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Last Dance

This photo shows my lovely wife Barbara and me dancing at a wedding reception on February 15, 2014. I've titled the photo "Last Dance" because it was. Barbara died on February 21, just six days later. Barbs was a wonderful dancer, and I am not. She was also a terrific wife to me and mother to our four children. She had gifts she brought to raising those children. For one, she possessed the ability to divert a small child who was mad or frustrated onto something positive. I marveled at how she did this so consistently. One minute a child would be squawking like their favorite toy had been run over, and the next they would be smiling like it was Christmas morning because Barbs had pointed him or her away from stress. Like many of you, I've seen bad mothers in grocery stores or malls punish children for being kids, and it never fails to remind me of the power of positive diversion, or Barbara's gift for it. Another thing she did so well was to draw lines on what was acceptable and what wasn't. Table manners, a lost art, were enforced. Respectful conversation was demanded, but also taught. She was not afraid to display her temper, but she was equally tolerant when a child displayed his or hers, knowing it was part of growing up. If one of the kids failed in some fundamental courtesy to a neighbor or friend, that child might get a lecture or worse, but not in front of the neighbor. Because of Barbara's rough childhood, she had a unerring sensitivity to humiliation, and she never wanted one of her children to experience it. Later, when puppy loves came and went, the kids could always find Barbara's soft shoulder to talk about how unfair it all was. She wept for every lost love even when she was secretly glad to see that particular love interest out of the picture. And if you wounded one of ours, you better bring back-up because you had aroused a lioness in Barbara. At her memorial service, those children she raised so lovingly gave testimony to her extraordinary devotion to them. Even though none of the four presentations was coordinated, a remarkably consistent theme emerged: she always put others first, and she instilled in her children the sense of worth she lacked as a child. No child of hers would ever be made to feel lesser than or inadequate, as she was made to feel. I don't know where she acquired her determination, but it was as ingrained in her as her fingerprints. I need to say a bit more about her damaged childhood. This morning I read Pat Conroy's beautiful tribute to her in his A Lowcountry Heart. Pat was, like Barbara, a victim of parental abuse, both physical and emotional. Because Pat was schooled in the hurt suffered by those too young to comprehend why a parent would take out life's disappointments and frustrations on a child, he recognized instantly what it took me years to learn. I simply had no frame of reference for what Barbs had been through. Violence and degradation were as foreign to my experience as Portuguese. Barbs knew that, and she was very careful--too careful--to keep from me a past she considered shameful. She, of course, had nothing to feel ashamed about, but that is the way childhood trauma works. The evil of it is that a child illogically but inevitably comes to believe they did something to bring it on themselves, to deserve the abuse they received. This sense of shame never leaves. The guilt is lifelong, as I can attest after 42 years with Barbs. Lastly (at least for purposes of this blog), I need to return to the photograph. You see a beautiful woman smiling and enjoying the moment. And why not? Her oldest son had just married a wonderful woman, the wedding was lights-out fabulous, and the band was hot. She is relishing that dance as much as she appears to be. The photo captures it all, which is one reason I love it so much. But what you don't see is what it took for her to be in that photo. Because of her chronic pain, she went to bed early the night before. She slept for most of the morning on the day of the wedding, and she stayed in bed until mid-afternoon so she could be rested and fresh. Even when this photo was taken she was in pain, but you would never know it because she was tough as hell. She left the reception early to return to bed, and she slept for days after as a defense against added stress to her bones and joints. She deserved a better dance partner, but I had the privilege of waltzing with her for over four decades.

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