By Suzy Barile

“Does Emma know she absolutely cannot die on a Monday?” I asked my brother-in-law, Michael. We were in the lobby of the emergency room, waiting for Dr. Anderson to emerge and tell us what he’d found during my mother-in-law Emma’s latest trip to the hospital.

“Does she realize that Cynthia would never cancel her Circle meeting for her own mother’s funeral?”

My voice dripped with sarcasm. This weekly Thursday afternoon meeting of Cynthia’s, where she supposedly coordinated all the behind-the-scenes volunteer activities for her church, had been the bane of our caretaking efforts for Emma over the last few months, ever since she’d been diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer.

Never mind that this was Emma’s third bout with the disease that had also taken the lives of her older sister, her father, and her youngest brother. Never mind that even while undergoing aggressive chemotherapy, she continued to care for her grandchildren – Cynthia's children, and there were five in all, from age 16 down to 3 -- as her middle daughter worked dead-end job after dead-end job.

No, Cynthia had never in the dozen or so years I’d been married to her oldest brother been able to let go of any sliver of her own self-importance long enough to think of anyone else. I often wondered if her children saw it. Did they feel put upon, especially as the oldest children cared for the younger ones -- changing diapers, putting them to bed, entertaining them during Cynthia's favorite weekly television show?

Their father, Thomas, had died two years before – a heart attack, the doctor said. He failed to note the fact that Thomas had been in another woman’s arms when fatally struck.

With a modest life insurance payout and the children’s Social Security benefits, Cynthia had tried to continue living in the manner she imagined a middle-class widow would. There were dance lessons for the girls and music for the boys, but no sports, Cynthia insisted. She feared the children would be injured, even in a non-contact sport such as swimming or tennis. It was probably just as well. Their after-school activities changed as often as Cynthia did jobs. No team or teammate would ever be able to depend on a long-term commitment.

Emma always said her daughter's problem with keeping a job was because none of her employers ever realized or understood the stress placed on Cynthia as a single parent. But truthfully, her high school education afforded few career choices, and if Cynthia wasn’t late for work, then she was having to make up time. She was always running late, even when it came to picking up the children at her mother’s house where the youngest three stayed. When Cynthia tired of the chaos, she’d quit her job and vow to find something more amenable to her lifestyle needs.

Everyone knew her ways, even my family members. They had attended enough joint events over the years with my husband’s family. My sisters simply said, “That’s Cynthia,” each time she was late to a family get-together or complained of unreasonable work hours and difficult bosses.

Yet more and more, her no-one-else-in-the-world-matters attitude was playing out in her children. When the younger ones were at their grandmother's house, they loved to make mess, but never cleaned up. The older children's grades showed a lack of study and interest in homework, and regularly they were called into the principal’s office for mischievous deeds. Cynthia called the misdeeds "cute pranks" and never punished one child.

It was no wonder, then, that when she was asked to head the women’s Circle at her church, all who knew her well wondered how she’d manage it. This volunteer effort involved making certain there were flowers on the altar each Sunday morning, that the communion plates and cups were cleaned and polished after each use, that cards were sent weekly to parishioners in need of prayers, and that staffing was found each week for the nursery during the two-hour Sunday school and church service.

With five children, and a mother on the verge of dying, there was no way Cynthia's ways would or could change. But because she didn't see these problems in her life, and apparent those who asked her to serve didn't either, she agreed to head the group during the upcoming church year.

Silly women, I thought, when I heard Cynthia had been tapped to lead the Circle. They'll soon learn they can’t trust her to follow through on anything, not even with delegating tasks.

No sooner had fall activities at the church gotten under way when all her family knew about her became clear to the women in the Circle -- as well as to other church members. Because Cynthia never got around to delegating any tasks, and certainly (she said) couldn't be expected to do them all herself, Saturday evenings found one or another Circle member making phone calls to see who had flowers in bloom in their garden, or running by the grocery store to find and purchase the least-sad-looking bouquet.

On Wednesday before the first Sunday of each month, when the church held its communion service, two sopranos (also members of the Circle) met after choir practice to rinse off any sticky cups and wipe away any tarnish spots on the plates.

