Sunday, August 10, 2008

For Pam

Y'all have no idea how many times I started writing, then edited and deleted bucketfuls of words, before I could get myself together sufficiently to write this blog post.

There is always a surreal quality to post-funeral gatherings, particularly when they are held in the home of the deceased. Everyone arrives in their Sunday best, someone rounds up the folding chairs, and children trot around looking somewhat uncomfortable in their church attire. The adults sit with plates of crab casserole, potato salad and jambalaya precariously balanced on their laps while they sip from a soda or a glass of wine and talk about days gone by, and if you didn't know any better you would think you had maybe stumbled across a holiday dinner.

But for the somber tone, the gathering of family and friends almost looks normal, except that of course you are sitting at the kitchen table, and you keep looking up, half-expecting to see the rightful owner of that table swoop in through the doorway any second now, carrying a peach pie or a stack of extra plates.

It's deeply disorienting when the person you have gathered to remember isn't there at a party given in her honor, inside her very own house.

Trying to cope with her absence, people wander around the house, reverently paging through photo albums and gingerly touching framed pictures: photos from her long-ago ballet recitals, her wedding portrait, the optimistic smile in her high school graduation photo, and snapshots of a growing family. You wander through the garden, absently touching the wind chimes and bird feeders she placed there, letting your gaze rest upon the flowers she planted.

Inevitably, you find a photo capturing the two of you together in a long ago place and time, a time so distant in your own mind that you recall it better as a collection of disjointed images than as a series of events. You look at the picture, and you try to recall what you were like then:

You may need to click on the picture to make it bigger. That's me on the left, and my cousin Pam on the right, perched on the weary old mounted bear who served as a photo setting at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans back in the 1950s and '60s. Kids would climb up on that poor old moth-eaten bear, and for a modest fee, the photographer would take a snapshot for your parents to bring home and remember the outing.

The year was 1967. The car coat and corduroy pants tell me it was taken in the fall. The picture captures our personalities quite well: me, wind-blown and eager for adventure, no doubt fiercely hoping that the bear would spring back to life ... and Pam, sweet and demure, every hair in place and eyes sparkling, smiling shyly at the camera and at the admiring parents standing nearby.

Sitting on that bear, we had no way to know that, forty-one years later, also in the fall, Pam would be diagnosed with lung cancer, and that nine months later, she would succumb to it.

When Pam and I were little girls, we conducted our share of childhood funerals for goldfish, gerbils and hamsters. We wrote earnest little eulogies: “He was a good gerbil,” we would solemnly intone over the shoe box so gently laid on the ground next to a small excavation in the tomato garden. “He was sweet and pretty, and he was nice to everybody.” And then we would bury the little guy, and place a handful of clover or wild violets on the grave.

But I never thought the day would come when I would be doing a eulogy for Pam.

When we were little, sometimes my mother would take us shopping downtown – all girls, you know -- or my dad would take us to the zoo and the pony rides.

I always had a clear understanding of how these pony rides would work out. “Pam,” I would say, “This is what we’re gonna do. I’ll be the cowgirl, and you can be the princess.”

And she was.

Pam was always the beautiful princess. Being the gracious princess came just as easily for her as climbing trees did for me.

In fact, this past Christmas, while family members were going through old photo albums after dinner, Pam’s grandson pointed to a photo of Pam in her wedding dress and asked, “who’s the princess?”

And his grandfather said, “that’s your Grandma, when we got married. That’s our wedding picture.”

"She was beautiful," the child said in wonder.

"She still is," said her husband.

Pam wasn’t just a princess. She was a ballerina, too, and when she danced, it almost broke your heart.

She wanted to go to the Julliard.

She could have gone to the Julliard.

She probably could have danced with Barishnikov.

But, life has a way of happening to you while you’re making other plans.

So she married her high school sweetheart, and raised a family, and lived to see one grandchild. The second arrived forty-eight hours after her funeral.

She devoted her life to her family, and her work to teaching fitness, landscaping, and teaching others to dance.

She surrounded herself with beauty at every step -- first position or on point. She had an innate skill for turning a nondescript room or a dull corner of the backyard into soothing and restful places, easy on the eyes and the soul. Plants came indoors; furniture went outdoors. Ponds came into the family room; Arabian curtains were hung from the porch. Rock gardens sprang up outside. Candles, sculptures and other surprises awaited visitors to her garden, and vast swaths of rich color appeared everywhere from bathroom walls to flowerbeds.

Shortly after her cancer diagnosis, she took up knitting . She became the recipient of chemo caps and learned about the unfailing generosity of other knitters, be they family members or total strangers.

