (third time was the charm) and her own happiness. My mother and grandmother (and step-grandfather) moved to southern California in the early 1960’s (mother had started smoking by then — her first puff was age 11), and Mom’s unhappy childhood, full of rebellion and unrequited yearning for acceptance, approval, and love, continued under the blazing heat of the CA sun. When she had me (and I believe she and her parents were not speaking when I was born), she worked every day from then on — as a single mother, mind you — to make sure that I did not experience the kind of childhood she did. She had so much love in her heart, and she gave everything she could to me — every bit of it — every day of my life.
She certainly wasn’t perfect (no human being is), and we had our fights (some of ‘em big), but she made sure I grew up housed, fed, clothed, educated — and more importantly, she made sure to nurture my talents (she wanted to be an artist, but was discouraged from such pursuits by her parents and boyfriends), and she made sure I knew I was loved every day and every night. Everything good that has happened to me — everything I’ve accomplished — I blame on her. And in many ways, these accomplishments were about honoring her — they were about saying that her love and time and respect and care meant something. That I didn’t take it for granted. That her son succeeded in NYC and worked in comic books and on movies, and was on TV, and won awards, and had lunch at the White House at an event hosted by Michelle Obama, for God’s sakes — because she made it possible for me to do so. She gave me the love and confidence she never had as a kid. I was going to make sure she knew that she changed lives because of her efforts. That her love mattered.
When several years ago, after a bitter divorce, I encouraged Mom to move to NYC and she did, I secretly decided it would be my duty to make sure that her time here was magical. With the help of Joe and Trevor and so many others, it was the absolute best time of her life. Here, in NYC, she was enveloped in the love, kindness, and devotion of a dozen “children” — all of them her kids, even though many had mothers of their own. She was graced with new friends her own age — peers, who sweetly loved her in a way I’d never seen my adult life; women who Mom could socialize and travel with, women who thought mom was an absolute breath of fresh air. I’ve always said that NYC made me who I am, but now, I can say that it made Mom who she became, and I love this city even more because her essence now permeates it. She loved it here, and she was loved here, and I couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful for a woman who longed for that kind of compassion and unequivocal acceptance almost her entire life to finally receive it, and from so many, so genuinely.
I had a wonderful dream last night. It was quite vivid, and in the “third person” — the dream was not through my eyes, because I could see myself in it. Not long before my mother was diagnosed with cancer, she was supposed to go on a three week-long cruise through the Mediterranean. She planned this trip for two years and saved for just as long; this would have been her dream voyage finally come to life. Unfortunately, Hurricane Irene hit NYC the day she was supposed to leave and Mom was trapped in town and never got to go on her trip of a lifetime. It was a huge letdown for her, although her travel agent quickly rescheduled her for the next cruise in the spring (she kept this cruise as the “carrot” to work for when she first got diagnosed; only in the past week or two did she realize that she wasn’t going to make it).
So anyway, this dream: It started in Mom’s bedroom as she died. I sat next to her, as did Joe. In my dream, my mom’s spirit quickly rose from her body. It didn’t have legs; it was more like a genie, with a wonderful tail of ether swooshing beneath her (she’d lost those clumsy legs of hers, finally). There was no maudlin lingering for Mom’s spirit in the room (she had things to do, after all), and she quickly kissed me and Joe goodbye before zipping over Inwood — her NYC neighborhood — darting between tree branches with her arms stretched wide, flying fast and free into the blue sky while the golden sun drenched her face.
I have no idea if that’s what actually happened to her soul; if this my mind processing her death through my dreams, or if it was Mom ‘s spirit letting me know that she was all right and where she’d be going. But I love the idea of this wonderful, sweet, guileless, and maybe even slightly klutzy ghost of a girl — who made her way from Scottsbluff, NE all the way to Inwood, NYC — taking care of all those passengers, and sightseeing the world for eternity. And when I think of her now, even sitting here typing all this, I grin, because that would make her so happy.
I have so much to say and nothing else to say. In the end, my mom was amazing. I couldn’t get enough of her kisses and her hugs. I will miss them every day. And I will miss holding her hand terribly, because it was the most wonderful, comforting feeling in the world to me. When she smiled it made everything in my life better. She was funny and kooky and a goof and she had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known. She was compassionate and sensitive and hopeful, and everything that’s wonderful in my life I owe to her — because she worked so hard to give me everything. Because she worked so hard to be so good.
She was my Mom.
She was love.
Pam Peterson ( October 17, 1943- December 30, 2011)