Remembering Barbara

Barbara Hirshkowitz

I met Barbara when I was in college at University of California at Davis. I was in a modern dance collective, and one of our members was one of the leaders of an environmental theater group. She asked us if we would dance in a production based on Alice in Wonderland. (We danced as a pack of cards.) Barbara was one of the other directors. She was either a graduate student or out of school at the time. That production of Alice (which was performed out-of-doors along the banks of Putah Creek in Davis), was followed by (in no order that I can particularly remember) a production based on hot air balloons, one about water in California, and a reading of an original play.

Barbara and I were really only acquaintances. We each moved to San Francisco, and we ran into each other a couple of times there.

Then I moved, in 1985, to Philadelphia “to see what it was like.” My best friend from college was completing veterinary school, and it seemed like an opportune time to move (while I could stay with him) and experience as a resident the different culture of the East Coast. In 1986, when the Great Peace March came through Philadelphia, I ran into Barbara again on the plaza near Independence Hall. She had moved to Philadelphia to be part of New Society Publishers. It was from this chance meeting that our deeper friendship grew.

We initially found mutual support in being transplants. Although Barbara was born in New York, she had very thoroughly become a westerner. As we lamented the things we missed about northern California, we came to know one another better and better, acquired mutual friends, and grew to have many joint activities. While our deep friendship was of twenty years, we had known each other for close to thirty. Over time, we became for each other the only person in regular contact who had shared memories and experiences from what seemed a different world.

Through much of our friendship, Barbara and I ate together. One of the small groups we were in together met weekly over breakfast, and when that ended, Barbara and I continued having breakfast together. We made homefries for one another, alternating homes, when we could, and then when we worked near each other we ate breakfast at the “Dutch Eating Place” in Reading Terminal Market. (We called it “the Amish counter.”) Barbara lived in a communal house with (eventually) two couples and their four sons. Barbara was a regular caregiver for the first of the kids, and so Sam was a regular part of our breakfasts for several years.

One of the things Barbara and I both loved was reading. We would often discuss books, and we not infrequently would read the same books. We read and practiced our way through two of Starhawk’s books with two other friends. We got together with two others to read all of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books, and then the same small group read many, many versions of the “matter of Britain” (starting with Bradley’s version, of course: segues were always important to Barbara’s theater-trained eye).

We started a book group that met in members’ homes for a potluck meal and discussion, which survived all of the founders’ eventual leaving. A couple of times when the group wouldn’t be going so great, we colluded during our breakfast meetings to come up with solutions. One thing we brought to the group was the suggestion to select books according to a theme. When the theme was “where we come from” (or was it “where we’ve lived”?), Barbara chose a biography of Janis Joplin, saying that she came from the ’60s. Before our meal, we watched videos Barbara had brought from the library, drank shots of Jack Daniels, and talked about our experiences with drugs. What a fine evening, though I don’t remember if I finished that book or what I thought of it!

One of the things that surprised me during Barbara’s illness and eventual death was that I lost interest in reading. It has still never come back quite the way it used to be.

Another thing we both enjoyed was movies–and talking about them. I remember after one movie, my partner at the time complained that we couldn’t just go to the movie and enjoy it, but would immediately start pulling it apart upon leaving the theater. We tried to save our enjoyment for later after that.

Barbara was a great walker, having gone on several long-distance peace marches and undertaken a regular pattern of walking around the circumference of Philadelphia with one of her housemates. I went along on pieces of that walk a couple of times. Barbara and I had two ambitious walks together. We walked from our homes in West Philadelphia to Pendle Hill, in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, one day. It was mostly street walking, but we took advantage of railroad verges for parts of the trip. We arrived footsore at Pendle Hill in time for dinner. The other walk was a day spent walking the length of Manhattan. We drove to New York City the day before and stayed at her aunt and uncle’s home, then drove early the next morning to the Battery, parked the car, and took the subway to the northern tip of the island. Quite by accident we got on a local train, and we agreed that it gave us a much better idea of the distance we would then be walking. We managed to make it back to the Battery while it was still light enough to take some dim photos with the Statue of Liberty in the background.