And thank goodness for the church secretary who began keeping a supply of prayer cards and envelopes, stamps, and a membership roster at hand so when the self-appointed card sender stopped by Monday morning, all was ready.

The task of getting help for the nursery, however, was a whole other problem. Young parents weary of their own charges looked forward to a couple hours of calm on Sundays and seldom signed up to help. Each week, frantic calls went out late on Saturday afternoon, trying to catch those planning to attend Sunday school and the church service and coercing them into watching over the roomful of rambunctious babies and toddlers.

As usual, Cynthia was oblivious to what went on behind her back while she enjoyed the status of being leader of the Circle. At its monthly meetings, the good church women who made up its membership never said a word to Cynthia. Instead, they chose to count down the Sundays until spring when her leadership role ended. They also agreed to rotate the task from that point on.

Despite the fact that Cynthia did none of the work assigned to her circle, much less serve as a responsible leader, she surely would never miss a monthly meeting. Waiting for Dr. Anderson to speak to us, I reiterated to Michael what I knew to be true: "If Emma dies on a Monday, the funeral will most likely be on Thursday, three days later.

“Cynthia won’t cancel her meeting for anyone.”

Michael was a bachelor who lived far enough away that he was called on to help only every once in awhile. He shrugged and replied, “Well, you know Cynthia.”

Just then Dr. Anderson emerged through the double doors separating the lobby from the emergency room examining area. Grave concern showed on his face.

“It doesn’t look good,” he said. “The CAT scan shows the tumors have spread more aggressively than we’d have liked. I think the best we can do is keep her comfortable.”

And so it was that when Emma breathed her final breath, at 12:05 a.m. on a Tuesday, Cynthia also breathed a sigh of relief. The funeral, planned for three days later, would be on Friday.

Saying Good-bye to Memories

By Suzy Barile

When is it considered too soon after they leave home to give away your children’s belongings? In my case, my youngest sister took over my bedroom after I moved into an apartment my junior year of college and took very nearly everything I owned – which wasn’t much considering I was the oldest of seven!! Each time I came home for a visit, I was “allowed” to sleep in “her” room.

My daughter, however, is an only child, and for seven years was the only grandchild on both sides of a family that included seven adoring aunts and uncles and four sets of grandparents. As you can imagine, over the course of her infancy and toddlerhood, and from pre-school through 12th grade, we saved a lot of stuff. In what we labeled “forever save” boxes are Jen’s schoolwork, souvenirs from travels, trinkets from shopping trips to the mall, special items she just couldn’t part with, and countless dolls and stuffed animals.

For many parents, school projects and favorite toys provide the most difficulty when it comes to deciding just what goes and what stays. And for how many years? For example, I have living in a basket at the foot of my bed Oglethorpe, a teddy bear who was bigger than me when my Uncle Bill proudly presented him after I was born, plus my baby doll Tootles, who is missing hair and fingers, clothes and shoes, and my mother’s Dorothy Lamour doll. This film star of the 1930s, 40’s and 50’s was best known for her roles in the “Road to…” movies with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and was honored with a china doll featuring a head of long, dark brown hair and a face made up to resemble her.

I’m certain the doll once was attired in a fancy outfit such as the Edith Head-designed silk and cloth-of-gold sarongs Lamour wore in so many of her movies, but for as long as I can remember, she’s been dressed in a baby’s outfit, origin unknown. Nonetheless, this doll was a treasured Christmas gift that stayed with my mother until she had a little girl who could love it as much – and then it became mine.

Clearly my family has a hard time getting rid of anything labeled sentimental, even though I recently absolved myself of any guilt for giving away the fancy pencils Jen purchased for a quarter every Friday at her elementary school store – the last one from June 1993 when she finished 5th grade. When I arrived at my appointed time last week to help students in the Wake Tech Writing Center, I presented a dozen or so brightly colored pencils bearing such slogans as “Green is Good” and “Happy Halloween” to the center’s coordinator. I promised to continue bringing them in by the handful until the plastic box in which they had been so lovingly stored was empty. Pens and pencils seem to disappear quickly from the center, so he was more than delighted to accept these cast-offs.

