Mother of Florida Teen Lost at Sea Shares Her Grief: 'I Know He Wanted to Come Home That Day'
At least once a day, Pamela Cohen goes into her son Perry’s bedroom, seeking an ever-elusive moment of solace.
“I lay in his bed, talk to him, look at his picture every day,” she tells PEOPLE.
Perry, along with his best friend Austin Stephanos, vanished at sea last July while on a fishing excursion. The tragedy ripped a void in the lives of two families and an entire coastal South Florida community.
For Cohen and husband Nick Korniloff, the grief is compounded by not knowing just what happened to the 14-year-old boys, Cohen says. “It’s a constant. There is no relief from it. It wasn’t a car accident or a drug overdose or a shooting where you know what happened. My son just vanished.”
With the March 18 recovery of the boat and personal effects, including Austin’s iPhone which may hold clues as to just what transpired that fateful day, comes some degree of hope that their questions will be answered.
But unless full forensics analysis is performed on both pieces of evidence, those answers may never come. While Perry’s family continues taking legal steps to help ensure a thorough and neutral investigation, they struggle with uncertainty and grief daily.
Memories of their brown-eyed, lanky and perpetually shirtless boy who “swam before he walked,” Cohen says, fill the family’s two-story home and often manifest in mysterious ways. Perry’s final Mother’s Day gift to Cohen, a copy of Love You Forever, a children’s book by Robert Munsch, inexplicably falls from a shelf in Cohen’s closet. And Cohen is convinced that Perry’s spirit sent Frankie, a small, spunky rescued terrier mix, to her family via a trip to the groomer’s for the family’s other two dogs.
“He literally jumped up and started licking my face,” Cohen said, sitting on the floor of Perry’s bedroom and holding Frankie during an interview with PEOPLE. “This happened in January, a week before Perry’s 15th birthday. Perry definitely sent him to me.”
Perry’s bedroom remains unchanged from the moment he left his home for the final time, headed to spend a few days with his friend. It’s surprisingly tidy for what one might expect from a teen boy. The bed, covered with a spread featuring a colorful surfboard design, is neatly made and everything is in its place. A small desk holds a fishing manual, a few electronics and special photos – one of a much younger Perry on a hike with an uncle, another of him kissing his mother. Propped against the wall is a pair of flippers that Perry bought himself in anticipation of a planned family trip to the Bahamas.
The only thing new is a large memory board decorated with netting, seashells and photos, and filled with cards with written messages from friends who attended a Celebration of Life event held on January 30 – the day Perry would have turned 15.
“That’s amazingly one of the hardest questions to answer,” Cohen said when asked about her happiest memories of Perry. “His natural state was laughter. He had an incredibly witty sense of humor. He was always looking to make a joke or make someone smile.”
Still, a few memories will always stand out. Among them, the couple’s 2012 wedding, wherein Perry walked his mother down the aisle and served as his stepfather’s best man. Korniloff’s daughters from a previous marriage, Miranda and Renni, served as maids of honor.
“I asked four people if I could marry Pamela. One was her father, two were my daughters and the other was Perry,” Korniloff says. “Perry was the boy I always dreamed of having. I was really fortunate to have him in my life.”
Perry also was the reason that Cohen didn’t change her name after the wedding.
“I loved that we had the same last name,” she said. “I never wanted to take that away from him.”
Growing up, “Perry was a very enterprising little businessman,” Korniloff says, recalling that Perry started a car washing business at just 6 years old, with a full roster of neighbors who would call to make appointments with him. “But every time I went to wash my car, I was out of soap, couldn’t find my bucket or cloths. He was running a zero-cost business.”
This past summer, Perry, also an all-star baseball player, had begun working at a tackle shop owned by Austin’s stepfather’s family.
“If he really wanted something, he knew the value of money and he would work to earn it,” Cohen says. “He took pride in being able to buy something because he knew that it was his. He understood the value of spending his own money and having the ownership of that property, which I think was a really endearing quality for a young man.”
But his first love, outside of family, was nature – a key factor in the family’s launching the Perry J. Cohen Foundation in September.
“He was passionate about animals and he loved marine science,” Cohen says, noting that Perry was one of 30 students chosen from more than 500 applicants to attend Jupiter High School’s Environmental Research and Field Studies, and planned a career in marine science. “That’s really where his heart was and that’s one of the missions of the foundation, to continue to support children that are looking to continue on education in the marine science and environmental studies and oceanography.
“He really was the nicest person I’ve ever known in my entire life,” Cohen continues. “The one thing out of all of this that I can only ever say that I’m happy about is that I knew that he knew that he was loved. And I know that he loved me. I don’t think that every parent really ever knows that. We had an amazing spiritual connection from the time he was born – and I know that he wanted to come home that day.”
To read the full interview with Pamela Cohen and Nick Korniloff, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday