PAMELA DICKENS GILCHRIST WAS AN ANGEL ON EARTH. From the first time we met in the early 1990s, we had an intimate connection. I honored her repeatedly when I was in her presence; it was quite easy to do with such a gentle soul.
I was the best man at her wedding, when she married my dear friend Charles Gilchrist. She had this silly giggle of a laugh that was so endearing. And so I tried — incessantly so — to make her laugh, just to unleash the glee.
It was glorious when I succeeded, which was often.
Though she would never concur, she was just a gorgeous gal — and one of the most gracious people to have ever crossed my path.
Pamela was blessed; she was a seer, and spectacularly gifted. She used the insights to help others — almost to the point of harming herself. That’s how big her heart was. As you can tell, I adored her. . .she was was the best friend a person could have.
She and Charles lived happily on a farm in Medina, OH., about 45 minutes outside Cleveland. It was her dream home, and it took all of the happy couple’s savings to buy this century-old farmhouse with six acres of land.
But it was worth it. They both beamed at the prospect of two creative souls owning a piece of the American Dream, far away from the bustle of the big city where they’d spent most of their lives. They had a barn full of cats, a dog and plenty of space — it was all they needed or wanted.
I often say that Pam was the kindest being I’d ever met — and that inludes the dozens of priests, ministers, and spriritual leaders I’d encountered over the decades.
We were so close that we spoke nearly every day. Yet, out of all of the conversations I had with her — over the many years I knew her, we only had one minor argument.
The discontent lasted all of an hour before it was resolved.
Five years after my divorce, when I was in serious conflict about living near New York City as a single father of two, it was Pam whom I phoned. There were, of course, more financial opportunities open to me in New York — and there was no lack of interest. But there were the kids, who lived primarily with me. At what price to them, I worried.
“Come home, Kevin,” Pam simply said. “You should come home. This is the right thing to do.” Less than a week later I rented a U-Haul truck and drove back to Cleveland with kids in tow.
That was how much I trusted my “Pammy,” as I called her. She was part Mom, part girlfriend, part healer, and part inspirational leader. Since her husband Charles and I were best friends, she adopted me, and nourished me like the single Dad I was, facing a world of challenges ahead.
Even though I had a special place in her heart, I knew I was not alone, for there were many whom she loved in such innocent and spectacular ways.
Not long after returning to Cleveland, we discovered that Pam had breast cancer. There had been months of bumbling by her doctors, as they missed huge tumors on her lower back repeatedly, even though she had undergone MRIs and x-rays monthly. But her doctors continued to misread her x-rays and misdiagnose her, so within months, the disease had advanced enough to be serious and life threatening. Forced with what she literally considered to be no choice, she chose the chemo.
For months, she struggled so, torn by the fact that she knew the chemo was killing her, but unable to afford anything else. This tore at Charles also, because as any man will attest, there is nothing more emasculating than being unable to create a financial miracle to save the day; to whisk her off to Mexico or Europe or wherever was necessary; to utilize any extravagant alternative treatments available to save the life of a loved one.
It was ten years ago this month, in April of 1999, when Pammy finally gave in — gave up, and checked out. I can honestly say that not a week goes by without me thinking of her. I see her in my dreams — and my daydreams. She speaks to me, I think, just to let me know that I still have responsibilities to carry forth.
When Pam died, I was seriously concerned about Charles. He’d finally found the love of his life only to lose her — and ultimately, the farm. Because even though Pamela had health insurance, her final bill was over $200,000 more than the insurance would cover. The bank seized the farm, which was to be Pam’s last vestige, after the flood of medical bills completely swallowed my dear friend, leaving him broken and sad.
For Pam’s two sons it was a wake up call about death, dying, and the reality of healthcare in America. What neither of them understood at the time was that there would be more painful lessons to come later in life.
PAMELA ADORED HER SONS, Jim and Mark Dickens — and her giggle laugh was out in full force whenever they were around, which was often. We were all kind of a big happy family for a while, and
Mark and his brother Jimmy would even babysit my two boys when they were very young so I could go to business meetings.
When I’d return, I usually found them wrestling and laughing and generally being little boys again themselves. I’ll never forget those scenes of hilarity and the pure, joyful havoc they wrought.
When their Mom died, there was such a void — for so long. We kept in touch, though not enough, I’m afraid.
THE LAST TIME I SAW MARK was around Christmastime 2007. There were hundreds who came together for a ‘silent auction” benefitting Mark, who as a 20-something had contracted cancer. There he was, with no health insurance — barely able to keep his head above water in the economic and ethical abortion we call healthcare in America.
He was gaunt after months of chemo and radiation. He was deeply in debt and conflicted. He was trying to survive cancer, the disease that had claimed his mom, but the medical bills were further stressing him out.
As I privately pressed a wad of money into his hands I whispered, “Mark, not one dime goes to those medical bills. NOT ONE DIME. Use this for food or heat or whatever you need most, but not one dime to those people.”
Mark looked at me and smiled. He knew it was a conversation I had had with his Mother many times when she became ill. It reminded him of her, and he got a very faraway look in his eyes.
Today, we buried Mark, who died a few days ago. I was regaled with stories of his kindness, his magnetism, his selflessness — and it reminded me of Pam.
It made me smile to know that mother and child are reuniting, somewhere in the ether. And to know that somewhere, there is joy and laughter.
So today, Breathe. Take in every minute. Take not for granted even a moment of Life. Honor your time here. Express your love. Now.
Photo of Mark Dickens and Pamela Dickens Gilchrist courtesy of Charles L. Gilchrist