Last night I dreamed that I was sitting in a hospital room beside my friend Barbara. She was small and frail, but full of the love, determination, and mischievous humor that characterized her in health. I held her hand and watched as she triumphed over her illness by leaving us for something better. And I knew even then: this already happened.
The dreaming image of me knew that I was in a place where the walls between this world and the next were well-worn, a celtic thin place. And I didn’t want to leave.
I met Barbara and her husband, David, at a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missouri meeting at Third Baptist Church nearly four years ago. I only have a hazy memory of this, aided by a photo that I took of the two of them talking with my not-yet-boyfriend (now husband) Allyn. From the photo composition, it is obvious that I was sitting at a table with the three of them — something we repeated on a number of occasions.
My first real memory of Barbara is my first Sunday at Third when I was driving back and forth to St. Louis from Jefferson City to help prepare for my sister’s wedding. I was talking to a woman who knew my grandparents, and Barbara turned from her seat in front of me and apologized for eavesdropping. She heard the word “missionary” and had to hear who I was and who my grandparents are.
From then on, I had a regular seat behind the Wiggers. I recall one of those early conversations complimenting her on how she read Scripture that morning. She revealed that she was a college speech and drama major. When I started dating Allyn, they teased me about noticing that he was glancing in our direction and smiling more — and how they were assuming those smiles weren’t intended for David.
Somehow, we connected in a way that went well beyond what is typical for those who sit near each other for an hour on Sunday mornings. Barbara was a natural encourager and easily gathered Allyn and I into her fold of the encouraged. The very first email I received from Barbara came the week after I preached my very first sermon. She wrote:
Jennifer, congrats on your presentation Sunday morning. As I listened to your message I thought, “Your skill and training as a journalist showed in the excellent composition of your material.” You have a gift for written expression; I say “gift” because composition does not come naturally to everyone – as you probably know. . .
When Allyn and I got married, Barbara was the natural choice for reading Scripture in our wedding.
If I recall right, the Wiggers went from the wedding to the doctor. Barbara had been having health difficulties for awhile. Within weeks, she was diagnosed with a rare form of bile duct cancer. And there was no cure.
And while she did admit to some emotional rollercoaster days, she continued to affirm the goodness of life–the goodness of God in such a way that it was obvious she believed it to her core. She believed it for the rest of us when we really weren’t (or aren’t) sure that such goodness was compatible with evils like cancer.
She continued to encourage me. I’m praying for you. Once when her husband was out of town for a meeting, I had the privilege of driving Barbara to lunch and her weekly chemo appointment. She listened to all the fears and frustrations that I couldn’t voice anywhere else, and became a safe place for me to be in all my messy, broken ways.
Every few months, she would tell me again that I had a gift for writing — something that often bugged me, since I was training for pastoral ministry. It wasn’t until finding that first email that I realized for Barbara, the written word and the spoken word were not mutually exclusive. And, in fact, she edited several of my sermons, making me better at writing, speaking, and caring.
My last conversation with her, she reaffirmed all of those things. She grabbed my hand and said again that she told me my gift was writing. I responded that I was trying to listen. She cried as she answered that God was in this. And as I look back, I realize that this can mean so many things. She asked if I was happy. It struck me as a funny question to answer while someone I loved dearly was in her last days, but she wasn’t asking about the moment. She was asking as the woman who had witnessed my pain, who continued to pray for me, who loved me. Yes, Barbara, I’m happy. She asked again — are you happy? And I am. She continued to hold on to me — or perhaps I continued to hold on to her. We both knew it was our last conversation. Her eyes said it. I told her I’d be back, and she responded that we would speak again — and we will.
I thought I believed in resurrection before. But through her death, Barbara taught me to believe it more fully. David reported that the afternoon before Barbara died, she said that she saw God. David responded, “you do? what does he look like?” God is everywhere. And I believe her.
On days like today, I long for more of the walls between heaven and earth to be worn thin. Since I can’t seem to will that into being, I wrap myself in Barbara’s jacket. When I breathe deeply, I can smell her scent lingering–and I know that Barbara is praying for me still.