Story by Barbara Johnson, Artwork by Susan Mullen
My friend Nancy passed away on January 8, 2011, ironically enough from a ruptured aneurysm that left her brain dead. Prior to my recent diagnosis of a non-ruptured, but dangerous aneurysm, I had been thinking about her a lot. Partly because I was trying to focus on someone else to write about in my memoir class and she kept popping up.
The first time I saw Nancy, I was leaving the office of a woman who just hired me to be the assistant director of a half-way house for recovering alcohol and drug addicted women. Short and solidly built, her dark wool shirt jacket and jeans were topped by a pale face, blonde hair, cut short, and Nordic blue eyes. Making brief eye contact, she passed by clutching the front of her shirt, as if carrying something precious. Later, I would learn, it was a hidden knife.
As part of my new job, I often had to take a van of women to AA meetings and it was there I began to see Nancy week after week. One night, at a relatively small meeting, I spoke of my own story as the child of an alcoholic. Afterwards, she came up to me and asked if we could go for coffee and we made plans to do that. A few days later, sitting across from her in a booth at a local Friendly’s restaurant, the go-to post meeting place for 12 steppers in the area, she nervously began to tell me her story as I ate a Fish-a-ma-jig sandwich. Nodding and encouraging her to go on by my silence, she talked while I ate. At one point, I stopped eating as I felt the deep pain radiating out of her as she paused before revealing the depth of physical, sexual, and ritual abuse she had suffered as a child. So much abuse that she had plummeted into alcohol and heroin addiction, walked the streets, and almost died before she came to recovery. When she finished, she looked up at me tentatively, poised to bolt out of there on a moment’s notice—her blue, blue eyes lasering into mine revealing both fear and hope. We sat silently for a while, locked into a frozen sculpture-like stoniness.
“I am so sorry,” I said simply. Visibly relieved, she finished her coffee and I my sandwich
“Can we do this again?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said and made plans for the next week. I also invited her to come to some Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings too as I felt she could get help there as well in understanding her parents.
Outside we walked to her car, she unlocked it and before getting in, I asked, “Can I give you a hug?” I opened my arms and she clutched me hard, digging her hands into my back. Embarrassed, she jumped in the car and I watched her pull away.
During the next week, I saw her at two meetings. We said hello and goodbye but she remained distant. I got that. She had just dumped a shit load of very personal information on almost a total stranger and couldn’t be sure how I might react. So I decided that when I saw her again, I would make the first move. When I saw her at the next meeting, I went up and asked if she wanted to get coffee afterwards. She agreed.
When I pulled up to the restaurant, I sat for a moment, not sure about how to proceed. What should I say? “You are a miracle, Nancy?” or “The fact you survived means you still have a purpose in the world?” After trying out a few more platitudes, I decided to just go with the truth—not make her feel better or wipe all her problems under the rug. Sliding into the booth, we ordered and sat silent.
“I am not sure what to say to you, Nancy,” I began. “I am honored that you felt enough trust to tell me what must have been so difficult to tell. I do want to be your friend, but I am not sure how to support you from here on out. What do you need?”
She brightened up, like a joyful kid on Christmas morning and said, “Do you know you are the first person who hasn’t run the other way after I told them my story? In fact, you didn’t even bat an eyelash as if I was telling you the most normal things in the world. Do you know how wonderful that feels?”
I was dumbfounded. Many times before in my life, people had described me as unflappable but I didn’t know what they meant until that moment. “People do horrible things,” I finally said and added, “If we can’t talk about them to someone, how can we ever get through them.” As we walked to the car, she withdrew the knife that she had carried for a long time and stated with a finality that meant business. “I think I can think about putting this thing away for good.” And so began a friendship that lasted until that unknown aneurysm blew her out of this world and into the next.
I didn’t find out she had died for four months. Her sister in Hawaii didn’t think it important enough to call me even though she knew I was Nancy’s closest, and some say, only real friend. Since I had spoken to her just the week before she died, a month or month and a half passed before I started thinking about calling her again. When I first moved back to Illinois, we spoke often, sometimes three times a week. But after 15 years, she had made some new friends and we spoke less often unless some type of crisis occurred in either of our lives. She was my go-to friend when illness or death or thorny life situations made me need support and I was that for her, too. The first time I left a message. A week or so passed and life got in the way before I realized that it was odd that she did not get back to me. Since she went on one to three week silent retreats periodically in April, I chalked up the no response to that. A second message left and a second no response. The third time, I emailed her. Again, no response. So, by May I decided to go on the Internet and get her work phone number to leave a message there. When I punched in her name and profession, up came her obituary. Stunned, I read it over and over again until it sank in. Searching through my phone book, I found her sister’s phone number, which Nancy had given me years ago for “just in case” situations. I connected with her and all she could say to me was, “Oh, I completely forgot about you,” and then she explained what had happened.