But fancy pencils that cost a quarter are different from what I discovered ruined after our 14-year-old hot water heater died and flooded the basement: In water-soaked cardboard boxes and plastic bags were dozens of Jen’s dolls and stuffed animals – soggy, smelly, mildewed. As I sorted through the moldy remains, I whispered into the phone to my sister -- the younger one who moved into my bedroom all those years ago -- “I won’t tell her yet.”

Even though Jen was emphatic when she graduated from college that she wanted nothing she hadn’t already taken from her bedroom, I’d been hesitant to clean out a small chest containing letters from her Nana, who died just two years ago. And now I wasn’t certain I should part with the Baby Smurf, Rainbow Bright, plastic Snoopy, and hand-made rag doll that were gifts from her Granny, who died in 1991. So into the washer and dryer they went, on the hand-wash cycle, with my fingers crossed that today’s advanced technology would leave them in good shape. After an extra wash and two drying times, I was not disappointed.

Now I must tell Jen that many of her stuffed animals and dolls were ruined, even though I’d saved a few, and face what for me will probably be the sad response that she still doesn’t want any of her childhood belongings. Should that happen, I will give some away to children who will love them. But I believe I’ll be getting a larger basket for the foot of my bed!

Sporting Gone Awry

By Suzy Barile

Like every good UNC-Chapel Hill grad, and as my parents – both alums – dutifully taught me as a child, I yell, “Go to hell, Duke” at the end of singing the UNC fight song. I lovingly taunt my other-ACC school friends when the Tar Heels beat them, and proudly wear Carolina Blue, whether we win or lose.

But I also ask “What’s a Rutgers?” while reminiscing the drubbing one time of an ACC team by this seemingly unknown school, because I always support ACC teams when they play outside the conference. And I do it even if it’s Duke or Maryland, which I have disdained equally since a Terrapin med school graduate made a vertical cut, instead of the favored horizontal one, on my Tar Heel abdomen when my daughter was born 27 years ago.

All these likes and dislikes have been foremost on my mind in recent weeks as Ben McCauley fouled and cried “not in my house” to a bench-warming Tar Heel player with a chance to make a slam-dunk at NC State, when Duke players sang an unflattering song to Ty Lawson (forgetting and forgiving, I suppose, the antics of JJ Reddick), when Maryland’s fans chanted the name of one of their hard-hitting players while a Blue Devil player lay motionless on the floor, and as Maryland coach Gary Williams called for his students to raise the noise level in Comcast Center during the Terp’s game against the Tar Heels.

When, I wonder, did the term “visitor” become synonymous with “enemy”?
Remember the days when scoreboards read “Home” and “Visitor,” indicating the other team wasn’t native to the court or field, but was there with an invitation? When guests visit in my home, I ask such questions as “Can I get you anything?” “What would you like to drink?” and “Are you comfortable?” and beg them to “Make yourself at home.” Perhaps I’m glad when visitors finally leave because life can resume some sense of normalcy, but never do I taunt and berate and make life miserable for them.
Now, I must also admit I have done my share of banging on the bleachers on an opponent’s third-down attempt; I once threw ice at the bald spot on Lefty Driesell’s head when the Terps were playing NC State; and I let out a loud “boooooo” when the poor little boy who agreed to pose as a Duke fan comes on the jumbo screen and talks up the benefits of ACC sportsmanship. That child’s parents will think twice the next time they sign a commercial contract for him!

While in Washington, D.C., for Barack Obama’s inauguration, I was taken aback by the presence of 2 million people crammed into a tight spot and all getting along, even as we waited an hour to exit a Metro station. Only once was I somewhat apprehensive of what might happen if one person in a block-full of people trying to get out of the National Mall stumbled and fell. Would that person be trampled like we hear happening in European soccer stadiums? Would anyone care? As several young men standing on street barricades tried to direct the throng on how to undo the logger jam, I decided we would all be OK.

How can it be that I am not fearful in that crowd of strangers, but I know how I would be treated as a UNC fan wearing Carolina blue at a Duke or Maryland or Georgia Tech or Miami or Boston College or UVa or Virginia Tech or NC State or Florida State or Wake Forest or Clemson home game? Been there, done that, as the old saying goes.
I so badly want to go to a Tar Heel basketball game and I have season tickets for UNC football. But the more I see and hear how we as home fans treat the visitors, the more I wonder if my support is encouraging this unseemly behavior. Where does it stop?

