I lose Barb when she is in her seventies. We are not family, and I have only known her for a few years. I see her once a week, on Fridays, when we volunteer at a Catholic Charities shelter, and we spend about three hours together. I’ve never lived close to a grandparent, and I immediately fall in love with her. She is my surrogate grandmother, the one who wants to know everything I’m doing, and thinks every last detail is interesting.
“Honey, you look tired, are you sleeping enough?”
“Barb, me and the dog saw five deer on our walk this morning.”
“Honey, there’s just enough potato salad left over for one serving, you go and eat that now.”
“Barb, I brought you an article from Minnesota Monthly—weren’t you telling me about this store?”
“Honey, tell me where you’re going to dinner tonight with your husband.”
“Barb, I painted my nails in Christmas colors.”
I grieve longer for her than I do for my beloved grandfather who died four years before. I think about her every Friday like clockwork, when I sign into the shelter log and see…well, not her name. There are times at the shelter when I’m assembling grilled cheese sandwiches and her absence is so heavy, there across the stainless steel prep counter that I feel it like August in Minnesota, thick and damp in the air. I bump into it when I turn; its weight presses down on my arm as I reach for a piece of processed cheese.
What surprises me about grief is that it matters how someone dies. Maybe this is why my grandfather’s death is less difficult to overcome; he died after a long bout with pneumonia, having survived many previous illnesses. When he died, the whole family agreed, he was tired. He was done. If Barb, a two time cancer survivor, had passed from a third round of cancer, I doubt the loss of her would be so intense. If she had lost her spark, if her walk had become stooped and burdened, perhaps I wouldn’t think about her so often. Does this mean I don’t miss her as much as I feel I do? I’m not sure. People should be what they were in life, regardless of how they leave it. And yet the way she dies means everything to me.
When she is alive, Barb and I rarely speak of our faith together. Perhaps we have an uneasy alliance. She is a devout Catholic, a former missionary, very conservative. I was raised a Baptist, not currently attending a church, very liberal. She knows this about me and sometimes seems interested in what has led me to Catholic Charities. I don’t know what to tell her, and mostly I don’t say anything, except that I love God and I believe the easiest way to find him is in serving others. Whether this makes me efficient or lazy, neither of us have decided.
When the Costa Concordia crashes off the eastern coast of Italy, it is mid-January. I have a hand-sewn apron in my car, a late Christmas gift for Barb who I haven’t seen since the holiday. At the time, I’m in Boise, Idaho on business. The website I write for is celebrating a milestone–1 million views in a month. Truthfully, the business takes a back seat to the celebrating—casual lunches, decadent dinners, a glittering party, walking around town, champagne cocktails and my high heels clicking on pavement.
I see the crash on CNN, blaring from the hotel television, and think nothing of it. I hear about it again in the airport on the way back to the Twin Cities. None of it registers until I get an email from JoAnne, the kitchen coordinator at the shelter–“By now I’m sure you’ve heard about it on the news…I can’t believe it…I am praying for Barb’s family.” I Google Barb’s name immediately, frantically, and there it is—a Minnesota couple is among the missing cruisers. It is not like anything I know, the sight of her picture on CNN, The Huffington Post, Star Tribune, Pioneer Press. The list of her good deeds: the two shelters she serves, the daily visits to church, the cookies she bakes for Bible study groups. Newscasters speak her name and I want to take the syllables out of their mouths. Her name doesn’t belong there, next to basketball scores and a tally of the night’s robberies.
“I’m so afraid something will happen.” Barb’s daughter has been ill, cancer of some kind. “Gerry and I aren’t sure we should still go on the trip…what if something happens to Sarah while we’re gone?” She holds her hands in front of her, rubbing her fingers together.
“Is it likely that her condition will change while you’re gone? Or are you just worrying because you’re a worrier?”
We have that it in common. We look for things to worry about.
Barb smiles at me. “I don’t know, honey. I’m just worried.”
“I know. I know you are. Everything will be okay.” I rub her back. I mean what I say.
Four days after the crash, my boss observes me teaching in my classroom. I cannot string a sentence together with two hands. I tell a student he is correct when he is wrong. I stare at my students’ handwriting on the white board and wonder what I should say next as they gaze at me expectantly. Barb’s specter floats around my head.
The days pass. At night I dream of Barb and her husband. They are floating in a black ocean. They are holding hands. They are flat, two-dimensional, like cardboard cut-outs of themselves…which I guess is an accurate depiction of someone’s body once the life has left them. I’ve seen death before—a childhood friend died of a heart condition and when I saw her in her coffin at the age of eight, I was shocked. Another friend drowned when we were 20, the parents of friends have passed, and it’s always been the same. If you’ve seen a dead body, up close, you see it is nothing like a person, that all the height and width and length in the world will not make them the multi-dimensional person they once were. I wake from the dreams in the middle of the night, sweating and desperate, then spend the next hour staring at the ceiling, wondering if Barb can see me, if she loves me in death, if she knows how much I still love her. I remember them in all their darkness when I wake again in the morning.
