Pam Peterson. 1943-2011

“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.

When she emerged from the clouds (again, this is the way I dream — it’s all very cinematic), Mom’s spirit was above the waters of the Mediterranean and above her cruise ship.  She zoomed down and boarded the boat and essentially joined the crew; she was going to be the friendly ghost on this boat, making sure hapless travelers found their lost luggage and their misplaced jewelry; ensuring  potential lovers “stumbled onto” each other in the moonlight on the Promenade deck; secretly encouraging young kids to draw, or take pictures, or create with confidence; and, of course, zipping off at each port to take in the wonders of southern Europe on her own each time the ship docked.

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)

There are some great people in the comic book industry…

As mom gets sicker, and Christmas gets closer, I realize I haven’t had much of a chance to blog properly lately (which, considering the sheer number of blogs out there in the universe, may in and of itself be a kind of secret blessing).

While I have started an epic series of posts about Wonder Woman, Mom, queens, and comics (it’s a multi-chapter blog with photos and videos that should probably be an online book, it covers so much Wonder- and pop psych-related territory), the effort has reminded me that one of the great support systems I have in my life remains something that’s been integral to it for close to 30 years: the comic book industry.

And as an adult, I don’t necessarily mean the comic books themselves, especially some of the mainstream ones being published now, which, with a few exceptions, “speak” to me less and less to me as I get older (for a variety of reasons), although I still love love love great comic book art.

But as a whole, the industry has been fantastic to me and an extraordinary place to grow up (I started working at DC Comics when I was 21, back in 1991).  Historically, its presidents, publishers, editorial staff, administration, and many of my fellow freelancers have, for the past two decades, taken incredible care of me — personally, creatively, and financially, although I like to think I’ve probably given them a little something back in return for their efforts (and let’s face it — how many people out there get to write and draw the adventures of their favorite character of all time? How many industries actually give you the opportunity to do that? Very few, I’d assume).

For most of that time, members of the administrations of both mainstream super-hero publishers (Marvel and DC) have worked incredibly hard to find projects that suit my talents, skills, and frustratingly uneven creative temperament (I’m an arteest, dammit).  I find that the people in the “big” companies — and in a few  of the other smaller one — have generally been very gracious, very supportive, and very kind to me.  I’ve made friends that have lasted 20 years, some of whom  have risen with me in the ranks and “fought” with me in the deadline-laden trenches.  The NYC-based  staff  of DC Comics were there for me when my first boyfriend died (he was an employee at DC) when I was just 23, and during the horrific events of 9-11 (days I still remember so crystal clearly, because I spent much of  time following the event on the 6th floor there).  My editors are Marvel Comics saw me through some really tough times when I returned there a couple of years ago, and I owe at least two of them more than just a night on the town for suffering through with me and protecting me as best they could from their own bosses and the realities of our business.

When my mother was diagnosed with cancer and I moved in with her, my work-life altered dramatically. I had just starting my second issue of Fairest, the Fables spin-off and was working on developing a couple of creator-owned projects into other media, and was launching what I thought might be a wonderful “kickstart” to Phase Two (Three –?) of my career.  My last time at Marvel was not what I hoped it would be, even though many there struggled to make it so, and my brief stint on Adventure Comics upon my return to DC Comics ended not with a bang but a whimper.  I felt like I had a lot of making up to do for fans, for my bosses, and for myself.

Mom’s Stage-4 lung cancer diagnosed totally put the kibosh on that particular strategy. And how.

But you know one of the things that’s been really amazing about this whole experience? This whole, horrible process?  How immediately my bosses, Shelly Bond and Greg Lockard, found ways not only to accomodate my schedule but have done everything they can to make sure my heart and soul are taken care of, as well as my checkbook (and their publishing schedule!).  They light up nearly every day with sweet emails, gift baskets, and funny stories — because they’re beautiful, loving, giving people as well as amazing editors. Former editor Frank Pittarese lept forward with words of solace and advice from similar events in his life.  Jack Mahan, one of the VPs in administration, and a man I feel I owe the world to, has done everything in his power to make sure I’ve had the very best I’m able for 15 years, and has taken extra special care to let mom know how much she’s loved, too.

