Every October I think of my colleague and friend Barb’s life and passing. She’s been gone 9 years now, but I still think of her and her influence on my life.
I want to share a little something I wrote a few years back on one of my other blogs.
When I sat beside my friend and colleague, Barb, in the hospital two weeks before she died as she was losing the battle against cancer, I held her hand and told her I loved her…and she replied…”yeah, well…you know” in an awkward way, but she didn’t pull her hand away. I sensed that she loved me too, even though she could not say the words.
I had thought a lot about her life and death in the years that followed her passing.
She was an odd bird, a very gifted individual with an sharp mind and even sharper tongue and she loved to challenge people. And if you knew her, you either immediately loved her, or you loathed her, there was never any in-between. When I first met her in our forensic training program, she tended to intimidate people with her scientific knowledge. She had her Ph.D. in biochemistry, a fact by itself that was pretty intimidating.
She wore her intellectual superiority like a shield to keep people at a distance. And early on, it worked with me. We didn’t get along at first. In fact, one of our very first interactions we had a pretty intense disagreement over an improperly made chemical solution. I was terrified of crossing her again, especially since we were training, as our supervisor kept a close eye on our every move.
It wouldn’t have been something I ever remembered, except for the fact that she came to my apartment after work that Friday night with the intention of continuing the discussion and attempting to resolve our difficulties. I stood up to her and said, “Barb, this is a work issue, and I don’t want to talk about it in my private time. We can discuss this at work with our supervisor on Monday morning.” Of course, when I shut the door in her face, I doubt she had any idea I was shaking all over from the confrontation. All weekend long I was worried what would happen Monday morning. Monday morning came and went with no further talk of the incident and no real trouble ensued in the weeks and months that followed.
As weird and disturbing that was for me, over the course of our training, Barb and I grew closer. Perhaps because the training program was grueling, perhaps because we were ALL displaced from our original homes and relocated from other places around the state, we became a surrogate family of sorts. A slightly dysfunctional family, but a family nonetheless. With no other close ties in the area, the five of us trainees learned a lot more about our personal lives than I ever thought possible in a job situation. When one of the trainees got married, we were all invited to Michigan to attend. When I lamented about not being happy with one of the churches I attended in the area, another trainee invited me to his church. I remember going on a few outings with my fellow trainees. I remember a bike ride in the local park with Barb (AND the criticism I got from her on how many rules of the road I was breaking which made her very uncomfortable).
Yes, it was a challenge to be friends with Barb. I still tried hard in those early days to befriend her. Aside from the divorced guy across the hall from my apartment who I sometimes hung out with, I had no friends in the area to speak of in those days other than my work mates. I was rather lonely, as all my friends and my family were 3 hours away from me. After knowing her a while, Barb was someone I felt was just as lonely too.
Over the years after training, Barb and I did manage to forge a close friendship. After training, three of us transferred to the same laboratory. Barb and I worked in the same work bay. We tended to hang out together, going on breaks and talking about cases and general work stress. Sometimes, after work, Barb didn’t seem to want to go home, and I could tell she seemed like she wanted to talk. So we’d spend a few hours just chatting after everyone else in our section went home. We talked about her having breast cancer, and how she was trying to undergo chemotherapy and still teach biology classes at the small college she worked at before being hired in forensics. We talked about her Minnesotan background and her family and we listened to NPR and Garrison Keillor. She listened to my tales of woe with my mother who was very controlling at times, and my stories about my husband and my friends.
I was struck by the sad fact that Barb had no close familial relationships. I knew she was close to her father, but he had died many years before. Because she was not close to her mother, she never even told her mother she was dying until two weeks before she died. She also never told her when she went through chemotherapy for breast cancer 10 years before either. Barb told me that and some other personal details, like the fact that her husband had left her while she went for her Ph.D. program for another, younger woman.
I was struck how, for Barb, a few of us at the lab were closer to her than her family. When her cancer returned to her bones, we soon knew it. She struggled with chemotherapy for a long time, and it was almost two years before it became clear she was losing the battle.