There were so many other things Barbara and I were involved in together. I did a readathon one year and raised money for the Free Library of Philadelphia, and inspired by that, Barbara created an annual readathon that raised money for Books through Bars, a program she was involved with that sends books to prisoners. (One of the last things Barbara was concerned to take care of before she died was to get the pledges she had received for her last readathon.) We both joined a Community-Supported Agriculture initiative, in the early days of CMSs. (Which led to jokes at our book group that some month we were all going to bring dishes made with daikon.) I did some of my first editing as a freelancer for New Society Publishers at Barbara’s behest. We both volunteered at the Philadelphia Flower Show for several years.

When I moved to Boston, we could no longer have breakfast, but we agreed to email one another weekly instead, and we made visits back and forth.

Barbara began feeling unwell about a year before she died. She eventually had jaundice, and finally was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the late spring. Her doctors moved quickly to get her into surgery for a Whipple procedure, and I flew to Philadelphia on very short notice. As ever, I had quickly searched the internet, and although I was confused and frightened by what pancreatic cancer might mean for Barbara, it was clear that the surgery itself was quite dangerous. I was determined not to take the chance of her dying in surgery without having seen her. Our conversations were quite blunt; we had both always been fairly plain-spoken. And so when Barbara dropped me off at the airport, we said goodbye knowing that we might never see one another again. I still treasure that moment of looking in Barbara’s eyes with honesty and acknowledgment of our mortality. It also made the next nine months much easier to have already, in some degree, having said goodbye.

I returned to Philadelphia to see Barbara immediately after her surgery. Barbara’s surgeons found the cancer had spread beyond what a Whipple could address, so they did some palliative re-plumbing, and closed her up. This meant her physical recovery from the surgery was much faster, but it also was a grim prognosis. She began chemo or radiation after her incision healed. I proceeded to visit Philadelphia once or twice a month. We had good conversations. I tried to be an unflinching witness. I was visiting the first time she tried acupuncture for her poor digestion (it helped). I would join her and her friend Tim for their regular sitting practice on my visits. On one of my visits I went to a meditation retreat at Pendle Hill with her, to meet her teacher.

Barbara and I talked about the diminishing returns that treatment presented. It was on one of my visits that I went with Barbara and her partner Steve to talk to her oncologist and discontinue further treatment and enter an at-home hospice program. The after-dinner conversation with the household that night included several repetitions of “if Barbara decides to sign up with hospice, you must not call 911 if something happens.”

The last time I saw Barbara was the day she died. I had come down for an overnight visit. She had been to the theater with Steve a couple of days earlier, and had come down from her room on the second floor to the kitchen the day before. When I arrived in the afternoon, she was napping, and I just went up and peeked into her room. An hour or so later her housemate Julie came home and went in to check on her. She came into the kitchen where I was sitting, grabbed my wrist, and hauled me upstairs, saying she wasn’t sure Barbara was still breathing. She got her stethoscope (she’s a midwife), and I stood by while she listened for Barbara’s heartbeat. But there was none.

Barbara’s close female friends and her cousin bathed her body and dressed her in a pretty velvet jacket. They combed her hair (and it was very neat and didn’t look like Barbara at all). The kids needed to eat dinner, of course, and so amidst the calls to the hospice and the funeral director, food was put on the table and everyone ate what they could manage. Barbara’s friend and housemate TL and her partner Steve carried her body out of the house when the funeral director was ready.

A few weeks before Barbara died, I led a chapel service at work based on messages Barbara had written to friends. I concluded with these lines:

What I’m learning from my friend Barbara:
Celebrate something of beauty each day.
What is unfinished? Finish it or let it go.
What is really important? Put things in perspective.
Learn to take care of myself.
Make a difference in the world.
See what is.
Don’t take unnecessary detours.

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