Over at Marvel, Steve Wacker and Tom Brennan have been fantastic about checking in with me when they can (it was Steve who once told me that, in comics, I was the perfect model for Peter Parker, and my mom was the ideal model for a more modern Aunt May.  Once he said that, it allll clicked. He was right). Ben Morse, who’s so awesome I can’t stand it, offered his hand, advice, and lots of wonderful exchanges on Twitter, all of which made me feel a thousand times better.  The far too awesome Chris Ryall at IDW sent me some extraordinarily sweet messages and also helped ease my workload (those Legion/Star Trek covers) Freelancers like  the infinitely kind Joe Kelly and Trish Mulvihill were right there, checking in with sweet words of support and extensions of help if I ever needed it.  My inker Andy Lanning, who has stuck with me thru thick and thin, continues to be one of the most generous men in this business, and to no one more than me.  And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Chuck Kim, my former editor and roommate, who texts hilarious words of wisdom to me almost daily about such important luminaries as RuPaul and Raven of the New Teen Titans.

On a recent visit to the DCEast halls, numerous people, from group editors to folks in production to 7th floor receptionist, asked about  my mom, asked about me, and laughed with me about work, cancer, and the hilarious Christmas decorations adorning the halls there.  Good, kind people — some of whom I’ve know a very long time — who took just a little bit of extra time to extend a handshake or hug, to ask how I was doing.  I’m forgetting lots of people by name, I’m sure (I’m writing kind of fast here).  But the numbers of people in my biz that have offered support and kindness are extraordinary, especially here on the East Coast, which will always feel like “home” to big comics publishing, even as the publishing biz slowly evaporates and its remnants move west to Hollywood (ka-ching!).

I think it’s rare for most people in the world to get the opportunity to work anywhere for more than 20 years consistently, and with good people, and make a decent living doing it.  The comics industry  has given me that. Admittedly, in recent years, it’s felt less like “home” and  far more like a place of business — new people in power;  bleaker tone of material; greater  (obvious) emphasis on fourth quarter profits; new staff faces in the halls; the devastating-to-some restructuring that tore DC literally into two — and walking its halls doesn’t have quite the same sense of warmth and familiarity it used to, at least to me (but that’s okay — it has been 20 years, after all, and a place like that has to grow and evolve and change in order to survive).

But I certainly hope that for the younger generation, for the new folks coming into our industry, that they find in it a home and a place of belonging, too.   A place of safety, security, and stability. A place of creative enrichment. A place of lucrative royalties if you work on the right crossover. A place like I have — a safe place to come out and feel infinitely accepted, to make life-long friends, to be a nerd/geek/whathave you. I fear that, as in all businesses, ego, economics, and geography are conspiring to prevent the building of such special, unique relationships in our rarified trade except among a privileged few.  But I certainly hope I’m wrong.  And I hope they get to know well that, in this bizarre industry of ours, filled with all sorts of strange and damaged people, the good ones are golden, and will follow you to the ends of the Earth and back if they can, cape and cowl or no.

I’m  so very lucky to have literally grown up in the comic book industry. I’m  extremely lucky to be a part of it now. And my mom’s sure lucky I’m a part of it, and that I fell in love with Wonder Woman, all those years ago. If I didn’t, I’m not sure where either of us would be right now! But I doubt it would feel this much like home.

Love Each Day

Love each day.

Give love or receive it. To or from a family member, a spouse, a best friend, an acquaintance. Someone you know, someone you don’t.  Show it, tell it. Don’t fear its intimacy.

Love knowing that your love might be rejected, but that your spirit will be so much better for it; for feeling it as deeply as you can.  Love knowing that when its not, when you love someone and they love you back, and you feel it and they feel it, and it feels true, it’s the most transcendent feeling there is.  It’s something divine.

Love the opportunity each day gives you, even when it seems like the days bring you nothing at all (they, do, trust me). And when the days do bring you something good, take it into your heart and cherish it.

Love knowing that you’ll fuck up sometimes, and that’s okay.  That’s why we have “I’m sorry.”  That’s why we have second (and sometimes third) chances, and love enough to give them.

Love each day and know that for every day you don’t, there’s someone out there who would trade spirit and soul with you for the opportunity, to feel alive and love with everything they have in them.