She eventually had to have her blood treated. She had to go get her blood removed, centrifuged, and returned to her body. All I knew was that her blood was ‘sticky’ or something. I went to visit her in the hospital during one of these treatments, two weeks before she died. It was pretty sobering, but Barb was in pretty good spirits. Or denial, anyway.
I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for her. But she was pretty upbeat about everything. She wanted to know about what was going on in my life. I showed her pictures of my firstborn daughter, whom she got the chance to meet when I took her to the laboratory one day months before her entering the hospital. She asked about my husband and my mother. Understandably so, she didn’t want to talk much about the severity of her condition.
A couple of weeks later, a few of us at the lab were notified that she had only days to live and we might want to go see her. There were about 10 of us that came to see her and still she was in pretty good spirits asking everyone else what was going on in their lives. When it was time to leave, everyone else seemed to be shifting uncomfortably, seeming a little uncertain as to how to say goodbye to her. I was the first to go up to her. I took her by the hand and said a personal goodbye and hugged her. Following my lead, the rest went up to her and I think they said a more intimate goodbye than they might have otherwise.
When I went home that night after visiting her for the last time, I knew it was probably the last time I would see her alive (and I was right). I cried with everything I had in me. I cried for the loss of REAL connection she had with people (her mother, her ex-husband, most everyone except a very select few), I cried for the fort she built around herself, keeping others at bay with her sharp tongue. I cried because ultimately she was alone in the world, dying with no one to love, really love with all her heart and restore all that was taken from her.
I cried with all my heart and soul that night and never thought the tears would end. I ended up using a glass of wine to make it stop hurting so much. I knew I was losing someone special (maddeningly frustrating at times, but special).
At her funeral, a few of her colleagues-turned-friends played roles in the service. Six of us female colleagues of hers, including me, were asked to be pall bearers. I was holding back tears when I was walking down the aisle with her casket under my gloved fingers. My friend, colleague and mentor Dan gave a touching eulogy at her funeral. I remember him calling me up on a few occasions before the service and he asked my opinion about how it sounded. Knowing what was coming didn’t prevent the tears from falling.
After her burial, it was her wishes that those close to her were able to take what they wanted from her home. It was in lieu of a real will, but it was overseen by another friend and colleague of ours. As I looked through her home, I was struck at what caught her fancy. She had books in every nook and cranny. A prolific reader and intensely curious, she had some very unusual titles. I chose to keep her copies of the Quran and the Satanic Verses – in case you were wondering she was a practicing Lutheran – and a copy of a book on The Trail of Tears as well as her Harry Potter books (which my oldest daughter has read). She also had stuffed bears, and crafts of many kinds, and many half-started projects. She also had a piece of embroidery with this phrase that caught my eye:
To love something is to give it room to grow
It’s in my home now, awaiting me to mount it into something more fitting than what it was in.
Shortly after her death, my friend and mentor Dan and I went back to her home and walked around. We spoke of how quirky Barb was, how funny she tried to be at times (and failed), how acerbic was her demeanor. At last we noted how she surrounded herself with things she loved, with little reminders that even though she was disliked by more than a few people in her life, she still desperately clung to the idea that love is all that matters. At least, that’s what we wanted to conclude. Perhaps that was just our sentimentality creeping in, but that’s how we decided we were going to remember her by.
Since then I’ve dreamt a few times of her. I wonder to this day if she knows when I do. I’d like to think so.
Well, that’s it. I just thought I’d share my memories of a very significant person in my life. Challenging friends are precious, because you are always invited to look beyond the surface. You are invited to grow in ways you never thought possible. If you find a person difficult, it COULD be less about them and more about the fact that they shine light in the dark areas of your own self that you find it uncomfortable to examine.
Sharing time with a difficult person may not be your first inclination, but I truly believe it is the difficult ones that help you grow the most.
All this to say…if you have any difficult people in your life – appreciate them. They might cause you to pull your hair out at times, but if you look deeper, sometimes you’ll find there is a treasure underneath that difficult behavior that begs to be unearthed.