A Mother’s Love and Laughter
On the winter solstice of 2016, the darkest day of the year – how very fitting – I lost PJ. She was not only my mother, she was my writing partner, my soul mate, my best friend, and a brilliant, unparalleled interlocutor. One of the world’s brightest lights winked out on that frigid December day, and it will forever be my most surreal memory, sitting next to her on her favorite sofa, holding her hand as it went from warm to cool to cold. She was only seventy years old.
Death is sneaky – you might know it’s inevitable, but you never know the moment it will visit unless you are pressing flesh with the person who is moving on. They send you signals loud and clear – most likely our primordial brain sensing the crossed, confused signals of the dying body’s complex electrical array as it breaks down and finally shuts off. There is nothing more devastating or intimate, being there to say good-bye at the end. Whether or not you believe in heaven, you are there to guide them to someplace else, and I was so fortunate to have been there to usher PJ to her someplace else. She wasn’t alone.
For those of you who knew her, knew us together, it won’t surprise you to hear that the day before, we had been laughing hysterically about one thing or the other, about anything and everything. She left many enduring gifts behind, but her wit and laughter are certainly among the most iconic of PJ and the most precious, and she possessed them both until the very end.
And for those of you who aren’t familiar with our mother-daughter writing team PJ Tracy, I’ll give you a little background. The genesis of our family business began when I was about three, at bedtime story hour. There were never enough books in the world for us, so it became our ritual to write our own tales after we’d exhausted another’s, each of us taking turns progressing the storyline. I will confess that I wasn’t the greatest collaborator as a toddler, but we most certainly had fun spinning yarns together, and our antics gradually evolved from stuffed animal theater to more serious craft.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but those madcap, creative nightly sessions ultimately forged our future as a prolific writing team
Our career together has spanned almost thirty years and runs the gamut from short stories, romance novels, screenplays, and most recently, an internationally bestselling series of thrillers known as the Monkeewrench novels. But we never forgot where it all started, and always kept some of our cherished props from the past on a shelf above our desk. It’s my desk alone now, but Lambie and Teddie are still there to supervise the proceedings of every workday. Once beautiful plush toys, they have aged poorly. The fact that they are now dingy, threadbare, and eyeless is a testament to how very much they were loved.
In the months since PJ’s passing, I have had multiple occasions to eulogize her both in print and during public appearances, and yet I never run out of things to say about her. She was an extraordinary person who didn’t just make every day better for being there, she made every day the best. For my entire life with her, I couldn’t even countenance the possibility of losing such a beloved person, but near the end of her long, courageous battle with heart failure, I had no choice but to confront the crushing reality – we didn’t have much time left together and soon the day would come when there was no tomorrow for us. There is a season for battle, which PJ fought with her inimitable zeal and bravery, but there is also a time when even the fiercest of warriors must lay down their arms. She outlived her prognosis by several years and during that time, we were both starkly aware of the incomprehensible loss we would be confronting in the not-so-distant future. Oh, we cried oceans together, believe me. But we still laughed like maniacs. To quote Byron, ‘And if I laugh at any mortal thing, ‘tis that I may not weep.’
PJ, in her infinite wisdom, understood the situation better than anyone – I was losing a mother, but she was losing everything, and she knew it. But it’s no surprise that she was my saving grace through it all, and only in retrospect did I realize we had both been grieving together during the years of her illness in onerous preparation. It sounds so strange to say, engaging in preemptive mourning, but we did, and we did it as one, and I believe we were both more prepared than we could have ever anticipated.
Five days before her death, PJ’s body was beginning to fail in ways that weren’t reversible and her wonderful hospice nurse was having a frank discussion with us, explaining what to expect at the end of life. As you can imagine, that was an absolutely gutting conversation (Is this really happening? This can’t be happening!) But of course, it was. I was kneeling in front of her wheelchair, my hand on her knee, when the nurse finally asked her if she felt ‘ready’; meaning, are you ready to die? In PJ’s eyes, that wasn’t her question to answer -- she looked at me and asked, ‘Are you ready?’ I set my jaw against the tears I wouldn’t let spill and told her that I would be ready when she was. She smiled and nodded, then reached out and squeezed my hand. Above all, she always wanted, needed, to know that I would be okay, no matter what.
That is a mother’s love, selfless and unconditional and sacrificial from birth to death
I realized then that she was getting ready to move on from her suffering and I had just given her my blessing to do what she needed to do. It was an excruciatingly painful gift to bestow, but probably one of the greatest ones I ever gave her. It was my final sacrifice to her and I was privileged to have made it.
Later that day, when we were alone, she gave me her signature sassy look: a puckish smile, a twinkle in her deep brown eyes, both punctuated by a mysterious, indefinable dramatic flair that indicated she was about to impart great wisdom, trick you into a joke, or both. ‘Let me tell you something,’ she said. ‘When people tell you you’re going to die, you still don’t believe them.’ That was a heavy moment, but guess what we did? We both started laughing, in a bizarre, spontaneous, and wholly inappropriate acknowledgment of what we were up against, the dark specter that would visit us soon. It was a united front of defiance, and that was our way together, always fighting like hell, with pens not swords, with laughter not tears.
