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Barbara, My Muse and Angel, Has Saved Me Forever

A tribute to my baby, who passed away in her sleep last week

My wife, Barbara, used to tell me that “if she had been there,” at the launch of the Baseball Ferry, when I gave the 1989 keynote address in Manhattan, she “would have sashayed across my line of sight and told me a couple of jokes.”

More recently, she told me that, when I walked into the classroom at UCLA for a fiction writing class in June 1996, she said to herself, “Look!  There’s a New York Jew for me, and I don’t have to go to New York to get one.”

As it turns out, I am originally from New Haven, Conn., and Barbara was originally from Detroit, but we both moved to Los Angeles, at least partly because we loved old movies.

We bonded over the Bogey-Bacall picture, Dark Passage, an obscure film noir from the 1940s.

And we bonded over language. 

When my late psychiatrist, Dr. Michael McGrail, asked Barbara what she and I had in common, Barbara did not hesitate.  “Language is where we meet.”

Dr. McGrail, who was trying to protect me, looked a bit nonplussed, but then he nodded his head.

He knew Barbara was right, because he knew how much I loved language.    

At that UCLA class in 1996, I sat just a seat or two away from Barbara, who would later tell me that, from the moment I entered the class, she noticed “my merry eyes and my cute little grin.”

What I noticed about Barbara was her demure gaze, the way she averted her eyes; and I, of course, recognized her class, her elegance, her dignity and her beauty.

I can recall approaching Barbara at one of the first classes, crouching down and talking briefly to the woman, who was seated to Barbara’s left.

After a few moments, I turned to Barbara and began chatting with her.

Barbara would later tell me that she initially had felt quite sad that I was talking to the other woman, who was about my age, but Barbara then cheered up when I turned to her. 

And Barbara began to feel badly for the other woman.

I asked Barbara her name, which, at the time, included a surname of Tracy.

“Mrs. Spencer?” I asked strategically, hoping that she was not married.

“No,” Barbara said with her demure gaze.  “I’m a widow.”

I was secretly or not so secretly delighted that Barbara was single.

I was also quite intrigued by a line in her mystery novel, A Murder in the Family, in which she wrote of young men, “Once shown the way, will always return.”

I told her how much I admired that line.

Barbara smiled and told me that she knew of an older woman, who felt that way about younger men.

While most of the students in the class were working on their first novels, Barbara was working on a four-part mystery series.

She had completed drafts of two mysteries and had notes for two others.

I was impressed with her prolific output, and I was thrilled when Barbara wrote of my sample chapter:

“Baseball has never been a religious experience to me, but this is so clearly smart writing that you have convinced me” to change my view.

Writing classes can be nasty places, oozing with petty jealousies and rivalries.

In that class at UCLA, we had the predictable array of lawyers and ex-screenwriters, even a few people who had been in a psych ward or were headed for one.

I was in the latter category.

What I did not know was that Barbara was battling chronic fatigue, as well as grief.

She was living all alone, with her cat, after the death of her husband.

She had gone to several doctors, not one of whom knew how to handle her illness.

Some told her that the symptoms were all in her head.  Others said that chronic fatigue itself did not exist.

That did not stop Barbara, a petite woman then in her mid-fifties, from driving over to UCLA at twilight for three writing classes over a six-month period.

She did not meet me until the third class, which demonstrated nothing if not persistence and courage.

Barbara was always brave, but she never thought of herself that way.

She was so modest and demure, so gentle and imaginative.

Barbara was just 20 years old, and I was not yet born.

But, as Barbara would later tell me, she was “waiting for me.”

She established her residency in California by working for a year for an insurance adjuster, and then she started taking classes at Long Beach State for $50 a semester.

She knew that Gov. Pat Brown had set up the best public school system in the country, and she knew that California needed public school teachers.

And that is what Barbara became, a public-school kindergarten teacher in Anaheim.

She would later get her Masters in Literature at Cal State Fullerton, while she was teaching public school.

Unlike most of the people I knew growing up, including myself, Barbara was the first person in her family to go to college.

And her father, Floyd, was so proud of her.

Before he passed away from pancreatic cancer in Barbara’s first year of teaching, her dad made sure to ask the man in the hospital bed next to his to phone Barbara and tell her just how proud he was of her.

