“And the King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
I signed paperwork to have my mother cremated, and left the hospital in her new Lexus that she had parked only a few days before, and that still had time on the prepaid voucher. I carried her key fob and ran through the pouring rain and her door unlocked automatically for me, and as soon as I sat down and shook the water off my hat, I recognized the smell of a new car mixed with wet dog hair from her shuttling rescue dogs to and from the humane society to foster homes. It had fewer than 10,000 miles.
She had bought it three months before, I knew, but when the director of the humane society had called me to tell me Wendy was in a coma, she talked a lot and told me many things, like that Wendy had wrecked her car three months before. She had laughed when telling me, saying how Wendy had been so concerned on the big golden retriever she had had in her car that she was able to convince the paramedics to allow him to ride with her to the hospital!
Wendy had always loved those dogs, she had said, as I had listened silently and first began realizing how many secrets Wendy had kept from everyone. The director told me he was fine, thanks to Wendy, and that she had splurged on the Lexus because of the safety features. Wendy had always been frugal with everything except her home and dogs, and I had wondered at the time why she would have bought one of the most expensive cars to tote the dogs around town. Now I knew.
I had checked my phone while waiting anxiously in San Diego, and her mug shot was still available online, though I had barely recognized her because the mug shot showed her slightly drunk – or dazed from liver failure – and with puffy eyes and more wrinkles than I had remembered, and a shamed look on her face for all of her neighbors to see, her scarlet letter that only told a quick snapshot of her story. I couldn’t get that mug shot out of my mind, and my eyes began to get puffy from a combination of crying and allergies to the Louisiana springtime pollen and dog dander in the new Lexus. I drove north, squinting through my tears and the torrential rain, watching the windshield wipers marking time and lost in thought. I took Interstate 12 to the 110 extension and passed the airport and then turned down the more winding, rural roads where Wendy had received her DUI a few moths before.
Halfway to Saint Francisville, her car suddenly began to beep just like her IV pump had, and it took control of the brakes and steering and abruptly decelerated, sending me flying forward but caught by the seatbelt kept me from hitting the steering wheel and we stopped just in time to not collide with the car I hadn’t seen through my blurred vision and distracted mind. My heartbeat had shot up to almost 60, but the alarm silenced itself and I calmed down and waited for the traffic light to turn green, and was somehow able to concentrate on what I was doing for the remaining thirty minutes driving through torrential rain to Wendy’s retirement home near the bluffs of Thompson Creek.
I got to know Wendy over the next few days.
“She was a good person,” said the director of the West Feliciana Parish Humane Society. “She donated a nice painting to the auction fund raiser every year, and she would come in to the shelter and play with the dogs that no one else would. She was a wonderful human being.”
I sniffed, and tried to focus on driving. The Director continued looking out the passenger window.
“She would bring McDonald’s breakfast sandwhiches to the prisoner workers,” she said. “Six of them. Only 99 cents each. She’d pass through the drive through on her way to the shelter, I guess. No one else saw her. She’d stop and say hello to those Negros, and they’d stop their work and smile and talk with her. They loved her. Some of them had heard of them same balona sandwhiches they got from Angola from their fathers. Probably their father’s before them was eating something on a piece of bread. They make 15 cents an hour. She’d chat with them and then come inside and play with the dogs. She even donated extra beds when we had too many big retrievers and recievers one year. No one knew. She prayed in private.”
She paused, and sniffed back a tear, and mumbled, “She was a good person.”
I drove in silence. The director was helping me arrange an estate sale; the proceeds would go to the West Feliciana Humane Society, anonymously, and she was telling me about all of the volunteers who helped, and how Wendy chose to come around when fewer people were there – she had been so shy! – and share breakfast and play with the dogs. She must have been a wonderful mother.
As I dropper he off, she said, “I know Wendy wasn’t religious, or at least didn’t talk about it. But I always thought of her when I thought of her when our pastor read from Matthew: “And the King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” She sniffed and looked like she was about to cry, then the smiled and said, “Wendy never came with us to church, but she was always welcome. You can join this Sunday, too, if you’d like.”
I thanked her and said I was hoping to finish settling the estate and fly home as soon as possible, that I missed my family in San Diego, and that I’d email her when I chose a time and place for Wendy’s ceremony.
