The birds came to the backyard feeder like always. But on this day, the normally noisy crows, grackles, cardinals, mockingbirds and robins were perched solemn and silent. Only the haunting coo of the ground-walking mourning doves could be heard in the late September morning mist. It seemed they knew, as is often the uncanny way with animals, that their friend and protector had gone away.
This backyard belonged to my friend Barbara. She was 81 years old when she passed away recently, and aside from successfully managed diabetes and the occasional ache and pain, she had appeared healthy and active. Our relationship was multi-layered and textured. She was in turns, friend, cohort and mother. She had sat next to me in church choir for the past 12 years, our alto voices – hers delicate and tremulous, mine booming and obnoxious – mixing in with the other eclectic sopranos, basses and Jon, our lonely tenor.
Barbara had a no-nonsense approach to health and life in general. She was a nurse, specializing in Hospice care, which says a lot right there. She visited unwell friends and neighbors who were often a good deal younger than she. She had little time for whiners, yet infinite patience with those whose needs and weaknesses she could see and understand.
She chaired her church women’s committee and hosted meetings poolside at her house. At one such meeting, this past year, she had the women over for an end-of season barbecue. Now Barbara was a fine host, but she liked to have things a certain way and could get grumpy when they weren't. On this particular summer evening she was planning supper and a swim. When some of the other women wanted more of a spiritual meeting where devotionals would be read, Barbara saw red. "This is supposed to be a party!" she exclaimed. "Save the the readings for church!"
Despite her self-proclaimed grumpiness, Barbara was a wonderful mom, grandma, neighbor and confidante. She had four kids and six grandchildren. Most of her grandchildren were already grown but there was one young granddaughter who lived nearby. This elementary-age girl adored and counted on her grandmother for everything from homework help to swimming lessons to special school night dinners at the kitchen counter.
Barbara's backyard pool was a mecca for several families, including mine. It was a normal Sunday afternoon to see a picnic table-full of adults and a pool-full of kids of varying ages. We were there the week before she died. Barbara was in good spirits, bringing out drinks and snacks, admonishing us to take all leftovers home or she would end up eating them. It was a simple thing, these afternoons, but a memory each of us will keep.
Our semi-weekly book group also met at Barbara's house. In between discussions of books, each member found safe haven for the telling of more personal things. Traumas, triumphs, hurts, hopes, losses and loves spilled out around Barbara's table as the fire she always had going crackled nearby. Although she herself often listened more that she spoke, it was clear to all that she could contain the sum of the concerns of our hearts and hold them carefully.
The choir meets tonight for its weekly practice. We will be working on music for two services. One is this coming Sunday's regular morning service. The other is for Barbara's memorial service, to be held later in the afternoon after church. In the choir loft, we will sit in our usual spots. Tonight I will slide over just a little to the right in order to be where Barbara sat for 50 years. I will listen hard to hear her voice still there among us as we raise ours in hymn and song. On Sunday, I will wear her green choir robe and process down the church aisle with a different alto at my side. The anthem chosen for her service is one that is a call-and-answer with the youth choir (the same teenagers who spent summers in her pool) and the adult choir singing together. "Through the Window" by Ruth Elaine Schram paints a picture of children playing outside while parents prayerfully watch them from inside. It is a moving piece, one the choir – with Barbara – has sung before.
"Through the window, I can see you, You are playing, I am praying . . . Praying for your future, praying for your friends. Praying for your family, may those faithful prayers never end." I hope Barbara will hear us and see us.
Blogger’s note: This entry was originally written this time last year. Barbara Zutter Woodring was a force within our community, from St. Francis Hospital where she worked and ultimately passed away, to The Port Washington United Methodist Church, where she sang out from her soul, to any number of pockets of people she touched over the course of a lifetime. As for me, the empty space next to me in the choir loft continues to pulsate with her spirit. Barbara, I miss you.