It was an Emergency Room Nurse from Stormont-Vail Hospital. I just couldn’t get my wits about me to get to the phone in time, but I heard the word “Barb” in the barely audible message being recorded on the answering machine on the other side of the closed Bedroom door. It must have been a very deep sleep from which the phone roused me since I didn’t manage to figure out that there was a phone right by my head that I could have answered. It has been well over four years since my brain was tuned to such things. A little over two years ago, I could wake up if Mary Ann’s breathing changed.
The message from the Nurse was a request for any information about Barb that I might have that could help them. Barb had been a good friend to Mary Ann and me. I had been her Pastor for over a dozen years until four years ago. I knew what was happening. Barb had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer a little over five years ago. For every day of those five years she was a walking, talking, working, Miracle. That is no exaggeration.
I called the number the Nurse had left in the message. Our conversation made clear that the end was near and decisions needed to be made. I had no information that could help, but I did ask about coming to see her and was encouraged by the Nurse to do so. That I got the call was the result of a complex variety of circumstances including some misunderstanding and the fact that I am one of the few people with a land line and still listed in the phone book.
That I was called turned out to be a great gift to me. I had the privilege of spending the last moments of her life with Barb, sharing an especially powerful Scripture passage (last part of Romans 8), a prayer in which we engaged God in a walk through the impact she has had on numbers of lives, a couple of Psalms (121 and 23) and a final Benediction (Aaronic) as she took her last breath. She was not able to react to the words, but I suspect that she was aware and heard. I cannot know that for certain. One of her longtime friends from the Congregation was there and had been with her through the last hours in the Emergency Room.
It all happened at breakneck speed. Yes, she had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer five years ago, but she refused to be sick. She was in pain the last couple of days and had been back and forth to the ER on Friday, but she was still doing various tasks in the midst of all of it. She left church in the morning on account of the pain. She drove to the Emergency Room again around 6pm. Just a few hours later she was gone.
What does she leave behind for those of us who have known and loved her? Nobody knows — not because she hasn’t left behind much to savor and remember and appreciate but because there is too much for any one person to know.
Some of you who read this and have not known Barb will simply not believe it. You will think that in my enthusiasm I am exaggerating as I write about her to honor her memory. The truth is, if anything, the way I describe her as I remember her, as she impacted Mary Ann’s life and mine, will only be a small fraction of what could be said. It would only be in gathering the cumulative memories of many hundreds (if that were even possible) to begin to do justice to who and what she has meant to the people whose lives she has touched. By the way “hundreds” is a low estimate. She taught school for over 35 years. There are the children, their parents and grandparents, those children’s children. You do the math. In addition there were a number of congregations directly connected to the school, three now, more than that in earlier years, providing some few thousand people with whom she contact. She participated in state and regional and national activities.
There was no swagger that came with Barb’s participation at so many levels. She had no pretentions, she sought no recognition, she had no sense of status. Barb was a whole, integrated somebody, not one person with some and another person with others. There was neither any child nor any adult who got less than her full attention and respect as a person worthy of that attention and respect. In response, she gained respect in their eyes. One friend emailed her daughter about Barb’s death. She now has a PhD and serves as an Assistant Professor at Temple University. That daughter’s first words were, “best teacher I ever had.”
As the hours have gone by since she died, there is something that quietly surfaced in my thoughts about how she related to others. I hinted at it when I observed that it would be only be in the cumulative memories of very many people that there could even begin to be a picture of the impact she had, the legacy she has left. She was strong in every way, physically, mentally, Spiritually and emotionally. She was trabajadora. I am trying to learn a little Spanish. Today’s lesson introduced this adjective. It means hard-working. That is a gross understatement. She taught at the school and she cleaned the school at which she taught. She mowed many lawns, a small business on the side. She volunteered in many programs, took leadership in them if it was needed, transported people who could not drive. During the last few years of my wife Mary Ann’s illness, Barb was a regular Volunteer at our house. Mary Ann called the Volunteers her Angels. Now Barb is rubbing shoulders with the Angels. Barb was a favorite who became a dear friend to Mary Ann.
Sometimes people who work so hard and seem so selfless are filling a personal, psychological need, a need to be validated, to find their worth in the eyes of others. Not Barb. Barb did all this because she chose to. She had a quiet confidence, not in her own goodness, but in her secure relationship with a Lord who loved (loves) her so much that she had absolutely nothing to prove to anyone, including herself. She didn’t have to be perfect; she was loved and forgiven. From that awareness emerged a profound strength of character.
As I watch and listen to people’s reactions to her death, it is clear that in the minds and hearts of many who have known her she belongs to them. She was their special friend and they were her special friend. Many have simply counted on her to be a presence in their lives. Many who counted on her have no idea how many others also counted on her. We all want to claim her. We will all miss her. How will all the people who have counted on her for so much for so long get along without her? I don’t know, but I have an idea. Maybe the best thing would be to do what she did, follow her example, trust in the gift of love and forgiveness the Lord gives freely, and get to work. Give others your full attention and respect. Choose to make a difference for good in the lives of the people around you not to fill your need but theirs.
Barb lived a life full of joy in the face of things that would break the spirit of most. What legacy has she left us? It is her example, a legacy that’s value is beyond measure.