I talked to my sister Barbie yesterday. It was at the gym. It’s always at the gym.
My chat with Barbie comes right after my second set of pull downs. I speak to my grandmother after the first.
I was never much of a weightlifter and still am not, but thanks to modern gym equipment, over the past few years I have added abdominal crunches, “flies’ and “pull downs” to my routine. These are done in “sets.” Between sets, it’s important to rest a little bit, and during these rests, I pray. Not formal prayers, but conversations. Most are with God or Jesus, but others are with loved ones no longer here. In addition to my sister and grandmother, they include my mom, after the second set of flies, my dad, after the third, and my mother-in-law, Mary, after the fourth.
Others pop in on their own. My Uncle Eddie is a frequent visitor. Especially if the Yankees or Fightin’ Irish are winning.
Do they hear me? I hope so. But even if not, it feels good to remember them.
My talk with Barbie begins with an apology. I tell her I’m sorry I did not spend more time with her. Then I promise to make it up in heaven. After which I ask her to promise there is a heaven. And to put in a good word for me.
Barbie’s been on my mind because May 17 is the day she died. That was in 2003, 16 years ago. Barbie was a year and a day older than I. “Irish twins” we’ve been called.
She was 54 when she died. Death has a way of freezing a person in time, so while I can remember Barbie at various stages of her life — a little girl eating black jelly beans and ruining her white gloves one Easter, a teenager frolicking at the Pittston pool in summer — in my memories she can never be older than 54. The November after she died, I caught up to her in age and am now 15 years older than she ever got to be.
At the end, Barbie spent no more than a few hours in hospice care. Although death was imminent, she viewed consenting to hospice as giving up. And she refused to do that.
Not that she was afraid to die. The faith that convinced Barbie she could beat her cancer also gave her comfort that her spirit would live on even if she could not.
She told me so the last time we communicated on Earth. No words were spoken that night, but no words had to be. I was seated at the foot of her bed as a doctor examined her when Barbie’s eyes met mine. At first, they seemed to say, “Can you believe this?” but quickly softened into, “It’s okay, Eddie. Everything is okay.”
It is remarkably easy for me to conjure up that look in Barbie’s eyes. “Do not be afraid, I go before you always,” the hymn goes, and I picture Barbie delivering that very message with her final look. She went before me always from the time we were born.
We got the phone call just after midnight. My mom was alive then and living with us. She, herself, died a few months later. We were convinced it was hastened by Barbie’s passing.
I sent my mom and my wife to bed about 2 a.m. and then went to the keyboard and wrote about Barbie until dawn. Funny, when my mom died I couldn’t write a single word. But writing about Barbie came easy. I wanted people to know what a beautiful soul she was.
There were five of us Ackerman kids, with me right in the middle between two older sisters and two younger brothers. Barbie was second in line and as such lived her life in the shadow of our older sister, Sheila. Sheila was a beautiful, vivacious, pony-tailed, drum majorette who had her pick of prom dates. Barbie was quiet and chubby and never went to a prom. And it did not bother her one bit. Barbie was completely secure in who she was. And that allowed her to love her sister without an ounce of jealousy. Sheila and Barbie were extremely close.
If anything, Sheila could have been jealous of Barbie. While Sheila might have fretted over how she looked in a bathing suit, Barbie had no such worries. She was always the first one in the pool and the last out. There was never a thought of who was looking at her. That’s called freedom.
Barbie had tremendous faith. Combine her love of Jesus with her love of country music and you can appreciate how she was always telling me about some song I should listen to. One I never forgot was titled “Love is not a Feeling, but an Act of Your Will.”
It was performed by a guy named Don Francisco. I admit I had to look that up. But I’ve always remembered these two lines:
Jesus didn’t die for you because it was fun,
He hung there for love because it had to be done.
Barbie willed herself to love. And to do what had to be done. Right down to comforting her brother with her last look.