I keep the apron I’ve sewn for Barb in my car. It is wrapped in silver tissue paper, tied with white string. I keep it in the passenger seat, and sometimes I talk to it while I drive. The words are the same, a prayer of repetition.
“I miss you Barb…I miss you…I miss you.”
In the sketchy days after the crash, when they don’t yet know the final body count in all the confusion, I call my sister and ask her, do you think there’s a chance she’s alive? No, Katharine tells me, and I’m so sorry. My sleep remains feverish, wracked. In a conversation with a friend, we talk about the nuances of grief, of surprise. I interrupt, and ask her, do you think there’s a chance she’s alive? No, she tells me, and I’m so sorry.
Although I think about quitting, I come back to the shelter after Barb goes missing. I think of her every single week. It is still the way she died that sneaks up on me, makes me wonder about her last moments. Before they found her body and that of her husband, I prayed they’d be discovered in one of the rooms in the ship. I thought about that scene from Titanic, where the elderly couple lies in bed, spooning each other, holding hands in resignation as the water rises around them. Please let that be their end.
The ending is not the measure of the experience, is what I tell myself. There was a whole life—children and grandchildren and service and work. And that must count for more than the ending of that life.
In Christianity, Jesus is most remembered for his death on the cross. He died for our sins, the sins we commit because we are inherently prone to messing up. It is not exactly an affirming premise, which may be why so many disdain organized religion. But his death is not what counts. Jesus was above all else, kind, giving, forgiving, wise, and even flawed.
This is the reason I find comfort in volunteering at the shelter that led me to Barb. Though some residents have been brought to homelessness through limited resources and bad luck, others have made mistakes along the way. They tell me how many days sober they are; they first arrive with sores on their face from scratching while they were coming down from using meth; they have their children taken away from them; they have warrants out for their arrest. I sin, too. I judge them when their kids are wearing dirty pajamas at noon. I wonder how they can be homeless but morbidly obese. I’m incredulous and smug when they ask for something we don’t have at the moment—sour cream, Ranch dressing—and wonder what gives them the right to make demands when they get this food for free. As though food weren’t a human right, a basic need that everyone should have fulfilled without judgment. I make mistakes; I feel ashamed. For us all, there is time to start again. There is help at the shelter for everyone.
It’s important that the story of Christ is one of redemption. But giving more weight to his death than his life is a mistake. I need a model for living outside the concerns of my small life, which is often so wrapped up in anger that my Internet service is slow, frustration that I still haven’t lost those ten meaningless pounds, impatience with my husband’s inability to properly wipe up a spill on the kitchen counter. The shelter is my reminder that the world is made bigger and better by serving others—a model that Christ lived. It is, of course, comforting to think that if we fuck it up along the way, well, Jesus took care of that at the end. Still, the moments of Jesus’ life must be at least as important as his death.
In the first spring after her death, I am still Googling Barb’s name to find the latest news. And there it is. They finally found her body. Pinned between the hull of the ship and the sea floor. It is as bad as I dreaded. What does it mean? I ask my sister. Why was she outside the boat? Maybe she let other people get in the lifeboats, she says. Maybe it was a sacrifice.
It has been a year and a half. I’ve let go of the dreams—Barb floating in that black sea, her thin hair waving with the tides. When the surprise of her absence hits me, it’s usually because I can’t tell her I got a second dog, I fell on the ice, I made a cake she has to have the recipe for. Her end is fading away, and the rest is what I hope I always remember. Maybe when I’m Barb’s age I won’t recall that someone I loved died on her dream vacation. Maybe all I’ll know is that once I had someone in my life who loved me for the way I arranged brownies on a tray, who told me my hair was beautiful, who touched my face when she spoke to me. The end doesn’t have to define the experience. The end can just be the end.
The first day I work at the shelter, the cook has me slicing apples. I work in silence, cutting off each mellow-green side along the rough core. I pile the anemic slices in a large plastic container that will later be placed on the cold line. My hands go cold as I make my way through the chilled mound of imperfect apples with their dents and bruises and going-soft flesh. It’s quiet in the back where I work, only the sound of a ventilation system blowing through the small, industrial kitchen. Suddenly I feel two small hands pressing on either side of my arms.
“How’s it going?” Barb’s lined face peers up at me from my left side. She wears a gray brimmed hat that seems to be part baseball cap/part newsboy cap/part fishing hat. Little tufts of silver and white hair stick out from underneath.
I smile at her. “It’s fine, making progress.” I gesture to the container that is almost filled up with apple slices.
“I see that,” she smiles back, the skin around her eyes crinkling. It’s quiet for a moment and then she says, so joyfully she’s almost laughing, “I’m so glad you’re here.” She walks away. My arms still feel warm from where she touched them.