Something wasn’t right. Midnight, snowstorm on the Dan Ryan Expressway, my van making some unidentifiable sound above the whine of rushing wheels, above hundreds of cars weaving and lane changing at jet speeds–so many people going somewhere in the depth of the night.
Barbara had taught me about mantras. I was using a new one—help me get home, please God, help me get home—my fingers gripping the wheel. And then my back left tire blew. I was skidding and riding on the metal rim, struggling to keep control, to slow down—finally seeking the safety of the shoulder.
I slammed the car into park, my hands flying from the wheel like frightened birds. Shivering in the hot blast from the car’s heater, I plunged into my nursing bag and pulled out the cell phone. As I punched in numbers I was noting my locked doors, watching traffic zip by so close my car groaned and dipped in their wake, like the response of my heart now unloosed inside my chest. I listened to the ringing. I couldn’t remember whom I had called. Icy sleet pelted the windshield. I was alone, 22 miles from home. Then my husband’s groggy voice. He would come right away, he would call roadside assistance.
Moments later I was standing in the slushy snow of the shoulder, staring at my blasted tire. I thought of the spare, the tools buried somewhere—could I do this, get myself out of here? A frantic laugh moved inside of me and I looked up, spoke to the halo of the vapor lights—“ Thanks, Barbara, because of you I’m here right now!”
A car was pulling off onto the shoulder, maybe 30 yards behind me. A long beat-up old junker. I hurried back, locked myself in the van, waited, watching the slow progression of the car through my rearview mirror.
Disquiet had ridden with me nine hours earlier when I drove into the hospital parking lot to begin my 3-11 shift in Labor and Delivery. The van just wasn’t riding right. My first patient presented with a prolapsed umbilical cord and we did an emergency C-section. I told myself that at the end of the shift I’d deal with the van, I would pray to God to just help me get home. Please help me get home. A new mantra—Barbara would have been proud of me.
I met Barbara when I was in my tentative early 30’s and she in her secure 50’s. She came into a neighborhood party greeting everyone and emanating an intense presence, her brilliant blue eyes bringing people out of corners, her full-throated laugh cheering the room. I watched as she waved her drink in the air with crooked fingers and twisted joints, moved about with a slight limp. But it was her smile. It broke through conversation pulling everyone in. I just stood and watched as the gloomy rain-washed day succumbed to her light.
Barbara radiated a charge. And with sincerity she readily shared her world of elation and her experience with grief. In time she made me want to do the same, tell her everything, including my private fears. Barbara became a gift to me.
In her late teens, Barbara had developed rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that inflames the joints. This crisis happened when she was falling in love with her work in the fashion world and then with her future husband. Three children later with a house in the suburbs and car pools to run, Barbara could hardly walk, bone rubbing on bone. The medical world was there for her–prescriptions, surgeries, over 30 stays in the hospital. And her family was wonderfully present.
But they couldn’t live her life. And so often Barbara was alone–with her pain. For a while she clung to the quiet recesses of her home. And maybe in those bleak hours she thought of giving up. Then one day she found she was able to will herself to another place–for seconds she traveled away from the boundaries of her body. And while she walked beside an ocean or floated in a balloon above the mountains, she was freed from the clutches of her pain. That transforming moment became the basis for everything that came after–“If I can elude my pain for five seconds while meditating on something wonderful—then I know I can get away from it for five minutes, thirty-five minutes, even five hours.”
Over time Barbara did just that. Her doctors were amazed. They couldn’t believe that she could walk without pain, take care of her family, travel. Questions flew about. What was really happening–a new drug, a radical remission in the disease?
What was happening was Barbara—total belief, total strength, and the power of the mind. A scientist could measure the fabric of a butterfly wing or predict the demise of a fragile ecosystem more readily than state what Barbara had discovered deep within herself. It could not be labeled. When I learned about Barbara’s life and how she was managing it—things changed in mine.
For there were days, when despite all her efforts, Barbara’s pain took over. Movement was difficult. Then she used the phone. Often she’d call me for long talks during late afternoon when I was struggling to make dinner and keep track of my two young daughters. This was before cordless phones—I was chained to the wall. But I needed Barbara. I thought I was in control of my life. I had dreams of being a writer and the very best mother that I could be.
But maybe I was different from other stay-at-home moms, or maybe it was just the times and places I lived in: a couple stopped and murdered off the expressway near our home; a woman abducted from the local gas station, gang raped and murdered; a child abducted from her secure bedroom, raped and strangled. I read too much. I read every article about these cases and more. Then I’d be frantic—how could I save my children from such dangers? They lurked everywhere. I’d keep reading, deciding that if I knew how these attacks had occurred, what the attackers were like, how the victim had been caught unprepared—I could learn something, save myself and my daughters. It was a circle with no end. My fears locked me inside my home.
The best thing I did was reveal these fears to Barbara. Calmly but firmly she told me I had to stop such thoughts immediately: I was sending out bad signals; fear glowed around me; my mind was using so much energy to conjure rape and danger that I might draw trouble right to me. Just as Barbara used her mental energy to block out pain, I was using mine to bring negatives into my life.
I listened, struggled to change. After all, Barbara’s life was about vulnerability. She had learned to throw aside fear. I transformed mine to logical concerns, holding fast as my panic and apprehension slowly lifted. Barbara really gave me back my freedom. Her little shove improved my prayer life and my faith in life’s joyful experiences. Now I could put the negatives of life in perspective. With renewed belief in God’s protection and my own inner guidance, I was no longer afraid to journey out into life and take some risks.
I had a healthy baby at 42. I went back to school, started a new career as a registered nurse, working at a tertiary care center in downtown Chicago. And now tonight, I was stranded on the Dan Ryan.
As I watched a man walk toward me from the beat-up car, the frightening newspaper articles were buried deep within, outside my reach. I was a nurse at an inner city hospital. I had met people who lived and worked in the trenches of life. I could keep my head.
He came up and I spoke to him through a crack in the car window, mentioning that my husband was on his way. He said right out that he wasn’t there to hurt me, he just wanted to change my tire, make some extra money. His gloves were torn, his coat ragged. I weighed my options. I said thank you, but no. He nodded and walked away. He lingered by his car for a few moments and then came back. The snow was heavier now and I ran the window down a little more to see him, to talk to a man who was everything I would have been terrified of before Barbara.
“I work in Labor and Delivery at Mercy Hospital,” I told him, revealing myself as someone he could trust—I worked in his neighborhood.
“Do you know Nadine?” he asked right away. “She works in dietary.”
And so the conversation moved on and again he offered to change my tire—it would be done when my husband arrived. Cars whizzed past. No one else had stopped. I clicked the lever, opened the back of my van to this stranger. He changed my tire. Barbara, my mentor, helped change my life.
It was important that I be there that night—a defining moment for me. Subsequently, my children have claimed the world for their own, being sensible, but living lives of freedom.
Barbara died a year before that anxious, snowy night. But she was there, showing me that by using common sense and extending trust to a fellow human being there are many wonderful ways to get home again.
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