“Barbara is dying,” my mom’s voice shuddered, “she is in the hospital.”
Barbara, or Aunt Barbara as I came to address her, was an adopted family member. I’m not sure who adopted who, but my every childhood memories include her vividly. My mom wanted to make sure we all knew that it was time to say our good-byes and last “I love you’s”. My brothers, sister-in-law and I quickly wrote emails to her son, who then read them by her bedside, surrounding Barbara with our spirit even though our bodies were states away. My heart crumbled after the final phone call on Monday. Even though we knew Barbara would not be with us much longer, last breaths are hard to accept. My immediate question was funeral and obituary information. At first, I was shocked to hear that neither were going to be planned. But then I reminded myself that both funerals and obituaries are mostly to help comfort the living, give closure to our loss. In Barbara’s last years, her circle of friends had dwindled as quickly as the years had increased. I guess that’s how life works. We come into this world knowing only our immediate family, and leave it much the same way. I think it ached all of us to think that such an amazing woman, a woman who lived an exemplary life, would not be honored or remembered.
I spent Monday evening in my living room, sitting silently and staring at Barbara’s beautiful cabinet resting against my cross wall. This cabinet was a prominent part of her living room. Barbara hosted the most amazing parties, filled with culinary delights, clinking glasses, musicians and artists galore. My brothers and I were the only children in attendance most of the time, yet felt right at home wrapped around her grand piano, often helping to turn pages or chime in on the chorus. Many of my early opinions of life and love were shaped from listening to glassy-eyed guests talk of everything from politics and religion to philosophy and world events. When we weren’t attending parties at Barbara’s, we were eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches poolside, playing poker with edible money and “smoking” candy cigarettes, having date nights and sleep overs. I remember playing dress-up with her jewelry and having impromptu fashion shows in a bedroom that, to me, resembled something out of a cool and sophisticated magazine.
Barbara was the assistant to the director of the library on campus where my dad worked when we moved to Texas thirty-three years ago. I loved coming to visit her at work. In the center of the library is the most breath-taking mural wrapping around a spiral staircase. It was commissioned and painted by artist James Sicner, who also happened to be a very dear friend of Barbara’s. I remember being in such awe of him when attending her parties. My brothers and I would often play a game with Barbara of who could find the most unexpected treasures in James’ mural. Of course, she always let us win, although now I realize she must have known every layer of that majesty.
Over the next couple of days, little things popped into my head, reminding me of Barbara’s incredible spirit and zest for life. She oozed joy and delight in all things. She also breathed peace and comfort into every conversation. It was hard not to feel guilty for all the missed years and all the missed opportunities. I regrettably craved those moments. She moved to Florida just before I graduated high school. For a while I was able to travel with my family to visit her each summer, but soon my own life got in the way. It seems nearly impossible that perhaps the last time I wrapped my arms around her was more than 15 years ago. My annual Christmas cards and letters feel inconsequential now. Then yesterday, I had a moment of clarity. I suddenly realized Barbara will never be forgotten and is honored almost daily in my life and the lives of my children. She was an extension of my parents, another example of compassion, honesty, love and generosity. Barbara taught me about valuing relationships, spirituality, seeking beauty in all things and accepting others for who they are, no exception. These qualities remain in me, qualities I am trying to instill in my children too.
I also now realize truly how important it is to surround ourselves with the right people, because the friends we keep become a part of the future we build for our children. The friends we keep are examples of what we believe and what we value. Their behavior and beliefs can either model putrid thinking or unpolluted perspectives. And I will forever be grateful to my parents for giving me the gift of Barbara.
*Read more about Barbara at Coming East blog