This blog today may turn out to be the length of a book, but there are things about Barbara that I am remembering and some of them need to be told at length. Her personality was so complicated and awesome that to generalize entirely about her now would seem unfitting to her memory. She wasn’t a saint, making her full share of mistakes. She was human just like the rest of us. What sets her apart is what she possessed that few people have or even know about. Her beauty was in her heart and in her inner determination and strength to help others and to love so deeply and so fiercely there was no way to avoid it nor once experienced would you want to. Barbara was and always will be one of a kind.
Twenty-six years ago today, May 8th, my sister, Barbara passed away. Her death was far from “easy”. Her suffering was great. The lung cancer that affected her had been spreading throughout her fragile body and overtook the woman we all knew and loved much too soon. As a mother of five children Barbara was a “force of nature”. Her protectiveness for her “babies” was instinctively inborn in her very persona. It is only fitting that I write about her today for she is missed by all who knew her.
Barbara was born a middle child of eight. She had four older siblings and three younger siblings. We were all born into “poverty” and our parents had their own set of problems. Barbara was a sickly child and had battled and survived pneumonia on five separate occasions. I don’t think she ever weighed more than one hundred pounds even when pregnant on her five foot seven frame. Yet she held a beauty all her own. She was fierce and stubborn, loving and funny all at the same time. Her sense of loyalty was undeniable. She adored her mother and had a closeness with her that most daughters rarely experience. Barbara was on the surface someone we would call “tough” back then. She took no guff from anyone and would defend her family and all those she cared about with every ounce of courage she could muster. It wasn’t till the very end of her life, when I had the privilege along with some of my siblings and her children of caring for her during her illness, that I finally got a glimpse of her true vulnerabilities, fears and passionate heart. I have to be honest and tell you that it was an eye opener for me since she and I practically fought about everything. I am the youngest of those eight siblings and she and I would butt heads about almost everything in life. Barbara was also a religious person and her devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary was unmistakable. To this day, I cannot think about the Blessed Mother without thinking of Barbara as well.
The first inkling I had that my sister, who was eleven years my elder, had more guts than anyone I knew at the time, was when she “borrowed” a friend’s car and took off to elope with her than boyfriend, who shortly after became her husband. I recall waking up in the tenement bed I shared with her and my other sister and hearing my parents frantically making phone calls and having the police come to our door. From the gist of the conversations, I had understood that Barbara ran away and the search was on. They found her though and brought her back home before they actually went through with the elopement. She was almost charged with stealing a car, but thankfully her friend didn’t press charges. Another time I recall her coming to let our mother know that our brother was hanging off the fence in the schoolyard down the street from our tenement and that was why he was late getting home for supper. She had tried to lift him off herself, but I cannot recall whether or not she succeeded. Did I mention how strong she was in spite of her thinness? Well that she was. Strong as an ox and was never afraid to use physical force whenever she deemed it necessary. I was afraid of her for most of our lives together. When I turned eighteen, it was Barbara who took me to the my first bar and bought me my first drink. I recall her telling me that she was doing it herself to warn me and steer me against the pitfalls of alcohol. As it turns out, I was never much of a drinker or even enjoyed liquor until much, much later in life.
Barbara had few very close friends during her life, most of them since she was a young girl. Her loyalty and faithfulness to their closeness remains unparalleled. She loved her close friends almost as much as she loved her family. That love she possessed was strongly felt by all. She often did so much for others, quietly without any of us truly aware of how thin she spread herself and how helpful a person she truly was. It was not until her death that this all came to light for most of us.
Earlier I mentioned about Barbara’s closeness to our mother. She took it upon herself to be my mother’s guardian in every sense of the word. She stuck by her and defended her when our dad would be on a drunken binge and take all his hard luck out on our poor mother’s body. Barbara would fight him every time. I recall many a time, when she would come home and I could hear them arguing in our railroad apartment while I lay two rooms down in bed. It would get quiet and after a while I would sneak a peek from my bed to see Barbara hitting our drunken father over the head with one of his beer bottles. Not hard enough to do any real harm, but hard enough to make him leave our mother alone for a while. Our dad died during my sixteenth year, and Barbara had been married for seven years by then. After his death, Barbara once again became our mother’s caretaker (by appointing herself) and during all our mother’s illnesses it was Barbara who took her to the hospital, knew all her medications, and every illness our mother had ever had. She was our mother’s self-appointed spokesperson. There was a time during Barbara’s marriage that she and her husband and eldest daughter, Barbara moved to Oklahoma for her husband’s job. She gave birth to her second daughter, Chrissy there. It wasn’t long however, until she missed our mother so much that she won over her husband and they moved back to good old Brooklyn. When they moved back here, they moved into an apartment on the second floor of the first house we ever lived in. I believe it was the best time and the worst time for her. She was glad to be so close to our mother again, but she now had a growing family to worry about as well and a husband, who was not quite so happy to live in the same house as his in-laws. Our father had died during this period and after a time, Barbara and her family moved to their own apartment and Barbara now had three girls with her middle one, Kelly having been born.