That evening, I typed Wendy’s obituary for the Baton Rouge Advocate on my phone, and I selected a photo that was midway between her age now and when she was in high school, one of her smiling and with two of the dogs she had rescued and fostered, hoping people who knew her then and now would recognize her. It would be printed in the paper edition, which was still useful and used by people her age and by many people in the pleasant but relatively antiquated culture of rural Louisiana. I had hesitated writing it, wondering what to write and habitually respecting her privacy, and I believe she would have been happy with the result.
Wendy Rothdram Partin, a resident of St. Francisville, LA, passed way on Friday, April 5th, 2019 at the age of 63. Wendy attended Glenoaks High School in Baton Rouge, LA, and retired from Exxon Mobil. She is survived by her son, Jason Ian Partin, of San Diego, CA. She was preceded in death by her mother, Joyce Rothdram, and her aunt and uncle, Lois and Robert Desico, all of Baton Rouge, LA. During her retirement, she became a master gardener and enjoyed helping people with their lawns. She enjoyed cooking, and took food to anyone she knew who was ill or grieving. Wendy loved animals, and worked with local shelters to foster dogs until they found permanent homes. She passed away unexpectedly from liver failure. In lieu of gifts or a service, please spend time sharing what you love with your neighbor, listen to what they love, and help each other.
Her obituary was printed in the Baton Rouge Advocate April 9th and 10th, 2019, and is still available online; like most of our family history, I said to myself. She had been private, but our names were well known and even the most secret of details had long since been published from court records. I couldn’t do anything about that, and I felt sad for her young self, full of hope before I had been born, and I sobbed silently and walked around mindlessly.
That night, I explored her house, a mansion by most people’s standards. It had meticulously designed and maintained gardens using local fauna, pine trees for shade and to acidify the soil for the azelea flowers that were blooming and releasing their sent, a young but growing pecan tree planted beside what looked like what would become a small pet memorial – Wendy would move a plant or bird feeder here or there until it felt right to her – and a single, sprawling and majestic stately oak tree draped in Spanish moss, like the ones we had both climbed as children. She had designed her home around, spending months sketching and iterating ideas. She had added a wrap around porch overlooking a fishing pond, and a steep triangle shaped roof that the French Canadians had used fend off Louisiana’s torrential autumn hurricane rains and to allow air circulation in the sweltering summers. The walls were eloquently decorated with elaborately framed paintings of dogs and wildlife, selected by her thirty years from part of our Canadian great-great aunt’s collection that had been passed to Auntie Lo and Granny and then to Wendy, and now to me. They were each worth more than I had earned in a year of being a paramedic in college, slightly less than my entire college fund or a single respirator without added software. I don’t know why my mind brings up those things; I may be crazy.
I looked skyward and told Wendy that and chuckled a bit. She knew very well that schizophrenia ran in the Partin family, and we had learned to laugh about it together a long time ago.
Those memories and many more resurfaced as I paced through rooms remarkably void of photographs of family, including of me, because Wendy had preferred no reminders of her lost relatives and loves, especially any photo that would have led a visitor to ask personal questions. I paused in her office when I saw two photos of soldiers, one of me in the first Gulf War and one of her first boyfriend, just before he died in Vietnam and only a few months before I was conceived in a night of mourning that she regretted for many years. I clutched the old photos and cried for her losses and tried my best to make one last joke for her.
“Rest in Peace, Wendy,” I said, looking skyward and feeling tears swell as I tried to pronounce the acronym out loud, RIP WAR, but I burst into tears and couldn’t. She never professed a religion and I never asked, but if she prayed or shouted to The Universe I know that it was to stop innocent young people from going to war. She had always regretted that I had joined the army to escape my family, fleeing Louisiana like she had, and she had never gotten over her boyfriend’s death. I believe she would have appreciated the way her epitaph sounded.
Physically fatigued more than I had ever felt in all my life, even after seven years of military service in wars, and countless 24 hour ambulance shifts while in college. And to this day I can not recall ever having being as emotionally drained as at that moment. I collapsed again, but this time onto my back, and I slept restlessly on the floor of her office until the sun rose and woke me up a few hours later.
Over the next few days I sold her home to a local minister and his large family for whatever was their first offer and included the garden decor they had requested, saying it was perfect for the home she had designed. And, with the help of a small army of retirees and their trucks and service dogs, I arranged an estate sale with the proceeds going to the West Feliciana Parish Humane Society at the outskirts of Saint Francisville, a town named after the Catholic Saint Francis de Agasi, the patron saint of kindness to animals. I had never told her that, and now I regretting not having set aside the time to focus on what’s important.
I slept poorly that night, ruminating over memories that can’t be changed, and wondering if anything was worth bringing home.