While Barbara had two bad marriages before she met me, she got so much love from her students.

She taught the first Head Start class.  She learned Spanish so that she could communicate with many first-generation American families.

And she introduced her kindergarteners to Macbeth, a class that she taught on Halloween.

Barbara used to have her students dress up and play the three witches, with their dark hats and broomsticks, and she would have them dance around a cauldron and sing the ditty, “Double, double, toil and trouble.”

Their favorite part was the end of the ditty, when they got to cackle.

The kids loved their Macbeth class so much that, for the rest of the school year, they would say to Barbara, “Let’s do Shakespeare, Mrs. Beffritz!”

Beffritz was a hilarious mispronunciation of the last name of Barbara’s first husband.

Barbara did not tell me until fairly recently that she had waiting lists for her classes, two sets of waiting lists, one for 3-year-olds, one for 4-year-olds.

The kids revered her so much that, when they entered first grade, they would frequently come back to Barbara’s classroom and bow their heads outside of her door.

Such was the level of respect and love that the children had for Barbara.

I used to tell Barbara that she had enriched the lives of her kindergarteners forever, that her former students could tell their children and grandchildren that, if they had a teacher who was a fraction as good as Barbara, they would have a wonderful time in kindergarten.

Barbara used to say that if I had been one of her students, she would have had a “crush” on me.  She would have said, “Grow up fast, Bobby Jaffee!”

I often told her that it was poetic justice that I, after having the worst kindergarten teacher ever, an anti-Semite who stuck me in the “dunce corner,” ended up with the best kindergarten teacher ever in Barbara.

I really do believe that God sent Barbara, my goddess, to me.  He sent her to save me, to be my Muse and angel.

Barbara always said that God is love.

That may be a Christian concept, but it is one that I embraced with Barbara, and I always will.

Barbara had many health problems over the past 10 years.

She had about five bouts of pneumonia from 2010 to 2012, before she had a successful empyema surgery.

She had surgery on both of her knees.

And she had pain issues from spinal stenosis, carpal tunnel disorder and arthritis.

For the past decade or more, I became her caregiver, as well as her husband.

I would walk her to the bathroom in the middle of the night, carry her up and down the stairs, and push her in a wheelchair.

Of course, that is not to say that Barbara did not take care of me even in her somewhat debilitated state.

She loved shopping from catalogs, from which she ordered me tons of clothes, lots of green and blue T-shirts, my two favorite colors.

She wanted me to look sharp, rather than like the beach bum I had been in Venice, Calif.

Barbara made me charming cards, decorated with illustrations and poetry, all of them works of art.

Because in recent months Barbara did not feel that she had a good prescription for reading glasses, I would read aloud my articles and sometimes excerpts from my fiction.  And Barbara would give me thoughtful and loving comments, just as she had on my first chapter years ago in that 1996 UCLA writing class.

Barbara always said that I cured her of chronic fatigue and grief when we first met. 

That may be so, but she saved my life, as I always told her.

Years before I met Barbara, she had volunteered at the Suicide Prevention Center in Los Angeles on the graveyard shift for five years.  She wrote a mystery on the subject, Murder Prevents Suicide.

In January 1999, when my parents called Barbara and told her that I was suicidal and diagnosed with schizophrenia, Barbara told them that she was not afraid of mental illness.

She immediately drove over to my Venice apartment and showed up with a big smile on her face, while she held a liter of Vernors and a liter of Coke.

Even though I was quite ill and swamped with delusions that I was going to be framed for a series of violent crimes, I had a premonition that day in Venice, a kind of telepathic clue that Barbara might come to see me.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if Barbara came by?” I said to myself.

Soon afterwards, there was a knock on my door; and it was Barbara, who had a sweet, pixie-like smile on her face.

If this seems magical, it is because Barbara was and always will be my little sprite, as sublime as a Shakespearean heroine.

She was obviously not like the witches from Macbeth; she was much more like Cleopatra, of whom it is said, “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”

Barbara was indeed ageless.  She never stopped using creams and potions, makeup and hairsprays, so that she could look as beautiful as possible.

She even got her ears pierced a couple of days before she passed away.  It made her very happy to look stylish and to be recognized for her beauty.