Overall, it wasn’t easy during those years. Barbara was a full-time mom and her husband provided the only source of income for them. She did the best she could with whatever resources she had. Needless to say she was extremely stressed. There is so much more that I could write about her life and my interactions with her, but it truly will be a book if I do. So instead, I will shorten this somewhat and just tell you a few more memories I have of Barbara.
By the time her sister, Doris, who was seven years her senior, became ill while living in California, Barbara had five children of her own. Four girls and a boy. Karen being her youngest girl and John, Jr. being her only son. I had my son, Rocky by then and we had lost our mother the year before. Barbara and I flew to California together to try to help Doris who by this time was on life support after developing cirrhosis of the liver. The plane ride it self was interesting to me as it was only the second time I had ever been on a plane. Unfortunately, I am one of those people who have a built-in fear of riding in planes or for that matter, anything that takes away my sense of gravity. Barbara on the other hand, hid any fears she had and was a true social butterfly. She would talk with anyone and would wander the plane while I sat petrified and glued to my seat. On this flight to California, Barbara had been off socializing and came back to get me to move to the middle row and watch a movie that was being provided by the airline. She convinced me to go and so there we were sitting in the middle aisle of the plane waiting for the movie to start. Barbara, was talking to some people she had met earlier, who happened to be seated behind us, so her back was partially turned away from the screen. A stewardess was coming toward where we were seated carrying a tray of drinks. She tapped Barbara on the shoulder and as Barbara turned quickly to see who it was, she jumped up, knocking the tray out of the stewardess’ hands, and with drinks flying all over, proceeded to yell, “Oh my God, we’re going to crash!”. Although, I was still afraid and now in complete shock as to what happened, I managed to calm her down and tell her it was just the stewardess with drinks for everyone. I quickly learned that she was so afraid herself that when she saw the stewardess as quickly as she did, she thought it was oxygen and not cups. We laughed about that for years afterward.
When we finally arrived in California, jet lagged and worried, we were met by Doris’ boyfriend and son. They took us to see Doris and together Barbara and I went into shock. Beautiful auburned hair Doris, was now this frail woman with a head of gray hair, lying in this hospital bed hooked up to a respirator and all sorts of machines. She saw us and woke up briefly to whisper something to each of us and then fell back into her coma. It was the strangest and most emotional moment in both of our lives. We stayed in California for five days, and we knew from the doctors that Doris was gone and only being kept alive by a machine. It was a devastating time for us, and for reasons I won’t discuss now, I had the agonizing decision to turn off that machine because Doris was brain-dead. It took me five days to decide what to do and it was Barbara who was my rock. It was Barbara who listened to my agonizing and if it were not for her, I do not honestly know if I would have come through that time completely intact. After that time, Barbara had developed a new-found trust in me and I felt it. She always credited me with being a rock and the strength, when in reality it was her strength that I drew from.
During this period of our lives, my eldest son was going through a horrible disease known as nephrosis, and here again it was Barbara who gave me her quiet shoulder to lean on. It was Barbara who had faith in our decisions about our son and it was Barbara who gave me the inner strength I needed to get through that awful time as well.
If I am to be openly honest, I have to say here that I owed so much to Barbara the sister whose inner strength, abundance of love and true mercy was my silent rock. So when she needed help after developing metastasized cancer, I tried to be there for her. It broke my heart to see her struggling through that illness, how it slowly devour every part of her physical being, but it never destroyed her inner strength, it never touched an ounce of her love for her husband and five children. She fought hard to stay alive for them and for us, but it was not to be. She asked each of her siblings, me included, to watch out for her family. She spoke to me in those last days about each and every one of them and how very well she knew each of them. Her main and only concern was their welfare. There was no one who was with her during that time who could deny the love she carried inside for each of them and the hopes and dreams she so worried would not be fulfilled if she was no longer around to carry through her part in those hopes. I made her a number of promises then, and God only knows if I have fulfilled them all, but I have sincerely tried to live up to the faith she had in me. Miss her? So much more than these words or any words could tell you. Wish she was here during the trying times that have followed since her death? Part of me does and then part of me is grateful she was not alive to see the passing of her eldest daughter, Barbara at the age of forty-five leaving three children and a grandson behind. I miss her strength and her knowing ways, but I am glad that her legacy includes eight grandchildren and a great-grandson, all of which may yet carry through all the hopes and dreams she always had for each of her children.
I have never met another person like my sister Barbara and I reckon to wager I never will. She was the rarest of the rare with a pure and honest inner heart, that perhaps didn’t always have the knowledge or wherewithal to be ideal, but nevertheless, gave it every ounce of strength, love and faith she did possess. She is the person, who will never be forgotten by anyone who has known her. She is the person, who twenty-six years after her death, I still reminisce about and care about as much as ever. She is the person, whose love for her family I still feel this very day. I hope in my idealistic way of thinking sometimes, that she is in a spiritual place with our mother, our two sisters and her daughter and they are laughing their asses off at all the foolish things we still do everyday. I hope, also, that she can feel the love we all still feel for her and that she comforts her spirit like a warm blanket on a cold wintry day with that love. Reminiscing Barbara fills me with strength and hope and a sense of pride that perhaps, after all, we were the closest of sisters that could ever be. Rest in peace, my sister, I love you still.
And that is the Way I See It, here in Brooklyn.