Cancer gave lie to our own grandmother's gentle superstition that "God won't take you if there's work on your needles." Pam leaves behind an unfinished crib blanket she was knitting for the baby who was growing inside her daughter during the same nine months that cancer was invading her own body.

Pam loved gardening and flowers of every kind, and she loved oriental art, New Orleans, Mardi Gras, birds, fish, and every sort of animal. She dearly loved her dog, Mason.

And she loved dragonflies.

We used to catch dragonflies when we were little girls. She thought they were magic, and they are. I’ve been told our local Choctaw tribe believes that dragonflies represent joy.

Pam had the sort of talent for making things beautiful that other people spend years studying for, but it came to her naturally in everything she did – in her landscaping, on canvas, and in her home. She was a true artist in everything she touched.

Of all things in nature, she loved the water, and she loved beaches the most.

And … that brings me to my story, about sandcastles, and pails, and shovels.

Once upon a time, way back in the Sixties, there were two little girls who loved to build sandcastles on the beach. And when we built sandcastles, we had a pretty good routine. Pail and shovel in hand, I would do all the digging and building, dutifully marching between the water's edge and a high spot on the beach.

I would build the castle, and Pam would decorate it, artfully poking wildlflowers, Mardi Gras beads, seashells and feathers into the rooms and turrets. Sand dollars and bottle caps were transformed into golden dinner plates, sun-dried seaweed served as royal carpet, and once we found a mermaid's purse -- the cast-off hull of a shark's birth sac. When we found still-living starfish, we threw them as far as we could, so they could return to their friends in the sea.

Sandcastles require royalty, of course, and our Barbie and Ken dolls could usually be talked into playing games in which the princess was rescued from a fearsome dragon attacking the castle. Generally, my plastic Godzilla doll made a convincing dragon, and Sir Ken would come to the rescue of Lady Barbie, armed with a pencil for a lance and a squirt gun for backup artillery.

A few jabs from the pencil-lance and a few squirts from the water-gun always put an end to that pesky dragon. Sir Ken always rescued the princess, and the story always had a happy ending.

Pam was always the magic princess. And if only we could conquer cancer with the same ease and confidence that a seven-year-old slays plastic dragons … well then. The world would be a much better place.

But we can’t.

And this time, the dragon was real, and it stormed the castle with dire intent, and the story didn’t have a happy ending at all.

Here is a photo of Pam taken this past February, at my mother's 80th birthday party:

Pam is at peace now, and her pain is gone. The fairy princess on the beach ... the teenage ballerina ... the cheerful young mom ... the artistic grandmother ... they are gone as well.

But we all know that she’s up there dancing, right this very minute.

And she has her point shoes on.



At 3:12 PM, Anonymous said...

my sincerest condolences on your loss.

agree that she was a beautiful woman


At 10:40 PM, Blogger Divine Bird said...

What a beautiful and fitting eulogy. I get a sense of the kind of person she was from your words. She sounds like she was a wonderful friend in addition to being family.

At 11:42 PM, Blogger DianeS said...

I am so sorry to hear of your loss. It's very difficult when our own generation begins leaving us. I grieve with you.

At 8:25 AM, Blogger Mary Lou said...

Beautiful Des. Thanks for sharing it.

At 3:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautifully written, Dez. I'm sorry for your loss.

I hope you will be able to complete that baby blanket. It would be one final inter-connection.

At 4:59 PM, Anonymous diann said...

I'm so sorry. Pam was a wonderful person, and it's wonderful that you are able to remember her so beautifully. May her life be a memory for you.

Ken and I wish you peace and comfort.

At 5:51 PM, Blogger Ann said...

So very sorry for your loss, Dez.

At 11:40 AM, Anonymous Lisa said...

Sorry again. Let me know if you want help finishing the baby blanket. Maybe it should come see my ocean.



At 3:21 PM, Blogger Barbara H. said...

Dez, that was a beautifully written memorial. It brought tears to my eyes. My condolences to you and Pam's family. It's so sad when people die young.

At 10:47 AM, Blogger Redblur63 said...

Thank you for sharing this lovely story. My mom has lung cancer so I can empathize with some of what you've been going through. Pam sounds like an amazing woman. You've given her such a nice legacy on your blog page. Wishing you peace.

At 6:09 PM, Blogger unokhan said...

so good 2 see you

At 6:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was the most perfect, loving remembrance of your dear cousin-I could see you on that beach together. How wonderful that you shared so many things-hope the memories are of great comfort to you.


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