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Nature as a Refuge for Reflection on Death and Life

  My brother Mike texted me about our mom. He wrote: "If you want to say any last words, Tom, you'd better get out here fast.” Our mother, Patty Jane Pelton, had been slowly declining from congestive heart failure.

So I threw some clothes and my guitar in the back of my car and drove 10 hours straight from Baltimore to Michigan, stopping only once, for gas. The next day, I was at my parents' condo in Wilmette, Illinois. 

I played my guitar and sang her songs, including “Amazing Grace” and “Let it Be.” I showed my 81-year-old mother photos of herself when she was young -- including one when she was an 18-year-old with a smile like Audrey Hepburn’s as she posed with a skinny boy in glasses – my father -- at a school dance.



Although her memory had faded, I could tell she knew who I was and she remembered the songs, many of which she sang in her church group. Her eyes lit up.  She sang along with "Blowing in the Wind."

Before I left, I gave her an air kiss – being careful to be COVID-safe.  She rejected that with a wave of her hand.  “No, Tommy.  Real kiss,” she said.

Those were her last words to me.  I gave her a real kiss.  She died not long after.

Afterwards, I spent time with my father, who was mourning the loss of his best friend of six decades.

Then I did I often do to reflect and heal: I retreated into nature.  When I was growing up, our family spent every summer on the beaches of Lake Michigan in southwestern Michigan, exploring the dunes, swamps, and rivers there.

So I drove out to Warren Dunes State Park to find solace. But I found that the beaches and hiking trails were empty, with the temperatures in the 20’s, a white blanket of snow covering everything, and a knife-like wind whipping in off the lake.  

I hiked for hours, past chandeliers of ice hanging off tree branches at the edge of the waves. I climbed to the very top of a mountainous dune, and I sat there the whole afternoon, watching the sun slip toward the horizon over the arctic landscape.

Being isolated in wild and harsh environments like that makes me miss --and therefore really think about and appreciate -- the people in my life.

I thought about my mother.  Patty Jane Rader was the daughter of a West Virginia railroad man and his wife, a teacher, who moved to the South Side of Chicago during the Great Depression. Then her father became crippled in a freakish rail car accident when Patty Jane was just a girl. Her mother died of breast cancer. So Patty Jane took charge of herself. She worked very hard and was a straight A student. After she graduated from college and married my father, Russ Pelton, they had six kids, the first two of whom (my brothers Russell and Robert) died of lung failure (hyaline membrane disease) in childhood.  She raised us remaining four while simultaneously working as a youth minister for our local Catholic parish and also earning a Ph.D. in theology.

 Although the Catholic Church does not allow female priests, Dr. Pelton was a real faith leader in our town.  She created a youth prayer group that welcomed even teenagers  who felt rejected and isolated. She arranged thousands of funeral masses and weddings and comforted the sick and the grief-stricken.

One time, for example, a high school classmate of my brother’s killed himself.  The boy’s parents were paralyzed with sorrow and guilt, so my mom rushed in to help. She collected dozens of photos of the young man and arranged them to create huge posters celebrating the happiest times in his life. She displayed the images all over the entryway to our church.  She lit hundreds of candles to illuminate the sidewalks leading to our church.

I thought about those candles and how much light my mother brought to the world as I watched the sun set over the icy lake.


The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at [email protected]


Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.