Love each day because love is affection and warmth and tenderness and enthusiasm and infatuation and desire and well wishes and charity and benevolence and friendship and empathy and a thousand other words you, too, can find in your trusty thesaurus. 🙂  Love each day because the alternative is not loving — it’s the opposite of all those things listed above — and how grim and horrible a prospect is that?

Love each day, in whatever way you can, in whatever way you know how.

Because love is the best of us.  Because love is the best.

Love each day.

“And how are *you* doing?”

Of course, I’ve been getting asked this question a lot lately.

We’re told, as caregivers, that we have to take care of ourselves:  eat right and sleep well; exercise and take care of our own medical needs; go out occasionally, take breaks, enjoy the occasional night out on the town.   This is not entirely for ourselves, of course.  The better shape we’re in, the better off we’ll be — the more strength we’ll have — to do our part in taking care of our sick loved one.

I also think that question is, often, an invitation to “dump” and tell war stories, pulled straight from the trenches of our battle against whatever ailment we’re helping our loved ones fight (edited for time and context, of course; other people have lives too, y’know!).  It lets people be helpful simply by listening; lending a genuine, sympathetic ear for five minutes can do wonders for someone; indeed, it can be life changing (I kid you not) for not only the caregiver but the one open enough to listen.

When I do “dump,” (and God, that sounds nastier than I intended), I try to keep it brief-ish (a nearly impossible task for me, as anyone who’s read this blog knows), but as I go about giving health updates, commiserating with friends and their now all-too familiar personal stories, and answering the question so often asked. I keep coming back to the same answer:

I’m fine. My life has been disrupted, and I’m not going to the gym, and working has been next to impossible, and I’m months late to a dentist appointment, etc, etc.

That shit’s all fixable. I’ll get my life back; I’ll figure out work; I’ll get my crown.  Might be tough, but it’s all eminently  doable. I’m lucky enough to have access to friends and coworkers who are willing to help me, and the drive to set that stuff right anyway.

What’s really sucks about all this — the truly horrible part of it all — is watching my mother suffer so.

It’s really not about her dying, and potentially dying very soon.  Intellectually, at least, I’m prepared for this.  This is  what happens to human beings.  They live for a certain period of time and then they die.  People, after all, are  biological organisms with inception and end dates; like every other living thing on the planet.

(this discounts that ancient clan of immortals who have been manipulating world affairs from their stygian lair beneath the Vatican for the past 3,000 years, but that almost goes without saying.  Almost).

What’s truly, truly  hard is watching her suffer. What’s overwhelmingly painful is seeing how quickly her life turned from something golden and wonderful to something wretched and filled with disease.  What really hurts is seeing the confusion in her face as she tries to figure out ways to get comfortable, or as she spends half an hour violently throwing up phlegm and the two tablespoons of ice cream she had for dinner, because it’s all her system could stomach, or be roused from her already troubled sleep because she’s not sure where she should have her body cremated and she can’t get it off her mind.

My mother moved to NYC at 62 years old and changed her life in ways I would never believed she was capable of when I myself moved to NYC over 20 years ago.  62 years old! Can you imagine? Would you be brave enough to do that now?! And lo and behold, not only did she move, but  she became a physical and social whirlwind!  She made wonderful friends; started going to art museums and the theater and eating international foods; she traveled to Europe and spent Christmas in Paris and started taking French lessons and cooking lessons; she went to roller derby in Brooklyn and began working on 5th Avenue and became a surrogate mother for any number of NYC “orphans,” who could talk to her in ways they could never talk to their own mothers.  She became one of my closest, dearest friends (and we were pretty tight to begin with), a woman whom I genuinely enjoyed spending copious amounts of time with, all after decades of forsaking everything for everyone but herself.  She came into her own when she moved here, the woman I always believed she could be.

And now, because of one bad habit and some genetic bad luck, she got hit with not just lung cancer but about half a dozen others that are rotting her body from the inside out.  She’s suffering every day, and it’s very likely it’s not gonna get any better.  She’s talking about her funeral (she doesn’t want one), and where she wants her ashes spread, and starting to realize that she might never get to go back to Europe and that it might be impossible for her to see the Christmas windows at Bergdorf-Goodman one last time.  She’s getting depressed and frustrated and there’s nothing I can do for her except make sure she takes her meds, rub her back while she dry heaves, and tuck her in every night and make sure she knows that I love her with all my heart, and that many, many other people do, too.

