Today and tomorrow are both part of one harder-than-usual anniversary this year (multiples of 10 being tough on us 10-digited homo sapiens, so it seems): on this very day 30 years ago, my friend Barbara Clark died in a car accident. She was one of the most important people in my life, and truth to tell, I think she probably always will be, even though I think she would find the very notion surprising, were she still alive. (She'd like the phrase "il ne faut pas exagérer.")
Tomorrow will be hard because it was on Sunday night, February 24, 1985, when my mother called me in tears to tell me that Barbara had been killed. I was stunned, and as the days progressed, I became increasingly grieved over the unfinished business I had with her. The situation was all the more poignant because had life permitted, we seemed to have finally, finally been on such terms that we might have been able to talk about everything that I at least needed to discuss with her.
The consequence of such apparently never-to-be finished business was a depression so profound that I came very close to dying by my own hand. (Note to the kiddies: do not neglect unfinished business.)
Were Barbara still alive, she'd be 74 years old, retired, and… who knows. Given where life has taken me and mine over the years, I suspect that she and I would never have become any closer than we were when I last saw her just a few weeks before her death. — Which is to say, closer than ever before, but still not very close in a personal way, for all that we genuinely liked each other: up until then, there had been too much of a gap between our respective life stages to have had that kind of friendship.
Tonight I honored her in a more practical way than I did by dressing in black today — by diligently practicing several different piano accompaniments that I will play at rehearsals for one or two of the chorales to which I belong. Barbara was a wonderful accompanist and served for several years as the associate accompanist for the Southern California Mormon Choir. I learned a lot from listening to and observing her practice.
The one thought that has brought tears to my eyes yesterday and today and very likely will produce tears tomorrow is — how very much I have missed my friend over the years. Not every day, thankfully, not constantly, not at all like that, but sometimes when I sing I can still hear her lovely alto voice. (She was the alto section leader at the time I joined the choir.) And she had such a wickedly fine sense of humor. I find myself wishing from time to time that I could share a good joke or anecdote with her.
Barbara would have loved the internet, I think, though it is probably (no, make that definitely) just as well that I was no longer a teenager but rather a married mom with children by the time email became commonplace. She put up with a great deal of on-paper verbiage from the adolescent me (so helpful to me at the time I wrote them, I suppose, and yet all of those letters turned out to be such a huge source of distress to me after she died). I am glad she was kind and patient and apparently could see enough potential in me to treat me in many ways like the adult I so sincerely wanted to become.
I end this all-too-personal entry by relating what happened about a year or so after Barbara died: I was finally getting treated for depression (yay for Western Psychiatric Hospital and its experimental programs that made it possible to trade my body for "free" medication and therapy). One night, I was just coming back to bed around 4 am after dealing with one of the girls… and Barbara came to me (unseen but very present). Yes, yes, I am well aware of the brain's ability, of the human psyche's propensity to manufacture what it needs to survive, but peu importe: for the rest of that night and well into the daylight hours, she (whether real or manufactured) went through all of that soul-killing unfinished business with me, went through everything that made the phrase "to die of embarrassment" so literal in my life at that point. It was a very healing experience. Nor was it the only episode of its kind during the months and years to follow.
I am pushing 60 with a vengeance, and even after 30 years, the grief is still fresh and present at times like these, but there are nonetheless moments of grace: during that initial experience, Barbara told me that she had been allowed to come to me because my need was so great. And for 29 years that was my principal interpretation: she came because of my need. But a few months ago a new friend of mine, on hearing this story, responded that "she must have loved you very much." The truth of that observation took my breath away: yes, my need was acute, but Barbara came to me because she loved me. That belatedly-received insight has meant a lot to me, skepticism and agnosticism notwithstanding.
In memoriam, Barbara Clark (September 18, 1940 – February 23, 1985). Her grave marker reads "beloved daughter and sister"… and there are many of us who loved her who were sorry that "and friend" was not part of the epitaph. May she rest in as much peace as the Mormon view of a totally frenetic afterlife can permit. (And yes, she would have appreciated the ironic tone of that last sentence.)