“Remember Barbara,” begins a wonderful poem by Jacques Prevert about love and war: the Second World War and the destruction of the French port, Brest; the love of Barbara and the desolate loss of that love. It reminded me of my friend, Barbara, and the Alzheimer’s disease from which she recently died – Alzheimer’s rain of iron and fire gradually dissipating into clouds of unknowing.
Barbara was one of the first persons I met when we moved to California from South Africa 30 years ago. Driving around, searching for a place to live, we were attracted to the green belts of the Bluffs, Barbara’s area it turned out. She worked in real estate and found us a home to rent.
Barbara told me about how she had first taught school here in California, bringing up her two sons when her husband had left. Later she saw an opportunity in real estate and so got her license and made her own neighborhood her target. Barbara knew every house and plan. She seemed to know every tree and root, too. Our sink was backing up on a Thanksgiving day and who should drive by, as God-sent, but Barbara with the name of the only ‘roto-rooter’ who had the length of line needed to unblock the drain all the way to the street.
Barbara and I got to know each other, both of us originating from small towns in the Midwest, Barbara from Iowa, I from Missouri. We both had ridden and shown American Saddlebred horses in our youth; we both were brought up Catholic. When Barbara discovered our two young children had never seen snow, she didn’t hesitate to take them to Big Bear to see their first snow. Barbara skiied, piloted a plane, traveled the world with her two sons. Barbara was a generous woman.
Running into Barbara some years later, she told me of her year in bed “with some kind of flu.” I told her of our reversal of fortune and our starting an in-home care business. Barbara, again, did not hesitate but signed up as our first client with just a few hours, a few days a week. We helped her in her home where Barbara had helped her own parents when they were older, bringing them from Iowa so she could look after them.
Barbara was strong-minded. Even while well advanced with Alzheimer’s, she was in charge. If she could not find the words, the look in her eyes told you what she wanted or did not want. About midway through Barbara’s Alzheimer’s war, Barbara was insisting upon visiting a rental that she had looked after in the past. My husband took her for a drive to distract her when she reminded him that her sons had guns so he had better do what she wanted! He smiled and kept driving. Barbara smiled too. She liked men.
By Jacques Prevert
It rained incessantly on Brest that day
And you walked smiling
Radiant delighted streaming wet
In the rain Remember Barbara
It rained incessantly on Brest
And I came across you on Siam Street
You were smiling
And I smiled too
You whom I did not know
You who did not know me
Still remember that day
Do not forget
A man was sheltering under a porch
And he called out your name
Barbara And you ran to him in the rain
Dripping enchanted blossoming,
And you flung yourself into his arms
Remember that Barbara
And do not be mad if I address you as tu
I say tu to all those I love
Even if I have seen them only once
I say tu to all who love each other
Even if I do not know them.
Do not forget
This rain wise and happy
On your happy face
On this happy city
This rain on the sea
On the arsenal
On the boat Ushant
What a bloody farce this war.
What has become of you now
Under this rain of iron
Of fire of steel of blood
And the one who enclosed you in his arms
Is he dead or disappeared or indeed still living
It rains constantly in Brest
As it was raining before
But this is not the same and everything is ruined
This is a rain of mourning terrible and desolate
Now it is not even the storm
Of iron of steel of blood
But merely of clouds
That simply die like dogs
Dogs that disappear
In the water flowing over Brest
And will rot away
In the distance far from Brest
Of which nothing remains