Barbara died a few days ago. She lived two doors down and had been sick for about a year. It wasn’t Alzheimer’s, but something similar, another heartless, wasting disease that took her away, bit by bit, to the horror and disappointment of her husband and family who could do little but simply love her and try to ease her passage to the other side. It was not an easy death.
I did not know her well, beyond an occasional casual conversation on the sidewalk or a friendly wave as she made her way out to retrieve her morning paper while I stumbled by at the conclusion of one of my morning runs. Eyegal knew her better, and even before the two of them met, Barbara knew her.
She and her husband Sydney were no doubt watching along with the other 60ish neighbors as we moved into her our present home in 1995 when the boys were 6, 4 and 2-years-old. They had raised two boys of their own, and unlike another neighbor who immediately went on guard and has eyed our sons suspiciously ever since, Barbara and Sydney were thrilled at the new blood–a live-giving transfusion of big-wheeled trikes, plastic swords, soccer balls and the colorful detritus of a day’s play, fortified with a loud, “barbaric yawp.”
Barbara and Sydney never seemed to be too bothered by all our hustle and bustle. To them, it seemed comfortable and natural, like an old familiar rhythm, a catchy tune that you just can’t get out of your head (nor should you). Besides, it’s not like they had the neatest yard either, what with all the Halloween props and the large, inflatable Homer Simpson Santa that they trotted out every year.
One day before they had ever been introduced, Barbara spied Eyegal in a local store. It may have been one of those days when nothing seemed to be going right, when you question your own ability, even right, to parent, when the temptation is to simply walk away and leave them, right there, screaming and yammering, while you seek some peace and solace over in Aisle Two by the Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes. Barbara approached her and gently spoke the words that must sound like the soothing whispers of angels to young mothers dashing against the rocky shoals of a very bad day: “Your boys are beautiful, and I think you’re doing a great job.”
Barbara lived her life that way–encouraging everyone in her path and leaving a long string of fast, lifelong friends strewn in her wake. She was a devout Catholic who had a reputation as a holy woman. If fact, her sister was a nun. People always said Barbara was a nun too, just one who had never taken her vows, opting instead to share her life with both God and Sydney.
As Barbara lay dying the other day, Eyegal prepared a basket of fruit and fresh bread and dropped them by their house. Sydney was busy tending to Barbara and their oldest son answered the door, his young adopted daughter watching and smiling brightly in the background. He thanked her and offered for her to come in, but seeing the large number of cars parked out front and hearing the noise and commotion inside, Eyegal declined. She asked him instead to simply let Sydney and Barbara know that we were praying for them and that we loved them.
Have you ever been near a household of love when someone is crossing over to the other side? Invariably, there are lots of cars parked out front, just like the Fourth of July. It’s a noisy place too, and if you listen closely, you can hear singing in the background, a melodious serenade of sadness and joy blended with a resounding refrain of sweet, sweet reminiscence. It’s hard to tell whether it be the tongues of angels or mere mortals–not that it really matters. And the food–oh my! Why, if you live in The South, the smell of fresh rolls and fried chicken mingled with baked beans nearly knocks you over as you step in the door!
Sydney stopped by yesterday to thank us for the bread and fruit. No one was home except Number Two Son, who answered the door. I suspect it took Sydney a second or two to recognize him and figure out which one he was. He is no longer the terminally cute, curly-headed munchkin who stumbled about in an oversized suit of plastic armor back in 1995. Number Two is nearly six feet tall now, lean and strong with the broad shoulders of a man, gentle and kind, with a place in his heart for small children, not unlike Sydney.
“I just wanted to stop by and thank you for the bread and fruit. Out of all the food we received, I enjoyed it the most. In fact, if I ever see another piece of fried chicken in my life, I think I’ll be sick!”
They both laughed, but things turned serious in a hurry. Grief rushes in on sudden waves, rudely intruding on moments of normalcy, and it can happen that fast. Sydney’s eyes began to well with tears, and as he hung his head, he said:
“I just don’t know what I’m going to do without her.”
And then just as quickly, perhaps sensing that he may be placing Number Two in a difficult spot, he looked at him and in a stronger voice now, he went on:
“I want you to know how much Barbara and I have enjoyed watching you and your brothers grow up. Your hustle and bustle have been the song of our neighborhood.”
When you get right down to it, I don’t know how much money Barbara had when she died, or whether or not she ever appeared on television or was quoted in the paper. I don’t know how many degrees she had or if she even went to college at all. I don’t know, really, whether she ever did any one of the things that this world values and deems a “significant accomplishment.” But I do know this: she was loved and cherished by a good and decent man.
And I know this too: On the day that she died, her house was filled to overflowing with love, and there were so many cars parked out front, that there was barely enough room to pass down the street.
These, gentle readers, are the measures of a good life.