Ain’t No Sunshine

“I’m a lucky man, to count on both hands, the ones that I love. Some folks just have one. Yeah, others, they got none.” (from Pearl Jam’s Just Breathe)

I truly feel that way. And I’m amazed by that fact, given that I am a fairly guarded person whom most people find difficult to get to know. In my defense, my cautiousness is the result of a past littered with too many violations of my trust…and in some of the worst ways you can imagine. There have been those, with beautiful and caring hearts, who’ve breached my force field and, in so doing, been invited to traverse the rocky landscape of my heart. I have loved many and lost a few. I have met some of these individuals in the most unlikely of places. Barbara, “Bobby” to most, was one such person. To this day, I consider her one of my dearest and most cherished of friends.

The first time I saw Bobby, she was getting off a Care-a-Van bus on her way into the day program for developmentally disabled adults at which I’d just begun working. I guess I didn’t really see her so much as hear her. Her voice was loud, but cheerful, singing, “You are my sen sen (sunshine), my only sen sen!” She was an oddly shaped woman. A severe curvature in her spine folded her body into an “S” shaped posture and caused her gait to be a kind of permanent gallop. Her body was pleasantly plump and round looking, as were her chubby, baby-like cheeks. Her poor vision forced her eyes into a squint, most of the time, in spite of the fact she wore glasses. The woman who ran the adult foster care home where Bobby lived was well meaning. She made a point of providing, for the three ladies in her care, a semblance of personal grooming in the form of a “perm” every few weeks. Consequently, all three women had “matching” poodle-style coifs, which, in turn, matched that of the care provider. Being a “salt and pepper” color, Bobby’s “poodle-do” reminded me of the ill-tempered French poodle my grandmother had when I was a young child. Bobby had a much better disposition, though. Unfortunately, attention to facial hair was not part of the aforementioned grooming. As do many women “of a certain age,” Barb had a bit of an issue with “unwanted hair” in the form of a dark but faint mustachio. Hey, man! It happens to the best of us! Personally, I found it endearing! It would be another year before my friendship with Bobby truly bloomed.

I moved to the “senior” (as in senior citizen) part of the day program about a year after I first met Bobby. I’d interacted with her in passing the whole year prior. She was a bit of a flirt…with EVERYONE! I found her sociability enchanting, compared to the non-verbal folks for whom I’d been providing programming. I looked forward to the times I’d run into her during arrival and at dismissal. When the opportunity to work in the senior program presented itself, I leapt at the chance, for a multitude of reasons. How I loved working in that program. I loved my co-workers. I loved the seniors. In hindsight, I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun and laughed so much as I did when I worked there. Staff and consumers alike, it just seemed like we were all kindred spirits. Eventually, the “senior,” site-based program morphed into a community integration program. Our task was to find meaningful connections/relationships for the consumers in the community as a way of enriching their lives. I wanted that for Bobby. I wanted to find someone in the community who would appreciate Bobby for the funny, charming, and deeply caring person she was.

Day after day, we searched for Bobby’s special place. We put miles and miles on my little red, manual transmission Toyota Tercel (that’s right, y’all, I’m one of those rare chicks that CAN drive a stick-shift), in every kind of weather imaginable. Funding and staffing ratios meant that it couldn’t be just Bobby and me. We usually had a third consumer with us, but it was always someone with whom Bobby got along and had things in common. Bobby loved coffee, which she called “cawky,” and egg sandwiches. She loved music and getting her hair and nails “prettied”. She liked children, too…unless or until they became loud and overly boisterous or started crying. When that happened, Bobby had a proclivity for expressing her displeasure with a long string of the harshest obscenities – a problematic situation, needless to say. Bobby especially, however, liked men, and she wasn’t shy about expressing her appreciation for them. “Oh honey! I just loke (like/love) YOU!” she was apt to shout to a guy as far away as the opposite end of a Wal-Mart parking lot. As you can imagine, many a male community member/potential friend found Barbara’s physical appearance, combined with her lack of inhibition, a little off-putting. Try as I might, I never did find a deep, meaningful connection for her…unless you count the one she made with me. I certainly do. It was one of the best of my life. I like to think she felt that way about me, too.

During my time as Bobby’s “community integration” worker, I was experiencing some major personal difficulties. I was raising two young daughters while working full-time and going to school full-time, trying to finish my college degree. I was an economic prisoner in a loveless marriage that had long since run its course. Outside of my job, my life was a mess. I found solace in the time I spent “driving Miss Bobby.” It felt easy, being with her. There were times, when my life outside work was just too much, and, while driving around looking for potential community connections, I simply couldn’t contain my sorrow. The tears would well and then flow and flow. I’d turn up the radio to disguise my soft sobs. Bobby would start singing along to whatever song was on the radio, in that loud cheerful voice, whether she knew the words or not. She’d gently place her hand over mine on the gearshift, to comfort me. “Oh honey,” she’d say, “I juuust loke you.” She did, I’m certain. She saw me for who I am, and she loved me unconditionally. I think she knew I felt the same about her.

Unfortunately, my numerous personal problems eventually took their toll on my ability to function at work. I found myself in a situation where I was given the choice of a demotion or quitting. Although it broke my heart, I chose the later. Of the co-workers that remained after my departure, only one or two had been there with me at the beginning of the community program. They didn’t know…or particularly like…me very well, so they felt no need to keep me up-to-date on Bobby and her life. A little more than a year after I left, I found out, through a friend, that Bobby had cancer and was being cared for at a local nursing home. I went to see her, and it was like no time had passed at all.

She was the same old Bobby, asking to have her hair and nails “prettied.” I was only able to visit every couple of weeks during that time. School was taking up a lot of my time, since I was nearing the end of my undergraduate studies and getting ready to start my internship. One bright spring day, I arrived at the nursing home to visit. I rounded the corner and stepped into Bobby’s room only to find her bed empty and her things gone. I didn’t have to ask. I knew. She was gone. It was all I could do to make it to my car, choking back tears. Once inside my vehicle, the dam broke. I cried and cried all the way home…in that same red, manual transmission Toyota she and I had spent so much time in. No one contacted me about the funeral. I never had a chance to say goodbye. I don’t even know where she’s buried. You can imagine my surprise, however, years later, when I buried my daughter and found Bobby’s foster care provider in the plot right next to hers. So, it seems our lives will be forever entwined, Bobby’s and mine. I hope that I was as good a friend to her as she was to me.

I will never forget the beautiful soul who, without even trying, charmed her way past the barbed wire around my heart. No, you were MY “sen, sen,” Barbara, and ain’t no sunshine now that you’re gone.



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