2: Until My Dying Breath

2: Until My Dying Breath

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Possible

Until My Dying Breath

A hero is an ordinary person who finds the strength to persevere and bless others, in spite of overwhelming obstacles.

~Christopher Reeve

Do you remember the lyrics from a song on Hee Haw that lamented, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all?” Well, that could have been the theme song of Barbara Brown. Despite enduring enough trials to compose a Grammy-winning country ballad, Barbara was the most inspiring patient I ever doctored.

The seventh of eight children, Barbara was born to an alcoholic mom and a marginally employed, abusive dad. Her mother chugged whiskey at the neighborhood bar most nights and then zonked out on the couch, hung over, the next day. Her father clobbered his wife and kids for the slightest infraction — a charred burger, a minor sibling squabble. In short, Barbara had every excuse to resort to drugs and alcohol — anything to escape the hellish place she was forced to call home. Instead, she found respite at her local church, where the pastor’s wife and several other ladies ensured she had school clothes, encouragement, and plenty of warm hugs.

To survive the abuse at home, Barbara’s siblings stuck together like a school of guppies. “How could I become bitter when my older sisters worked so hard after school to buy peanut butter, bread, and milk for me? God blessed me with wonderful sisters and a supportive church family, so I had much to be grateful for,” Barbara insisted.

When a handsome classmate took an interest in her and proposed marriage after high school graduation, he didn’t have to ask twice! A road out of Dysfunction Junction? Hand me the car keys! “When Roger held me in his arms and told me he loved me and would always take care of me, I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d always wanted to be a wife and mother, and thanks to Roger that dream came true.”

Over the next twelve years, Barbara bore six children who kept her running from baseball to football to piano lessons. At forty-two, she delivered a baby girl with Down syndrome. While many women would feel devastated or overwhelmed by the demands of a mentally challenged child, Barbara adored her baby girl. “You couldn’t find a more loving child than my Alice. Her hugs and sweet smiles light up my day.”

Life was good until the dreadful day Roger revealed that while he loved her and didn’t want to break up their family, he now realized he was gay. “I can no longer deny who I really am,” he fearfully confessed. Barbara was devastated — she loved Roger deeply and didn’t want to destroy their loving family.

She had a choice: divorce, or tolerate a husband who caroused at gay bars on Saturday nights. Deeply religious, she didn’t believe in divorce. “He’s a great father, a good provider, he doesn’t drink or beat me. He’s kind and gentle, and we’ve been through so much together. How can I throw all that away because he has this one issue?”

Tears rolled down her cheeks as she disclosed her secret to me. I handed her a tissue, and she wiped her eyes and blew her nose. “What do I do, Dr. Burbank? He says he loves me and doesn’t want a divorce. I don’t either.” She wrung her tissue between her fingers. “I love Roger, but it kills me every time he leaves on Saturday night—I know where he’s going and what he’s up to.”

Right or wrong, Barbara chose to stay, and she developed a cordial, co-parenting partnership with her husband. Despite the pain and betrayal, she insisted, “I’m choosing to focus on what’s good in Roger, and there’s a lot that’s good.”

Instead of nursing her hurt or growing bitter, Barbara channeled her energy into a quilting group that raised money for African orphanages. Some of the quilts she designed were so exquisite they fetched $1200 apiece. “I might not have a college degree, but I know how to quilt, and God can use any talent we have for His glory,” she said.

If a rotten childhood, handicapped child, and gay husband weren’t challenging enough, Barbara’s health nosedived. First, she developed breast cancer necessitating surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Then she got diabetes brittle enough to require insulin injections with every meal. A year later, her heart and neck arteries clogged, requiring extensive vascular surgery. With time, her vision deteriorated from macular degeneration. Sadly, she could no longer stitch the intricate quilts upon which she’d built her reputation.

Did she complain? Give up? Not Barbara! She started a new ministry — a cooking class for all the newlyweds at her church, saying, “Some of these girls can barely boil water. Don’t they teach Home Economics anymore?”

Her class was a hit. Some weeks, more than a dozen women learned to roll a piecrust, baste a roast, and steam vegetables al dente. The women graced the tables with red plaid tablecloths, cleverly folded napkins, and vases teeming with cheery daisies. The young wives giggled and glowed as they served home-cooked feasts to a roomful of hungry — and grateful — husbands.

Unfortunately, Barbara’s health declined even further. She suffered such severe lumbar disc disease and arthritis in her knees that she could only get around in a wheelchair. Worse still, her kidneys failed, requiring thrice-weekly hemodialysis. She was now too weak to cook for herself, let alone teach a class.

To his credit, her husband kept his promise to always take care of her, and he took over the cooking, cleaning, shopping, banking, and nursing care. He drove her to lengthy dialysis treatments every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and he carefully divvied out her medications at the proper time. He prepared a strict diabetic, renal, low-salt diet.

Eventually, Roger’s strength waned as well. They hired a homemaker to help with cooking and cleaning. Only problem? The woman couldn’t cook! Roger wanted to fire her. “She’s useless,” he sputtered. “She burned the toast and the eggs were raw!”

Barbara would have none of it! “We can’t fire her, Roger. She’s a single mother and she needs this job. If she can’t cook, she’ll be fired everywhere she goes. What will happen to her two little girls?”

You guessed it! Barbara, while sitting in her wheelchair, nearly blind, riddled with back pain and requiring thrice-weekly dialysis, taught the “homemaker” how to prepare chicken and dumplings, beef stew, quiche, and meatloaf. “God put this girl in my life so I could teach her to cook. I can improve her job skills. I may not be able to walk or read fine print anymore, but even in a wheelchair I can teach her to sift flour and baste a chicken. Until my dying breath, I will bless others any way I can.”

I will never forget Barbara’s make-the-best-of-what-you’ve-got-left attitude. She looked for ways to bless others with whatever strength and ability she had. She found joy, humor, and purpose in life, despite her many setbacks. She chose to focus on the good qualities in a husband, handicapped child, and hired homemaker whom others might condemn or write off as a burden. Barbara was my hero.

~Sally Willard Burbank

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