I’m not selfless enough to trade places with many people suffering physically, but if I could trade place with my mom right now, I would in a heartbeat. I’d take on the needle jabs, the pills, the nausea, the hospital stays, the fear — every last bit of it — if I knew she’d get another few years to enjoy all that she couldn’t for so long before she moved here.  If I knew it would spare her this terrible pain, and suffering, and fear.  In a single fucking heartbeat.

So me?  I’m fine.  I’ll always be fine.  My mom, though?  She could use a miracle right now.

Anyone have one to spare?

Good people

Two of my dear friends just flew in for the weekend to visit with my mother and take care of her.

These two women took time off from their jobs; spent their own hard-earned money on cross-country flights; and spent a gorgeous weekend in New York City at Christmastime doing little but cook for her, clean for her, organize paperwork and financial forms for her, and spend time loving and entertaining her in her little apartment in Inwood (one even helped me take her home from the hospital mere hours after she arrived on a red-eye from Los Angeles).

My boyfriend has literally given up his weekends and many of his weeknights to help, doing dishes, cleaning my mother’s bathroom, and cooking for us when he can.

Another close friend answered my emergency call and gave up two of his Tuesdays to take mom to her chemotherapy sessions, driving the mean streets of NYC in thunderous rain to make sure she got to her appointment safely, soundly.

My aunt flew in for a day and helped get my mother to the ER almost singlehandedly. Her daughter, a nurse, offers nearly every day to use her vacation time to fly here to offer an extra, experienced hand to take care of my mother and give me a little extra time off.

Several of my best friends call or text everyday, sending messages full of  good thoughts, funny pictures, well wishes, and love.  People I’ve only recently begun to know lend patient ears as I regurgitate stories and observances about cancer, or mom’s declining health, or whatever, making me feel listened too and buttressed with genuine concern from a support network I barely knew I had.

Via Facebook and e-mail, friends relate their own experiences with cancer — their own, or someone they know — to let me and mom know that, tragically, we’re not alone.  Far from it.

My mother’s friends call and email every other day, desperate to help in whatever way they can. Her boss brings food, flowers, and tips for care and comfort that might never have occurred to me otherwise.

Mom’s pulmnologist, not known for her warm demeanor, called unexpectedly to check in on mom, and revealed her own struggles with a family history of lung cancer and how it touched her.

My editors have sent baskets full of fruit and goodies and found ways to accomodate my now-shattered drawing schedule, and I’ve never been known for being a quick artist anyway (stop laughing in agreement, people from work — who know just what an understatement that is!).

Mom’s doctors have been generous with time, information, and empathy — visiting her multiple times, and even giving her hugs while she lies dehydrated in her hospital bed.

Her doctor’s nurse has been extraordinary in the amount of effort, time, and effort to make sure she’s as comfortable and as pain free as possible, invested in a way I’ve been awed by (you’d think mom had been her patient for two years instead of two months).

Her new home health care nurse, a big personality, and  big heart to match, and a real understanding of my mother’s limits and her pain — because all she seems to want is for mom to feel better.

People have come out of the wood work in the past couple of months with words of support, kindness, and empathy. They travel, they cook, they clean. They help with shoulders to cry on and perked ears to listen. They give what they can when they can, in a way that marvels my mother, especially when she feels the most sick, the most exhausted. They attempt to heal, to soothe, and try so very hard to make mom laugh and feel loved.

What has struck me about this experience is how much good we’ve encountered.  How many good people we know.   And how generous they are with their time, energy, and love.  We’re surrounded by them.  And, thus stricken, I’m reminded that — depending on time and place — the energy you put out into the world is very often the energy you receive back (at least, when the world works the way it should, although the world definitely seems to have far too many off days).

I believe that, given love, good, kindness, and connection, most people are capable of enormous acts of good, of love, of kindness, and of connection themselves.  I believe most people are capable of being amazing, if you give them opportunity and support to be so.  I  believe that while some people may fail you, many, many people will come through when you need them to, in whatever way they can or know how (and sometimes that requires a bit of patience on your part, ’cause not everyone will come thru in the way you think they should. Doesn’t mean they’re not trying, tho.’).

And I think saying “thank you” and meaning it when someone does you a kindness is not only nice for the person offering their help to hear, but is good for you, too.  Acknowledging that magnanimity and honoring it is good for your spirit.  It makes you aware of what you’ve received, and what you’re capable of giving and giving back, too.

