The familiar scent of earl gray tea sends me back to my grandma’s living room. When I was in elementary school, I’d come over multiple times a week and we’d sit on her off-white couch drinking... [+]
I'm getting ready to move to a new house. I'm packing my books, art supplies, peacock collectibles, and DVDs.
Everything I touch is a reminder of my dear friend Pam. Most of the books are children's storybooks and fairytales, the most recent one I received was The Snowy day by Ezra Jack Keats. Pam gave it to me for my birthday when I visited her in the hospital. She gave it to me because I'm interested in collage illustration, and I am a fan of Ezra Jack Keats. Soon after that visit, Pam called me to tell me that she was going home to die. Pam never lied.
My name is Zach; I have autism and cognitive impairment.
Middle school was very tough for me in metro-Denver, Colorado, so the school hired Pam, a former nurse to be my teacher's aide. She was tall with short, red hair and a quiet, calm voice. She seemed elderly to me, close to my grandmother's age. For two years she was there to support me because that was her job. School was difficult for me to process sometimes. When I was tired, or upset, Pam let me sleep under the table that served as my desk. She tuned into my need for quietness and calmness.
During that time, I applied to become a zoo volunteer. Pam took me for training, then she accompanied me to work on Fridays at the Denver Zoo. She stood by while I cared for the animals in the petting zoo, prepared food for those in the education department, and bottle-fed baby goats. When work was done, we would stroll together to watch peacocks, my favorite birds. People with my type of autism are known to have areas of expertise. For me, it's peacocks.
People are always attracted to the majestic peacock, with its crown-like crest feathers and beautiful eye-spotted tail feathers that rise to create a colorful fan. The feathers are actually brown, but appear to be shimmering blues and greens because of how sunlight reflects off of them. When they open their beaks, their squawks can be heard for miles. Peahens, on the other hand, are quiet and appear brown, with just a band of color on their necks. Their drab colors are camouflage that enable them to protect their nests without being seen by predators.
Pam reminded me of a peahen, like a dutiful mother who sits on her eggs, Pam was nurturing. She dressed in quiet, earth tone clothing, she had a soft smile, and she was always calm, never raising her voice. Her only bright color was her hair—red, that is until she let it go gray after losing it to chemotherapy.
After middle school my relationship with Pam didn't end. It changed, and we remained friends for a total of twenty years. Our relationship evolved, from her having a paying job as a caregiver to being my closest friend, a surrogate grandmother. I actually had two living grandmothers as well, but Pam was a person you would dream a grandmother would be. We spent a lot of time together over the years. We went to movies, especially Pirates of the Caribbean and Tim Burton movies. Whether she wanted to see them or not, she always enjoyed them in the end because they gave us so much to talk about. We went to Blue Ocean and Shanghai Garden to eat lo mein and shrimp with broccoli and talk about art, her grandchildren, and what was going on with me.
We celebrated birthdays and holidays, and I became close to Pam's family and she to mine. Every year on my birthday Pam would add to my collection of Pokemon cards, Tomie dePaola's books, fairytales, art supplies, and DVDs. Gifts would be accompanied by a birthday card with a peacock on it; I kept them all. Gift-giving was a two-way street. It was fun to choose something special for her. My final birthday gift to her after seeing her in the hospital was a flower arrangement. She no longer had the strength to use anything I could give her, but I knew she would enjoy seeing and smelling the flowers.
Pam really was a part of the family. She came to lunch to celebrate my high school graduation. When my parents took the one vacation that didn't include me and my siblings, it was Pam, not my actual grandmother, who came by to check in with me and make sure all was well and dinner was made. She always attended the openings of my art exhibits, and encouraged me to explore my painting. When she was first diagnosed with cancer and couldn't travel to her daughter's house, my mom and I made Christmas dinner and brought it to her and Tom, her husband. A few years ago, my brother got married. I was the "man of honor" and wrote a wedding speech for the reception. It was a special occasion, made even more special because Pam was there to see me have the confidence to write and give a speech. I knew she was proud of me, and I was so happy that she had traveled from Colorado to Los Angeles for the wedding. By then all of my grandparents were gone, but I had Pam to share the day with.
I think about how we both shared a love of fairytales, especially Hans Christian Andersen. Pam was Danish on her mother's side, and would send delicious Danish butter cookies to my family every Christmas. We talked about taking a trip to Denmark together to see the statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen harbor and to visit the Hans Christian Andersen Museum. We never made that trip, but I would love to go as a way to honor Pam and her heritage. My favorite Hans Christian Andersen fairytales are the ones with happy endings like the Princess and the Pea and Thumbelina. Pam's favorite was the Little Match Girl. That story does not have a happily ever after ending, most of his don't.
The last time I saw Pam was just after my thirty-second birthday, we had known each other for twenty years. I had moved first from Denver to Los Angeles, and then to Philadelphia, but every year, I made sure to visit Pam, and of course she made the trip to see me at my brother's wedding. During what was my last visit, she was in the hospital. Several years earlier, having survived two bouts of cancer, she had a kidney transplant, but even with dialysis, it was failing. During the visit, while we talked about the future, she gave me a copy of The Snowy Day, accompanied, of course, by a peacock birthday card. About two weeks later, she called to say goodbye.
If Pam were still here, she would be happy to know what's going on with me right now. I have a girlfriend, who I met online during the COVID-19 quarantine. Finding someone who would accept me along with my challenges was a goal I talked to Pam about almost every week during our phone chats. Hans Christian Andersen fell in love with the "Swedish Nightingale," Jenny Lind; he never found anyone else to love after Jenny rejected his love. For a long time. I wondered if I would be loveless like him. But life takes funny turns. Sometimes stories have both a sad and a happy ending. I lost Pam just after Thanksgiving, but in the middle of a quarantine, I found love.
Someone was watching over me when I took the chance of connecting with a beautiful soul on an autism dating site. Pam, I have come to realize, is my fairy godmother, pushing me to step beyond my comfort zone. She will always be with me.