It was one “Throwback Thursday” picture I would have never thought I would be posting on Facebook. I found it a few weeks ago among my mom’s collection of family photos. She always kept pictures that she deemed significant and, even though I had thrown my copy of this one away 29 years ago, Mom was right to have held on to it. I should have kept mine, too. It captured a moment in time that it took me a few decades to appreciate.
When I was 17 years old, and a senior in high school, I was loaded with enthusiasm, spirit and dreams. Pretty sure that covers it. That was all I had. Virtually no real ideas about my future, no plan to help me prepare for it and a distaste for formal education and convention that bordered on the obsessive.
I had way too much confidence and way too little common sense, an affliction, I am now relieved to report, that seems to come as standard equipment for most American teenagers. In retrospect, it all seems so perfectly normal and par for the course.
Mixed in amidst all the disadvantages and hormonal insanity Mother Nature and the Good Lord dealt me, there was one thing, actually one person, who kept me focused during senior year, and well-behaved enough that I graduated without incident, all while holding a steady part-time job and a busy community theater schedule. Her name was Barbie, and she was the first girl I ever really loved.
Falling so hard for her was maybe the easiest thing I ever did. Not only was she beautiful, but she was brilliant, athletic and effervescent to the point that she could light up a room just by walking into it. She constantly amazed me in so many ways; her girl-next-door good looks deceptively disguised the fact that she could handle a horse like a seasoned cowboy. She was the perfect girlfriend for me in so many ways, and I did my level best to try to stay worthy of that. I was rarely able to pull it off.
There was a lot more to the profound importance of our time together than just the high-school sweetheart connection. Truth be told, I was far closer to her family that year than I was to my own. Her parents were unlike any adults I had ever known. They were generous, intuitive and supportive… and, unlike my own mom and dad, they seemed to understand the man I was becoming far more than the boy I had always been. For most of the time I dated Barbie, I spent more waking hours in the Howard’s house than I did my own.
Barbie’s dad was (and still is) heavily involved in the arts. As a talented actor and musician, and a professional scientist by trade, Gene was also one of the coolest men I had ever known. While he understood I was undecided about career plans, and less than serious about the schooling it was going to take to put me on a productive path, he made sure I knew what his life’s experience had shown him in spades. He was emphatic, almost frantic, in his admonition that to be happy in your chosen field, and in your life, you better have a passion for your work that can get you out of the bed every day for the rest of your life. It was a theme much repeated and emphasized in many conversations over many months.
That thought and theory became something of a “commandment” for me, and of all the advice and guidance I have gotten in my life, I honestly believe that may have been the most profound and important.
While Barbie’s mom did not have the gregarious personality of her husband, she was as fine a woman as I have ever known, and far more accommodating and nurturing than my own mother could be at that time. Not my mom’s fault, mind you. No teenage boy wants to lean on his mother, at least not while he is living under her roof and her rules. Joan offered something of a refuge for me. She counseled without judgment, and appreciated my enthusiastic affection for her daughter even though I know it had to be overbearing at times.
An elementary school teacher by profession, she was used to adjusting to the unique personalities of dozens of kids a year. As a result, her patience with me was almost endless. I hope she always knew my heart was in the right place, even if, in practice, my presentation was awkward.
And then there was Karen, Barbie’s little sister. Even though she was three years younger than we were, I never noticed it. I swear that young lady was born with the soul of a 60-year-old, flute-playing poet. She was into the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, and to this day remains the only 15-year-old human being I ever genuinely enjoyed getting to know. She had all the bright-eyed enthusiasm a brilliant student her age should have, but none of the morose self absorption that seemed to infect her peers.
Much like her parents, I was always thought that in some small way, she was family to me. Ironically, she ended up in the same profession I would soon be choosing. Unlike me, she did it the right way. Before embarking on a career that would take her into the world of network television news, she would earn a degree from the Grady School of Journalism at UGA. I would have been so proud to be able to call her my own little sister, just like Barbie was always so intensely proud.
Only rarely do teenage relationships survive beyond a year or two, and this one was no exception. Eventually college took Barbie to Athens, and with that, she moved on from me. Not surprisingly, I did not handle it well and, looking back, while I wince at my immaturity and certainly regret my impetuous anger, I can understand the way that young man felt.
Over the years I have been able to tell her family how important they were in my life, and how I hope they have forgiven and forgotten my youthful indiscretions and mistakes.
All of this has come back to me in recent weeks, first with the discovery of this picture, and now with word from Karen that Barbie’s courageous battle with cancer is coming to an end that will not include a recovery.
Forty-eight-year-old Barbie is a respected medical professional. Her friends and colleagues tell me she has had an amazing impact as a nurse practitioner, touching and guiding countless careers, and comforting thousands of patients. She is a treasured wife, and the devoted mother of two boys. And yes, just as she was when she was 17, she is, and always will be, a beloved daughter and a cherished big sister.
I have often heard it said, but never known it to be more true, “I am better for having known her.”
Yes, I am.
We had a tiny sliver of time in each other’s lives a long, long time ago… but it is an experience for which I will be eternally grateful.