Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Zichrona L'Vracha

Today, my son pulled Harry the Dirty Dog off of his shelf to read. And I burst into tears.

For four happy years, I shared a 7x15 office with Barbara Katz. Happy years, because in spite of our overcrowding, and the fact that we both had faculties of nursery school and religious school teachers coming and going from this minuscule space, we developed a deep friendship. Our relationship was born out of a tiny impersonal space and grew out of a love for children and a love for books, a mutual annoyance with office and synagogue politics, exasperation with our disorganized colleagues, the death of two inlaws and a grandfather, a pregnancy and birth of a child, and a million other tiny routine things that brought us close. I used to say that if things didn't work out between me and my husband, I would marry Barbara. I hope her husband Michael, her college sweetheart, found that funny...

We fought with our husbands in the same space, whispering into the phone. She checked up on her 3 children by phone and email while I chatted with my parents and friends, and although we maintained our privacy, we grew to know intimate details of each others' lives. She was allergic to curry, I knew, because we used to order in soup together from a local takeout place that often had curried corn chowder. She regaled me with funny stories about her students, who loved her and called her by both her first and last names, stories so vivid and told with such vigor and joy that they could be nothing but the truth. She never minded that I pretended to be my own secretary (I didn't have one) and anonymously answered my own calls--in fact, she found it funny.

We were then separated, she to a lovely new office and me, still in our cubby hole, alone with my books and stuff. I longed for her and would find myself hanging out in her space, just to hear what she had to say about a ridiculous parent of a student, or help her figure out Microsoft Word. And a year went by, one where I needed lots of advice and help as I figured out how to make it as a new mother, and one where I craved her comfort and her ready laugh. Not 50 feet away, but she was still too far. I actually had to call her on the phone sometimes from my office!

Then, as summer was waning and we were wrapping up our August preparations for the new year, she went on vacation. And in the cab on the way to the airport, she had a seizure and was rushed to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I don't think anyone imagined that she would recover. But she did, slowly, getting her confidence and movement back, after extensive surgery, wearing a cap or beautiful flowy scarf, and eventually returning to the work she loved so much. She managed the entire thing with the grace and courage that she managed everything else, and I know that she left an indelible impression on everyone with the way that she handled her own illness. And then, this past fall, she got sick again.

Barbara died on Sunday, leaving three beautiful children in their 20's who are suffering tremendously. Three children who will miss their mother every day forever, who feel cheated because she won't be there for them and celebrate their birthdays, dance at their weddings, and hold her grandchildren. And she left her husband, a man whose humor, wisdom and grace matches hers perfectly, a true partner, alone, with a broken heart. His eulogy was a love note to her, and I wish that she had heard it. But I am sure he told it to her every day, in other ways.

This tremendous woman, filled with a natural sense of humor that never offended and was always truly funny, who loved books and gave them as perfectly matched gifts to their recipients, who believed that children deserve to be nurtured and supported over learning their ABC's, who gave hugs to everyone, was my friend. She was genuine and not pretentious, loved wearing her art smock, kept a suit in a closet at work just in case she needed to look dressier, and loved bicycling (but not too much). A light in this world has gone out, and the entire world is darker and sadder for it.

I was not a good friend to her in the last months of her life. I didn't visit as I should have and didn't take my son over to visit so that she could have some joy in watching him read Harry the Dirty Dog or Amos and Boris, or any of her other favorites that she had given to him. I had my own crap going on. It is no excuse, but it is the truth. I was afraid. I was also losing my aunt, about whom I wrote often in this blog. It is something I will forever regret and I will not make the mistake of allowing it to happen again. I am angry with myself and ashamed of my own shortcomings. I didn't care for her the way that she would have for me.

When my grandfather died, Barbara made me soup. In fact, she would often bring me recipes she'd tried, and sometimes a sample. My two favorite soup recipes come from her, in fact. But more than soup, she taught me by example the comfort of a meal made for you at a time when you are just too stuck, to sad, too hurt (or even too filled with joy) to cook. I was proud to help organize a few months of meals for her family after she got sick the first time, and was glad to be able to help again when she got sick this fall. I am proud to have learned this from her, because it was such a deeply ingrained part of who she was, to support others in this way. Now, I make meals for others whenever I can, but I obviously prefer babies to death. Now, when I do it, I will make the conscious choice to do it in Barbara's memory.

But the most important thing that I learned from Barbara is how to be a good mother. She loved her children more than one could ever imagine having room in one's body and heart to love. She literally brimmed with love for them. But what she did the best as a mother was let her children be who they were, who they were born to be, who they wanted to be. Not to change them into someone else or force them to conform to some ideal. She did this for her many, many students as well, for the hundreds of children who were either her kids (in her class) or her kids (in her school), as they were all her children. Barbara believed that children were entitled to a childhood, not one filled with structured classes and playdates and learning to read and count by age 3, but one filled with the busyness of a toddler exploring on his own or a child lazily flipping through books, or a group of kids hanging out and exploring life on their own. She mothered us all, and was our favorite teacher.

I will miss her for the rest of my life, mostly every day, or whenever I watch parents and children or children and teachers interact. May her memory be a blessing to all who knew her.

1 comment:

Maya said...

Beautiful post. A Beautiful tribute to a remarkable person. Thank you for sharing her with us!