A chronic illness slowly eats at you and takes away things you always took for granted piece by piece; it also gives you that terrible, empty time in uncertain limbo to reflect on what you no longer have. But at the same time, it makes you realize what you still do have. And you make the most of it. PJ and I did. I am staggered by her bravery and strength; by the spirit and grace with which she negotiated such a devastating illness. PJ was a force of nature, and she will always be a great inspiration to me and to those who had the privilege to know her. When she finally left, a big piece of me went with her, but a bigger piece of her stayed with me. Once again, that is love. A mother’s love.
I’ve spent many days, months now, wondering how such a catastrophic loss didn’t paralyze me – sure, you can be prepared for an eventuality, but you can never be prepared for the aftermath. I steeled myself for the worst and kept waiting to disintegrate into a blubbering, useless mess, but as time passed, I was oddly inspired to write -- better, harder, faster than ever before. I eventually came up with an obvious answer to this puzzlement -- writing is one of my enduring tethers to PJ, and when I do it, I hear her voice and laughter, I feel her presence. She is still a part of every word I write because PJ Tracy was an entity and voice we created together, not the sum of separate parts. We had our own language and we were both fluent in it.
When I read through the recently completed ninth Monkeewrench manuscript, I realized I was often speaking for myself and posthumously for PJ through the characters, subliminally channeling our relationship, one that miraculously transcends death.
Some of what PJ and I had is seen through the eyes of main characters Grace MacBride and Leo Magozzi, who are expecting their first child. It is also explored through others characters coping with the deaths of loved ones. A couple phrases really jumped out at me during the final read before I turned in the manuscript:
Grief is the cost of love.
Even if your heart is broken, the love inside the shattered pieces never dies. It can lift you up or it can drag you down.
The one thing PJ never did was drag anybody down. If anybody could lift you up, it was her. In all those eulogies I’ve given, I return to the same analogy – she was a human supernova who burned so brightly and left us all far too soon. I miss being with her every day, I miss having to call her every night when I got home to let her know I had safely traveled those perilous, eight country miles between our houses and didn’t run into a single serial killer or knife-wielding lunatic, and I miss sharing everything with her, both victories and heartbreaks and all the mundane things in between those two extremes.
And by now, you can all guess -- I miss laughing with her. When we were deep into a book, we were always thinking and writing, even if we were out in public. We couldn’t shut if off. There is a fond day I remember vividly when we were grocery shopping, standing in a long line, and PJ suddenly blurted out a revelation: ‘I know how we can kill him!!!’ The people around us were slightly terrified, probably even more so because these two obviously psychotic women were laughing so hard, tears were squirting out of their eyes. Now that’s entertainment.
PJ was always there for me, from the sandbox to the Green Room at the Today Show, and I was always there for her, too. We were mother and daughter, but our bond was more like two halves of the same being, like identical twins. We weren’t identical, but we were woven together in such a way that we probably tripped over each other’s DNA all the time.
And the weird thing, the wonderful thing is, she’s still here, as vibrant as ever, even when I’m not writing. I hope she knew what an indelible mark she would leave (I think she did,) not just on me, but on so many others. She left a tremendous legacy that goes far beyond her writing and within that legacy lives her heart and her spirit in the most amazing ways.
As strange and incomplete as 2017 has been without her, she will be very much present this year with the release of the last two novels we wrote together: the eighth Monkeewrench thriller Nothing Stays Buried and the quirky Christmas fantasy Return of the Magi, a piece with a long history that has been our baby for many, many years and perhaps the most personally meaningful bit of writing we’ve ever done. It is pure grace that on the morning of her death, I got the good news and was able to tell her that MAGI would finally be published. Those were words she’d been dreaming of hearing for over a decade. She was unconscious by then, but I knew she heard me, and at that moment, I also knew exactly what she would have said if she’d been able to speak: ‘Not bad for a dead woman, huh, Toots?’ And on cue, I would roll my eyes. And then we would laugh.
PJ often talked about the compulsion to write throughout her life. She wrote because her emotions were too powerful, too complex to manage without deep introspection and solitude
She had one of those brilliant and beautiful minds, and such a gift comes with a heavy price – trying to find a way to stay sane. She often told me, ‘Sometimes, if you communicate with a pen, something compels you to write down your mind just to keep yourself sane.’ She was far from insane, and I always understood what she meant because I live it myself – sometimes your mind and your heart are too full and the only way to lift the weight is to write.
That was why she became a writer and why she was so good at it. And yet, when PJ and I worked together, there was no deep introspection or solitude, no torment of an artistic soul, there was only pure joy, even if one of us or both of us were suffering. Our preternatural connection was forged from the time of my birth – actually, probably at the time of my conception -- and never once did our hearts or minds stray from that magical sphere. We may have been separated by physical distance for times over the years, but our spiritual connection only grew stronger, regardless of our geographical locations.
PJ wrote me so many beautiful things in my lifetime, but after her passing, I found some poignant, hidden treasures in her many notebooks. I guess they weren’t exactly hidden – at the end, she intimated that she had written down some things, ‘but you’ll find them when you need to.’ I didn’t pursue the matter or look for them when she was alive, because I sensed that she had left me a gift to find later, and I was right. The words she wrote to me near the end were the most perfect encapsulation of a mother’s love (and filled with humor, as I knew they would be,) and I will selfishly keep them locked in my heart forever. But I will share with you my final words, engraved on a silver pendant that hangs from her urn:
My heart, my soul
My greatest gift