Barbara was in serious distress, and I was speechless. No one had ever talked to me about the anguish involved in having a limb amputated.
“They keep taking more parts of me!” Barbara sobbed into the phone. She had now had three amputations. She was diabetic, and her failure to manage her diet was proving catastrophic. The tension of the situation was compounded by the fact that I didn’t know her very well. Our acquaintanceship was mostly based on the 23-year friendship I had with her brother Bob.
“Barb, I’m so sorry,” I said lamely. I couldn’t empathize with her, since I still had all my limbs. I couldn’t tell her it was going to be okay. She was envisioning the rest of her life as half a person—one of those people who lumbers about on hand crutches, getting in our way at the grocery store. Surely we need those people in the world too, but who wants to be one of them?
“Barb, I’m going to pray for you,” I promised. I didn’t know how she could be pouring her heart out to me that night as she languished in her hospital bed, deriving little comfort from the heavy narcotics they were giving her. We didn’t yet have a relationship. I didn’t know if my offer of prayer provided any comfort, but I had to extend some solace to her. She had placed herself in my hands.
“You can call me any time you want,” I told her. “I’m here for you.” And I meant it. Little did I know that she would take me up on it. Just a week later, Bob was in my living room again, reporting that they had done yet another amputation on Barb. Again, I found myself on the phone with her. But this time, the shock of what was happening to her was more than she could take. She was delusional and began telling me about something outlandish and horrific that she thought had happened the evening before at the Sheraton Hotel. Apparently, Bob had told her that I worked at the Sheraton, and the hotel had somehow worked its way into the tumult of her confusion.
“Barb, I was working last night, and what you are saying didn’t happen.” I was gentle, but I couldn’t see any reason not to inform her that her mind was off the tracks. It would take a few days for her to touch the ground again.
After I hung up with Barb, I looked over at Bob and discovered that he was weeping. I didn’t know what to say. For one thing, I was wrung out after my conversation with Barb. For another thing, I was wondering what he was doing flipping through the phone book. While I watched, Bob went through the yellow pages and called half a dozen local churches, one after another, describing into their answering machines what had happened to his sister and asking them to please visit her in the hospital.
I didn’t ask why Bob didn’t visit her himself (although I know that he eventually did, because I was there with him when he went). I thought it might well be some combination of family history, lack of transportation and Bob’s chronic alcoholism. I wasn’t about to start asking questions.
I felt awful for Barbara. She had been through hell during her life. Her parents were alcoholics, one of them mentally ill. The family rarely communicated, perhaps because the news was always bad. Of Barb’s three brothers, one was an HIV-positive homosexual, one was currently a fugitive from justice, and Bob was following in their parents’ footsteps. In my observation, when Barb’s family members called or visited her, it was usually for the purpose of borrowing money or something. She never said “no” unless she really didn’t have it. Through all they had experienced, she had always been the steady, sedate member of the family. No one ever complained about Barb being abusive or selfish. What was happening to her now seemed criminal. I couldn’t find too much fault with her for her shortcomings involving food, drugs and drink. Many people give themselves over to these things after seeing a mere fraction of the adversity Barb had endured.
For reasons I couldn’t see, Bob was apparently doing what he could for his sister by calling the churches that evening. I didn’t think much about it afterward. It seemed like nothing more than a strange episode in the lives of two troubled people. Bob more or less went on his way. I went back to work.
I didn’t expect to hear that anything had come of Bob’s calls to the churches, and I was basically right. None of the six or eight churches so much as called Barbara. Except for the Greater Friendship Baptist Church. The day after Bob left the messages, Barb received visits from around a dozen people from that church, including the pastor. They came in smiling, carrying flowers and fruit baskets and greeting cards. Some of them stayed and talked with her for an hour or more. Many of them had small children clinging to their legs.
Over the next two weeks, the visits continued. This was no Sunday afternoon duty for the people of Greater Friendship. Their impromptu outreach was carried out with joy and enthusiasm. One 20-second phone message had moved these people to adopt Barb into their church family. I reflected later how wonderfully apt was the name they had chosen for their church. The people who started the congregation clearly knew the meaning of friendship—and lived it.
Barb died of cancer in 2007. As far as I know, her relations with her family hadn’t changed. The last time I spoke with her, she had only a month or two to live (although I didn’t know it yet). She was aware that I was a few days away from traveling halfway across the country for the better part of a year. We both wanted to visit before I left. She was her usual self—pleasant and welcoming, overlooking others’ faults in the interest of peace and harmony. From what I could patch together later, she knew she was dying and had elected not to go through the surgery and the chemotherapy. I remember seeing her that night with a large sheet of pharmaceutical samples, pushing little blue and white pills out of the blisters. They were probably powerful painkillers. Barb didn’t tell anyone about her illness, no doubt because she didn’t want anyone to pressure her to seek treatment. I suppose she was ready to go.
As I sat in her little apartment and talked with her for the last time, I remember asking her if she had any interest in learning more about the Savior. I can only think that the Holy Spirit must have been whispering in my ear, because I had no idea that she was so close to death. I had never broached the subject with her before. She told me that she had been thinking a lot about matters of salvation. Apparently, some people from a local congregation had invited her to attend church with them and had even offered to come and pick her up to take her to services. They may have been members of Greater Friendship, although I have no way of knowing. It sounded as though Barb was inclined to take advantage of their offer, and sometimes I almost tremble with hope that she did, or that by some other means she came to faith in Christ. She endured so much in her short life; I want to believe that she will enjoy peace and rest in eternity.
I regret that I never made it a point to go and visit the people of Greater Friendship Baptist Church. I intended for a long time to go there and tell them how much I appreciated what they had done for Barbara. Somehow, my days were always filled with things that seemed more important. Now, as a resident of Oregon, it seems less than likely that I will ever make it to that little church in Anchorage, although I won’t write the possibility off completely. For now, this is my way of saying to these good Christian people: Thank you. I won’t forget the love you showed my friend Barbara. For all you know, what you did broke a trail to the cross for her. God bless you.