Trigger warning: this post mentions death and disability
My cousin Pam was very special to me, and her sudden death six years ago was a total shock.
Pam was born with MS and had mental disabilities that prevented her brain to develop fully. Though she was several years my senior, it always felt as though Pam and I were growing up together in a lot of ways.
Throughout her life, Pam lived in Omaha, Des Moines, and later in Sioux City. She shared her birthday with our grandpa, on June 19.
Having a family member with special needs has had a lasting impact on who I am. I learned so much about empathy and compassion and the realities of living with disabilities in a world that caters to able-bodied people. In a very literal sense, I learned how to listen carefully and communicate thoughtfully and practice patience in conversations.
Later in college, I took several disability special studies classes to learn about language advocacy and how the world around us is shaped and coded with barriers, both literal and metaphorical. In terms of my own understanding, everything always came back and related to Pam.
Pam had a healthy balance of a big personality—either a ray of sunshine or a sometimes stormy (but quick) monsoon. She loved to hug everyone and drink diet pop and gossip about their lives. She was stubborn and blunt and thorough and always made me laugh. I can still hear her say, “Uncle Rick!” every time my dad teased her, giving it back to him tenfold. Once, she got in trouble for making too many long-distance phone calls to Colorado to catch up with my mom and dad—her phone was taken away to keep her from calling to say hi.
I’ll always think of Pam as tough, sweet, funny, loving, and stubborn. She loved to hold babies, spend time with family, and hang onto very specific details for years—never forgetting that fun fact, that person she loved, that day that was so great, how someone made her feel. Pam was an athlete in the Special Olympics and loved bowling like her dad, grandpa, and uncles.
Once we moved to Colorado, we didn’t have as many opportunities to see each other. We’d make it back to Iowa once every two or three years; her ‘welcome back’ hugs were always a sweet way to start a visit. I always enjoyed these reunions, sometimes few and far in between, when I got to learn about her life in her own words and she asked me questions with rapid-fire quickness.
There was a stretch, however, when I got to see Pam several times in a few short years when we shared many losses in a row. Our grandma passed away and so did our grandpa. And unexpectedly, so did Pam’s mom, my aunt Tamara, who also died of complications from MS. These big, monumental losses were hard and scary and I remember the tears and questions and the sad moments when Pam understood that her core support system was fading away.
Later in 2017, our aunt Vicky died after a battle with cancer, but I’m thankful that Pam didn’t have to experience that heartbreak as well—they were extremely close. This side of my family has suffered a lot of concentrated loss, including Pam’s sudden departure. Sometimes I forget that I’m apart of that significant loss—that I share in that pain and grief, and so do my mom, dad, and brothers. Being away has created a shield and an otherness, and remembering causes cracks and splinters that reveal unresolved rawness underneath. Anniversaries of everyone’s deaths have felt very fresh, likely because of how sudden, unexpected, and repetitive the process became. I’ve cried a lot this week, probably more than I did six years ago.
Grief is weird. It feels like it should be linear, but it isn’t.
Sometimes I feel frustrated that I didn’t get to know Pam better and see her more or call her on my own, but I also am thankful for every moment we shared. It can be hard to maintain relationships with close-knit families who live several states away, but those gatherings and visits always felt special to be apart of, even if just for an afternoon. I’m grateful for all the stories our family shares and all of the memories I have—whether from Christmas gatherings or any old Saturday potluck.
Neither my Grandma Dee, Aunt Tammy, nor Pam never got to meet Chad, which will always bum me out. But during one of our last visits, I showed Pam a photo of him and she sighed with exaggerated relief and said she was glad he wasn’t ugly. It felt nice to meet her standards.
I’m thinking about Pam a lot this week and hope that wherever she is, she’s resting peacefully and happily and knows that she was (and still is) very loved. I wish I could tell her how much I love bowling, too.