Sure, some people can suck, and suck hard.  I’ve met a few in my day and the thought of what their energies do to the world and the people around them makes my blood boil. But more often than not, it’s my experience that people can be good.  Hell, some people can even be fucking spectacular.   And  going through this experience — and seeing so much love and warmth and goodness visited upon my mother during a really grim, painful, awful time by some really extraordinary people —

— makes me realize just how good my mom is.  She’s one of those people. She’s someone who’s made the world better with her love and kindness and warmth.  And how how much I want to be like her — how much I’d rather be good, like her… 

…like all of these incredible people who have been so good to us, so good to her, and to me…

…than not.

’cause good people rule. 

The Sins of the Son (Part One)

Have you ever heard the expression, “the sins of the father are visited upon the son?”  I’m paraphrasing here, and probably paraphrasing horribly at that,  since there are so many iterations of the idea, but I think you know what idiom I’m talking about..

Apparently, depending on the Bible you read, or the way you interpret the Bible, sometimes the sins are:

  1. (Exodus 20:5) – “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,”
  2. (Deuteronomy 5:9) – “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,”
  3. (Exodus 34:6-7) – “Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
  4. (1 Cor. 15:22) – “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.”

…and sometimes they aren’t:

  1. (Deuteronomy 24:16) – “Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.”
  2. (Ezekiel 18:20) – “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.”

Obviously, there’s context and symbolism and metaphor and language limits and all sorts of other things that have to be kept in mind while processing and interpreting those passages.    But yesterday, on a particularly long crosstown bus trek to Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center on the east side of Manhattan, I found myself wrestling  with that annoying Judeo-Christian guilt-slash-morality that so permates oh, I don’t know, everything…

…and wondering if maybe mom got cancer because of something I did.

It was a quick flash of a thought.  Nothing I lingered on for any length of time,  but something which I contemplated and volleyed back and forth for a minute or two at least .  Could mom’s illness be some sort of punishment aimed at me for past sins?  Was she suffering in some way for lies I’ve told her, or friends, or my ex?   For undeserved cruelty/snark toward people who couldn’t defends themselves (let alone my most hated frienemies)?   For teasing that girl mercilessly ’til she cried when we were in 4th grade, an act I was strangely proud of at nine but one that has grown to haunt me to this day?  For unpaid taxes that haven’t gone to fix roads, bridges — and hospitals?

(Actually,  I’ve suffered aplenty under various tax burdens, so I’m gonna rule that one out, just because).

But maybe… just maybe… it was for something else?

Absurd, right?  But beyond the insane, self-centered narcissism required by that line of thinking (grotesquely transforming mom’s illness and fight against it into something that, at its root, would be rights be all about me), it also defies the simple facts:

My mother has  cancer because because many, many people in our family have cancer, suggesting a geneetic disposition toward it.  My mother has non-small cell lung cancer because she was a smoker for 45 years (she started smoking when she was back in 1954, when she was just 11 years old, and only quit about 12 years ago), and because non-small  lung cancer is caused by mutation of growth-regulating genes by the mutagenic chemicals of cigarette smoke.    She has non-small cell lung cancer because  the cells in her lungs began to divide rapidly and uncontrollaby, creating tumors, and those tumors are interfering with her ability to breathe (indeed, after invading the bronchi of her lung, the tumor collapsed it.)  My mother has various secondary cancers in her skeleton, skin, adrenal glands, lymph nodes, and breasts because non-small cell lung cancer is incredibly aggressive, and infects the body quickly and vigorously if left unfound or unchecked.

For  storytellers, and, I’d wager, for those raised in most traditional religious households, those answers are neither very satisfying nor overtly educational in any kind of spiritual way.  There’s no great character transformation, no cosmic principle revealed, no grand ethical dilemma tackled while rattling off the scientific facts behind her cancer.  They begin to touch on behavior and its ramifications (there’s an obvious correlation between 45 years of smoking and the cancer), but not necessarily “universal truth” that reveals some great lesson about humanity — at least not obviously.

As I understand it, this is one of the biggest issues in the “religion vs. science” debate: depending on what side you fall on, and what’s more important to you: the “facts” of the matter, and then the “truth” of the matter — which may or may not be the same thing, but often provide succinctly different answers (to me, anyway) to life’s biggest question: why?