She often cited an editor from Vogue, who famously said, “If you look good, you feel good.”

Barbara was the most remarkable beauty.  She had smooth skin, the softest blue eyes, and hair that still retained much of its blond color.

Just a week ago or so, when I was pushing Barbara in a wheelchair at the Americana, a shopping complex in Glendale, Calif., a woman, who stepped with us into the elevator, said to Barbara, “You’re beautiful.”

As the woman, who was probably in her late thirties or early forties, left the elevator with her family, she turned around again and repeated, “You’re beautiful.”

Barbara turned 80 in June, and we celebrated by staying at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, a favorite spot of Barbara’s from long ago.

Every time she had a birthday, or anytime anyone would ask her age, I would always say that Barbara was “twelve, or two.”

Sometimes, Barbara thought of me as her surrogate daddy, even though I was 26 years younger than she.

In the past nine to ten months, after she had a severe pneumonia, Barbara lost more than a quarter of her body weight.

Her weight dropped below 100 pounds.

Our primary doctor, who had seen Barbara through many bouts of pneumonia from years ago, conducted a number of tests to try to figure out why Barbara had lost so much weight.

As it turned out, Barbara had a small carcinoma in her right breast, which was removed successfully in July, although that probably had little to do with Barbara’s weight loss.

The truth is that Barbara had had respiratory problems for years, combined with acid reflux.

But none of these issues stopped Barbara from enjoying her life.

She made an art project out of our bedroom, particularly in recent months.  She purchased two beveled mirrors that we hung from the wall, so as to reflect more light in the room.

She had me take pictures of many of her favorite people, which we framed and likewise hung on the wall.

And as recently as a few days before her passing, Barbara asked me to buy burgundy red sheets at Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Barbara was so happy with the sheets and the color motif, her favorite, that she asked me to buy similarly hued towels and towel mats too.

Last Monday, Labor Day, I did so, and Barbara immediately covered our bed with one such burgundy towel and towel mat.  They kept her comfortable.

Early in the morning on Labor Day, I also reached a milestone in my fiction, my eight-book opus that I had started working on when I met Barbara in 1996.

I had written some experimental fiction in the early 1990s, but I really did not start composing a novel until I met Barbara in 1996.

And it wasn’t until Barbara and I went to Rome in May-June 2014 that I had my creative breakthrough, when I realized that the eight books I was working on all featured the same protagonist.

I can still recall the epiphany, the delight I felt, as I sat there, in the middle of the night, on a couch just a few feet from Barbara, while she rested in our hotel room near the Spanish Steps.

I was extremely joyful and excited, even though I knew that I was going to need to reshape my fiction and spend many more years on a project that I had begun in 1996.

Barbara and I sometimes talked about the ecstasy experienced by King David when he danced at the sight of the Ark of the Covenant being carried back into Jerusalem.

As Barbara knew better than I, David’s then-wife, Michal, did not approve of David’s dancing. 

But Barbara, like Bathsheba, was filled with and always will overflow with joy, with love for literature, love for music, love for language, love for old movies, love for Jesus, love for God.

Harold Bloom once speculated that the J writer, the most influential writer of the Hebrew Bible, was a woman and that she may have lived in King Solomon’s court.

She may have even been Bathsheba.

Sometimes, I would call Barbara my J writer, my Bathsheba.  Barbara was, of course, a writer herself as well as my Muse.

When I think back on our trip to Rome, I recall that Barbara slept 19 hours on our first night and maybe 17 the next, while I got almost no sleep for the entire trip.

I remember pushing Barbara in a wheelchair to the Piazza del Popolo on our third night at the hotel, her first night out, and then venturing the next few days to the Vatican, which she loved, the Colosseum, and other spots.

I also remember how, on that trip, Barbara awakened several times at 3 a.m., while I was busy writing or reading.

We would order vegetarian lasagnetta with an emulsion cheese sauce, or pizza, and have a feast.

Our trip to Rome, the Eternal City, was the best trip either one of us ever had.

From that point on, for the next five years or so, I integrated my eight novels into one opus, until I reached the milestone last week on Labor Day.

Although I had never set out to write a book of any specific length, I told myself that 5,000 pages was a worthy figure. 

Upon hearing my news, Barbara told me on Labor Day that she wanted to celebrate the next day, Tuesday of last week. 