I mourned Nancy’s loss for a good year and today, even, I still mourn it from time to time. I miss her face. I miss how she could tell how I was just by looking at my aura before I had a chance to say anything. I miss her lessons about meditating and reincarnation and guiding me in my own embracing of my gifts and abilities. But, most of all, I miss her extraordinary courage in picking up the pieces of her life and was glad she had stumbled upon a therapist who was also a Buddhist who led her into practices that glued the pieces of her back together. Because as she revealed her abuse slowly in therapy and the extrasensory abilities that had developed as a result of her abuse, this therapist did not interpret them as abnormal or signs of mental illness, but rather as a positive result of the wondrous ability of the mind to provide comfort and escape from pain that was unendurable, yet had to be endured—signs of a deep and profound spiritual connection trying to transform a terrified child into a whole and healthy woman.
She and I had made a pact a long time ago. If one or the other ever left this world, we would try to give a sign that we were still conscious of our connection. Weird as it seems, we chose to leave feathers, something that I see as a sign of direction, and she adopted. Many a time, when I am in turmoil, not sure of what I am going to do next, I let it go and within a day, if a feather shows up in front of me in my day to day activities, I know she has put it there to let me know that everything is okay. And I know she has been with me this past two months, because when I balked at doing further testing on my head a month ago, I sensed her telling me to go and do it. And so, in a few days, I will submit myself to the doctors who will fix up in my head what ended killing her. Thank you, my friend, and stay well in whatever plane you now reside in.
Author Barbara Johnson, Chicago IL
Barbara Melle Johnson grew up in Park Ridge and Glenview, Illinois, of German and Irish descent. In fact, her father’s parents immigrated to the United States from Germany during the chaos of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, when it took about a million marks to buy a simple loaf of bread. So, Barbara is only two generations removed from what used to be referred to as “the Old World.”
After graduating from Glenbrook South High School, she attended Northern Illinois University and majored in English, always a dangerous proposition because students of literature tended to learn to think for themselves. At Northern, she hung out with the “Wall People,” a group of bohemians, hippies, beatniks, poets, potheads, feminists, and Black Power advocates who all sat next to a wall in Northern’s student center.
Barbara earned her Illinois teachers’ certificate and undertook the noble profession of shaping young minds at Marillac High School, a progressive Catholic school in Northfield, Illinois. She also met this guy named Chris and got married, and soon they started their own tidy little family, as Barbara brought into this sometimes confounding world two beautiful children: Matthew and Emily.
In 1981, the family moved to Boston. She became at substitute teacher at Framingham High School, taught herself Spanish, volunteered for a self-help organization, and worked for a halfway house for women. She wrote a column on child raising for the Framingham Reporter. She also formed great, long-lasting friendships, which is what life is all about when all is said and done. She also rekindled her nascent interest in Native American cultures, attending many powwows and taking part of ceremonies.
Then, in 1996, another big change: moving back to the Chicago area. Barbara resumed her teaching career at Gordon Technical High School. Now she taught Spanish, not English. She also became ever more involved in learning about Native Americans and became a popular docent at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston. In recent years, Barbara has revived her interest in writing by exploring her family and career life in memoir essays at the Irish American Heritage Center.
Artist Susan Mullen, Chicago IL
I have lived in Little Village for twenty-five years. I am an art teacher, a fiction writer, vocalist, and visual artist. I received my BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. ?Little Village is a mosaic of smells, sounds, and images: a vaquero astride a caramel color steed clip clops down my alleyway while a humming bird sips nectar from the morning glories in my backyard. The night air is saturated with the sound of trumpets, guitars, and laughter along with the savory smells of chorizo. ? Merchants, pushing carts or operating storefront businesses, hand paint their signs and embellish their establishments with vibrant color and distinctive images. How can one live in Little Village and not be immersed in Art?
My artwork is very much influenced by this neighborhood. It is spiritual, narrative, decorative, and, like life, it always incorporates an element of chance. Through art I attempt to make sense of the senseless and find joy and order in the chaos. I believe that artworks can work to humanize those who have been labeled and, therefore, dehumanized. I believe that artworks can work to reveal our deep connections and our astonishing uniqueness. I strive to create art that works.