My friend, Barbara Robinson, died Monday, August 13, at the age of 91. I printed this out and shared it at her funeral yesterday.
I used to be afraid of Barbara Robinson. In fact, I’ve often thought that the expression “She doesn’t suffer fools gladly” might have been created to describe Barbara. She could pack more scorn into the word “fool” (a word often used recently to describe people in our government) than anyone I’ve every heard.
I was easily intimidated when I first met her, and she was a little intimidating. I assumed I sounded foolish about half the time, and assumed I wouldn’t be suffered gladly. That feeling didn’t start to dissipate until St. Cecilia was closing, and we began riding together to our Scattered Seed Masses, monthly gatherings of our old community. Barbara actually could still drive back then, in her little red car, but some of those far-off get-togethers were scheduled in the winter when it would be dark and cold on the ride home. I think, in part, she didn’t want me driving back from those places by myself.
Talking on those long drives, we got to know each other a lot better. Then we together followed Father Dan to his new assignments in Cleveland Heights and Bedford. We stopped for lunch after Mass, along with our buddy Verna. All this time, while we were talking, I was less easily intimidated, and, also, I think, Barbara mellowed. She never lost her edge, but she may have grown a little softer.
Here’s what I want to say in response to people complimenting me for driving Barbara around and visiting her. First, okay, thanks for the praise. Second, you don’t know all that Barbara did for me.
If you happen to have read my book (which Barbara did, and in itself meant a lot to me), you know I had a problematic mother. For reasons beyond her control, my mom lacked the empathy and concern a mother is supposed to have. Looking back, I see that throughout my life, I have sought out older women as friends. Especially, perhaps, crusty, edgy women. I didn’t understand it while we were becoming close, but Barbara was one of those women. She was the most important one.
She herself had two wonderful daughters, a beloved niece, well-loved granddaughters and great granddaughters, as well as a fine son and devoted grandsons and great grandsons. They paid her a lot of attention, and she loved them all immensely. She didn’t need another kid. But I needed her.
Barbara would remember things I told her and ask me about them later. She’d worry when I was sick. She’d even call me to see how I was doing. She’d feel bad for me when someone died. These may seem like ordinary human interactions, but they mean a whole lot to someone whose mother couldn’t do them. So I’m not being falsely modest when I say, unequivocally, that Barbara did more for me than I did for her. No question. That’s the real story.
I was thinking about what else Barbara might want to have said at her funeral, She requested a year or so ago that we contact Father Tom Mahoney, who preceded Father Dan at St. Cecilia, to commit himself to celebrating her funeral mass. The two of them go way back. She was so pleased, subsequently, when he visited her. When he walked into her room at the McGregor Home a couple of weeks before she died, she greeted him by saying, “Oh, I didn’t know I was that sick!”
I imagine, though, as with many of us, she’d also wish that her great friend Father Dan could be here. We know that he is here in spirit. I’ve brought, in addition, his words. Remember how he wrote his own eulogy? Visiting Father Dan right near the end, his brother, Father Bob, asked, “Do you want me to preach for you? Because I don’t know if I’ll be able to.” Father Dan waved his hand and said, “Oh, don’t worry about it. I wrote it all out for you already.”
At any funeral celebrated by Father Dan, you heard some version of this homily. Here it is, the message he wrote for himself, only this time it’s for Barbara.
The author of the Book of Wisdom speaks so confidently of an afterlife long before Jesus came and long before most of his contemporaries knew there was something more after this life. I suspect he or she was a keen observer of nature and saw beyond the present to the past and the future.
Where we came from–the miracle of life’s beginning–is maybe the most profound miracle of all. Think of it! Two gametes or half-cells come together in quite a violent collision, and an impenetrable wall surrounds them. Then both die as gametes and become a one-celled human. That dies and becomes two-celled; two become four, four become eight, eight sixteen. Each moment something dies, each moment something is new, and each moment somebody remains the same. Everything that will ever be in us other than food, water, and time (and the many parts and pieces that doctors implant) is in our life at each stage. Each of us can look at every stage of life and say, “That is me.”
From conception, we are programmed to be something that none of us will ever see on earth! Going back to that very first stage, it must be like heaven on earth! In those early stages, the womb must be a very beautiful place and plenty big. Floating with no pressure on any part of the body in this lovely personal lake, we don’t even have to breathe. Mom can be hungry or thirsty, but we will have what we need. The temperature is always perfect! No one to bother us, because we are the only creature in the world.
Then it starts to get a little tight, and the head finds its way into the birth canal. When the labor begins, the constant pressure on the little creature’s head that never before felt pressure, must be interpreted as dying, which lasts for varying amounts of time. The head presents itself, the baby comes out, and, with that first breath, it dies as a water creature and begins life as a land creature. Its pond gone now, air surrounds and supports this new stage of life, and the journey continues. Each moment, something dies, each moment something is new, and each moment somebody answers to the same name.
Let your mind wander back over those stages of life. It is clear how in each of them we have our own treasures that we can’t imagine living without and patterns of life that we consider essential for happiness. At each stage, we have to let go of things, like the bottle, the binky, the dolly, people we love, and so on. Experiences like being fed, carried, and supported have to give way to new experiences of independence. Often, though, those early stages of total dependence return as an unwelcome guest to minds accustomed to freedom. With each stage, dying gives way to a new stage, while we feel very much the same inside.
I believe death is a new stage with a profound transformation into a new way of being . . what we were programmed to be from the start. As the first breath marks our death as a water creature and our birth as an earth creature, so our last breath marks our death as a corporeal creature and our birth as a spiritual creature. As air sustained us on earth, perhaps grace and light sustain us in our final form. I will let you know as soon as I find out.
This process, though terrifying in some ways and certainly difficult in many ways, also possesses the thrill of the possibility of what is coming. Like our first time leaving home, getting married, getting ordained, or doing anything that demands a letting go of the past and an embracing of the future, this process provokes fear, doubt, questions, and hesitations. There is also the dream of potential beyond our imagining, which calls us forth to this Creator who is leading us to fulfillment and entrance to the eternal life ordained for us in love from the beginning.