She wanted to honor me by going to a restaurant with “the fountains.”

Barbara was having trouble speaking, given all of her acid reflux, which compounded her respiratory issues.

As a result, I did not know which restaurant she meant.

At first, I thought she was referring to Amici, our favorite Italian restaurant, at the Americana in Glendale.

But Barbara actually meant the fountains in the lobby of the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where we had many special meals.

Although Barbara tended to eat like a little mouse, she and I loved having our celebratory meals.

I can still recall the first Thanksgiving we had together in 1997, when I took a photograph of Barbara’s oven, which contained turkey, roast beef, potatoes and macaroni and cheese.

Barbara stopped cooking a long time ago because she had problems walking and using her hands.

For many years, we went out for our feasts.

Just a few weeks ago, Barbara and I went back to Zono Sushi in Glendale, where I had proposed to Barbara in 2000.

Back in 2000, I had gotten down on my knee in the restaurant, and Barbara had thought that I, who had just started boxing lessons, was stretching.

When I asked her to marry me, Barbara was initially surprised.  “Really?” she said, before she told me that she would love to marry me.

Maybe, she was surprised because I was a good deal younger than she.

But the age difference never bothered us one bit. 

We were and are the same person.  I just happen to be a man, and she an angel.

Two Fridays ago, I drove over to the City of Industry, east of Pasadena, to pick up a nebulizer for Barbara, because our insurance company, like most insurance companies, did not cover an inhaler beyond the sample we received from Barbara’s pulmonologist.

Cantankerous as she sometimes was, Barbara decided that she only wanted to use the nebulizer once on that Friday, rather than the three times specified on the prescription.

She also did not want to sit up straight when she used the medical device.  For that matter, Barbara did not like to sit up when she ate food or when she drank her favorite soft drinks, Coke and Vernors.

Barbara liked to lounge.  And, given all that she had done for me, given all the love that she had bestowed the planet, she was entitled to that.

When I e-mailed Barbara’s pulmonologist and told him that Barbara was coughing pretty badly on Sunday and Monday of last week, he confirmed for me that Barbara did need to use the nebulizer three times a day, or else it would not be effective.

I gently told Barbara this on Labor Day night, as we prepared to go to bed.

“Tomorrow, I will be a better patient,” said Barbara.

Years ago, when I was a youth, the rabbi at my temple and others used to ask me if I believed in God.

I would say yes, but I said so without conviction.

I was just a little kid, and I did not have any idea about life.

That Barbara came along and saved me at a time when I was suicidal tells me that there is indeed a God.

Recently, Barbara said to me that I had likely kept her alive for many years.

Maybe, she was sensing her mortality.

She started to talk to me more about her father and her Aunt Lenora, whose pictures we hung up in our bedroom.

She often talked about our friend Lupita, whom Barbara loved like a daughter; she loved to look at a photo of the two of them illuminated in our room.

She tried to steer me toward seeing more of our good friends, like Robin Blakely, our longtime pal and book publicist.

And Barbara could not stop talking about those wonderful kids whom she taught in kindergarten.

“Let’s do Shakespeare, Mrs. Beffritz!”

Years ago, I could have been one of Barbara’s kindergarten students in her classroom.

I don’t think I grew up fast, which Barbara said she would have urged me to do, had she met me when I was a little boy.

“Grow up fast, Bobby Jaffee!  I’ll wait for you.”

It took me 30 years in my life, before I met Barbara, but for the past 23 years, I was the star pupil in her classroom.

Barbara taught me how to live, how to write, how to appreciate cats and Bob Dylan music, and most of all, how to be grateful for the eternal pairing that I will always have with her, my goddess.

Barbara was surely right that God is love.

We have all heard the Yiddish term, besheret.

Barbara was and is, without a doubt, my soul mate, but she was and always will be more than that for me.

Like Cleopatra or Bathsheba, Barbara cannot be contained. 

She peeks between the books on her bookshelf, sneaking pictures of me while I read.  She hovers over me as I write.

She is as infinite and eternal as the J writer or the Shekinah, the bride or female essence of God.

Barbara has made my life and hers a work of art.  It is our opus.

The Ark of the Covenant will always reign in our home, because Barbara has infused us with love forever.

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