To be continued.

If Superman were really super…

As I sit here watching my mother rest between sips of broth and earl gray tea (thank god she’s actually eating something; the nausea’s been so bad this weekend she can barely stomach much of anything (which is made even more tragic by the fact that it was just Thanksgiving!)), one of the bajillion things running through my head was the power of super-heroes, and what our world might be like if the Justice League of America, with all their resources, actually existed.

I’ve started a couple of posts about Wonder Woman that I’m fine tuning between mom-feedings and bathings (and actually drawing — the process of which feels absolutely wonderful, even though I don’t have much of a work station at my mom’s place), and I’ll get more into heavy super-hero stuff in a bit. But, as I was sitting next to her, watching my mom struggle against the discomfort of her numerous cancer-induced fevers…

… I was thinking, “wow, Superman’s from an advanced alien race; and he can see molecules; and he can move at the speed of light;  and he’s super-fucking intelligent, probably one of the smartest people in the galaxy (yes, even smarter than Batman –!); and he has crazy, unexpected resources (the scientists in the Bottle City of Kandor; the computers in Brainiac’s old labs; even Lex Luthor’s mad genius and inventions); and he’s got that Fortress of Solitude filled with the secrets of the universe (and a big ol’ cosmic zoo); and can fly across the world in 27.3 seconds or something like that; and if were real I bet he’d spend at least some of his down time with Wonder Woman and the Martian Manhunter and Mister Terrific and all of his hero chums to find cures to all the diseases that plague humanity, like cancer.”

And then I started daydreaming.  “If Superman were real, and he were really super, he’d fly right up to Inwood with some special device or formula he invented (maybe with the help of the Justice League, or maybe just something he whipped up in his free time) and he’d give it to my mom, and all the other people that needed it, and he’d cure them of their terrible diseases (maybe with one of those cool vision powers he has; like, he’d just cut the cancer out of their body with finely tuned heat vision, or something!).   And then all the people he helped cure would be free to give back to the world all the love and goodness and enthusiasm they have, and they could be doing super things too — super good things, for their family, friends, and neighbors; for their husbands or wives or kids or pets, or even for themselves. For science and art and all the things we think define the best of humanity.  So they could truly be super, just like the Man of Steel himself.”

And then I got to thinking about how awesome a world would be with a Superman in it, especially if he was the Superman I think he probably would be (those Kents raised him right). ’cause I think that world would be a lot brighter than the one we live in now.

A lot of people in fandom think Superman’s boring because he’s so powerful, but moreso I think because he’s so good.  I think people resent heroic characters like Superman and Wonder Woman because they’re incorruptible; because, even if they make mistakes, it’s always in the service of doing good, of being good, of trying to make the world a better place (there are other socio-political reasons people dislike/mistrust Superman, but what I’m talking about right now is his  general, in-universe approach to being a hero).

I’ve never thought being “good” was a problem, and I loathe the meme that says “good” is boring and that “sociopath” is kick-ass.    I rather dig Superman, at least conceptually, partly because he’s so good.  Because he tries so hard to do right by people for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do, the just thing to do (kind of like Nightwing, too).    Because being good to people is honorable and noble and worth doing; because it makes the world you live in and they live in better.  And I know that if Superman were around, and he wasn’t busy battling the Prankster or Maxima or that evil S.O.B. Doomsday,  he’d bring that special device or formula or whathaveyou over to my mom up here at the tippy-top of Manhattan, and he’d make the cancer destroying her body go away, just like a super-villain being locked away  in the Phantom Zone.  Then he’d probably sit with her for a sec while her strength came back — heck, he might even politely sip a couple of sips of the tea we have brewing (he wouldn’t want to take any away from mom, after all) — before flying off so he could do the same for so many others (and stop Darkseid from taking over the world between visits).   And, with so many of us happy and healed, we could help him do all that crime fighting and universe saving and good-deed-doing —  if he didn’t mind us being just as super as him.

But I don’t think he would.  He’s good that way.

Hamptons Sky

Hamptons Sky, 2010

Mom, Joe, and good friend Ron Castillo on the beaches of East Hampton.

Role Reversal (or, man, do I miss my dinosaur bubblebath set from Avon!)