WE Did It!

By Suzy Barile

Within hours of Barack Obama’s 2008 election win, plans to travel with my daughter Jen to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration were under way.

This would be our third presidential swearing in, for we attended the Clinton ceremonies in 1992 and 1996, though my reasons now were far different than before. Seen as a return to youthful leadership for the nation, the Clinton-Gore ticket represented my generation, and I was thrilled to be a part.

However, neither win brought the tears that fell so unexpectedly on the evening of Nov. 4 as I acknowledged to Jen, “I never thought in my lifetime that I would see a black man as president.” These tears were deep-seated, born of having grown up in a time when segregation was rejected by the courts and that decision grudgingly accepted by the people.

We traveled to Washington on Sunday and visited with family on Monday, but our Inauguration Day plans were a bit loose. I viewed getting into the nation’s capital much as I do finding free parking for Cary’s Lazy Daze and the N.C. State Fair: as a long-time attendee of each, I refuse to pay to park at either.

“No sweat,” I told my cousin, with whom we eventually decided to stay. “We’ll take the Metro in and out. And we’ll try to see both the ceremony and the parade.”
Clearly I had yet to fathom what an estimated 2-million plus others intent on attending would truly look like.

All I can now say is “HA!” Yet it is a “HA!” filled with a great deal of satisfaction.

We did take the Metro, wisely buying our tickets the day before to avoid long lines. And though packed like sardines in the last car of the second train to enter the station once we arrived at 6:40 a.m., then standing and holding on tightly for the hour-long ride into L’Enfant Plaza, we remained confident of a good viewing spot.
Because the station’s escalators couldn’t handle the weight of the thousands of riders, it took another hour to make our way out of the station to daylight. Still we were optimistic. After a 30-minute, eight-block walk to the closest place we could find near a Jumbotron, we were three-quarters of the way between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, just east of the Washington Monument, at the intersection of 15th Street and Independence Avenue.

We made it in just minutes before police closed the mall to visitors: It was full, and our ability to see the huge TV screen by peering between and over the shoulders of those standing in front of us was that confirmation.

For the next three hours, despite frozen fingers and toes, and a cold northwest wind blowing steadily, we waited and watched. It was clear America had united behind this first for our country, this son of a black African father and a white American mother. We saw no protestors, though they may have been present. We experienced no ugly exchanges as those in the crowd pressed against one another to catch a glimpse of the ceremony. We heard of no arrests– though our spot alongside a first aid station made for a morning of continuous, shrillingly loud sirens.

What we did witness time and again were dozens of acts of kindness.

There was the young black man who offered his seat on the Metro to an older woman and the Metro riders, ever-so-slowly exiting the L’Enfant Plaza station, making certain a grandmother from Texas didn’t become separated from her family. A Florida woman who asked for “just a peek at ‘him’” had her wish granted by those ahead of her, while a child from Chicago was led to the front of the line for a better view, and a young man who was taller than those behind him traded places so they could see.
I marveled at this selflessness.

As cries of “Amen,” “Yes!” and “Uh-huh” rose from the crowd during the prayers and words of wisdom of the day’s speakers, a poster held high underscored their resolve: “We did it!”

Jen and I also had done it. Even though we weren’t able to negotiate our way through the throng to the parade route, and found ourselves walking nearly six miles and crossing the 14th Street Bridge into Virginia after the over-taxed Metro was closed for several hours, we had see Obama sworn in as the nation’s 44th president and its first African-American leader.

Such a personal achievement was to be commended, I thought, and I was eager to share the details of our day with friends and family.

Then the taxi driver we hailed told us about winning a lottery ticket for a Green Card and a chance to come to America from his native Ethiopia. This past November – now a U.S. citizen -- he voted in his first presidential election for this man with African ties. What amazed him was how the leadership of the country was passed from one party to another with such dignity.

“All the world should learn from this,” he said.

His pride as he shared his story finally made clear to me the value of this day: Just as Obama reminded the millions of spectators that Inauguration Day 2008 was not his personal success, but everyone’s, and after he called for a renewed dedication from every American to take this nation forward, it was unmistakable -- “WE did it!”