Ten years after a terrible loss, a digital smile yields a moment of grace
January 28, 2022
My friend Claudia recently sent me a copy of what I believe to be the last photograph taken of my wife, Barbara Karkabi, before her death 10 years ago today. Barbara is one of 15 people in the picture, posing in front of the Chinese restaurant where we had just enjoyed dim sum on Christmas morning, 2011. I know it was that year because Barbara’s hair is a patch of gray fuzz; she’s holding a wooden cane in her left hand, which is hooked through the arm of a young woman standing in front of her. These visual clues reveal that she had recently completed chemotherapy for the uterine cancer that would claim her life a month after the photo was taken.
Everyone in the photo is smiling (although a couple of faces are obscured by the imperfect arrangement of tall and short bodies), but what’s remarkable to me is how genuine the smile on Barbara’s face looks. It’s not one of those boilerplate, mug-for-the-camera expressions. She looks happy. Perhaps she was buoyed by the company of so many longtime friends, along with her husband and daughter, enjoying an offbeat holiday tradition we had shared since our kids were little. She had just endured the worst nine months of her life — the cancer had surfaced in the spring — and soon her final descent would commence. An ambulance picked her up at our house the next morning as she struggled to breathe, and she never made it back home. But this photo captures a moment of grace, and I’m grateful for that.
I’ve struggled with how to note the tenth anniversary of Barbara’s death. A friend suggested a memorial service, but I decided against that, for reasons I can’t fully explain. On the last day of Barbara’s life, her room at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center was packed with friends and loved ones who had booked costly, last-minute flights or jumped in their cars to come to Houston from California, New York, Louisiana and elsewhere. Many more attended her funeral service a week or so later. I think it’s best to let these folks remember Barbara in their own way, if they happen to glance at the calendar and recognize the date. My mourning for Barbara began with an eruption of shock and sorrow before easing into a softer pattern of memory and longing. That’s as it should be, I think.
Ten years is a pretty big chunk of a life. During that time I’ve retired from my employer of 40 years, found new creative outlets, overcome certain health challenges and acquired some new ones, ventured into the world of online dating (someone changed the rules while I was out of the game, it seems), and found a deeply rewarding new relationship that didn’t start with an app. What would Barbara have made of all this? I can only guess. The dead keep their own counsel.
I’m a bit more confident about how Barbara would have reacted to certain events in the wider world. She would have been thrilled, ecstatic even, when Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win a major party nomination for president in the summer of 2016. Barbara’s dismay at what happened that November, and the events of the following four years, would have been overwhelming. She would have joined the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, and our house might well sport a “Black Lives Matter” banner. The pandemic would have annoyed the hell out of her.
Barbara was a central part of my life for more than 30 years, starting with our first date in June 1980. (We went to the Red Lion, a prime rib joint on South Main, and Barbara ordered Cokes rather than wine because she worried that the tab might be a reach for me). Ours was, of course, a complicated and imperfect relationship, but its sheer magnitude, its ever-present nature, gave it immense power. For better or worse, my wife was a force to be reckoned with. To lose her so suddenly — 10 months from first symptoms to death — left a crater that I’m still struggling to fill.
Our daughter Megan, of course, has felt the loss at least as keenly as I. She was 26 when Barbara died, a year older than I was when my mother died — also of cancer, also in late January, also at M.D. Anderson — in 1980. I can’t speak for Megan, but I know that she says “I miss Mommy” more frequently as the years go by. This may seem counterintuitive, but none of us has access to an instruction manual for grief. It goes where it will, dragging us along with it.
So thank you, Claudia, for finding and sharing this image of Barbara at her best — relishing the fellowship of people she loved. Her deep capacity for friendship was the defining quality of her life. It’s how I choose to remember her today.