Like many people who are debilitated by pain and/or disease, mom is at a place with her cancer and chemo that she can’t really shower or bathe herself: she’s simply too nauseous and too exhausted to even sit on her special chair in the shower and  just let water run over her (tragically, we’re still not sure if that’s the cancer in her lung or the toxic chemicals coursing through her body to prevent its growth).

So, knowing how just “feeling clean” can be so important to a sick person — especially someone whose insides are so corroded with disease — I helped my mom with her sponge bath tonight.  Not only did it make her feel better physically, especially after days and days of nightsweats, fevers, and spitting-up and vomiting (boy, can that woman fill a kidney-shaped spittoon, even when she’s not trying), it certainly helped her psychologically.  She might “feel” sick, but at least she doesn’t  still “smell” like it.

And, for those that care about such details,  mom’s still a modest woman — despite her bawdy sense of humor — so she washed all her girly bits herself.

Thank God.


Anyway, what struck me so so vividly tonight as I tried to gently wash down her now-mottled and bruised skin and massage her scalp as I washed her hair was how honored I was to be able to be able to do something like this for her at all.

As mom sat there and I washed her arms and cleaned her hands, trying sooo hard not to get sick as I did —

— and as I washed her back down with her favorite soft washcloth, and took real note of her spine and her shoulder blades,  which never used to protrude like they do now —

— the only things I could really think about were the hundreds of times my mother bathed me,  when I was a baby and I was so little and so young I couldn’t do it myself.   If I was happy or sad; sick or wanted to play in the tub or would only play in the tub if it was filled with bubblebath from my  very special tyrannosaurus-shaped bottle (mom used to be an Avon lady), she would bathe me and feed me and make sure I went to bed clean.

This can’t have been an easy thing to do night after night, and I’m sure she skipped a few bathtimes here and there to make life easier on everybody (even the best kids can be fussy, and you have to pick and choose your battles, yeah?).  But what really struck me was how this woman, who could barely hold her arm up long enough for me to scrub her elbows, did this for me because it was the honorable thing to do.  Because my mother was that kind of woman, and she did what she thought was right and good by me, because she loved me.

(And it might seem obvious that this is what parent should do for their children, but many thousands go without these kinds of basic kindnesses; the world is not always a generous place.)

In Turkey, ritual bathes are and have been an important part of the culture; there are elaborate traditions and processes and ways to go about the baths, which begin for most in infancy and extend well into old age.  There’s something very beautiful to me about cleansing rituals, (perhaps I’m just feeling sentimental tonight), and something wonderful about the intimacy they invite between human beings.

I looked at mom tonight while I washed her skin:  seemingly aged 10 years in just two months ago, and tried to take in the lines of her face and the wrinkles around her mouth, and look really deeply into her eyes when they were open and I could catch them,  ’cause they’re still so pretty and her eyelashes are so long —

— and I tried to take in the marks of age and the bruises of needles and the spots from too much sunshine, and the length of her fingers and curve of her smile and the color of her skin, and and I tried really, really hard to remember just what this woman gave up for me, and how she worked so hard to keep me fed and clean and healthy and safe, and how she used to bathe me when I couldn’t even stand or eat or do anything on my own yet —

— and I tried not to stress out about missed work opportunities, or the comic book smash I’m not relaunching, or the TV show I haven’t quite gotten off the ground, or  the con I can’t attend or the the movie I’ve not seen or booze I’m not downing at some trendy bar —

— and I thought to myself, how fucking lucky I am to have this opportunity to give back to my mother, now so little and frail?  To make her clean on a day she’s felt so terrible, Avon bubblebath or no?  To honor her, at this time, now that she’s really sick, now that she’s dying, and to help make her time left here just a little bit easier for her.  To take in her thinning body  and her beautiful face and her wonderful, long eyelashes one more time and remember that it’s very likely I’m not going to be able to do that, or help her in this way, much longer.

And I thought to myself, as I dried off her arms and face, and massaged lotion into her hands and over her terribly bruised arms, and across her quiet, still rosy cheeks, that I will do my damndest to make sure she knows she’s loved and adored and protected.  And that she knows I appreciate every bit of love and kindness and care she’s given to me, and want to make sure now, when she needs it most —

— I will happily, happily give it all back.

Real circle of life shit, you know?