It’s 2:30 p.m., and my bed is unmade. Two weeks ago, this would have been an impossibility. Now, I couldn’t care less.
My exhaustion has become a physical pain. I haven’t slept more than a couple of hours a night during this time. I am afraid of what happens in between the moment I put my head on the pillow until I go to sleep. It seems unsafe.
On top of my linen chest, there are clean sheets in a jumble with yesterday’s dirty clothes. The pile stares at me, imploring me to at least remove the worn socks from the proximity of pillowcases that I dried outside on the line. I remain unmoved. I’ve walked by a dozen times without doing a thing about it.
On the other side of murder, it’s hard to see the point.
I want the story to turn out differently. But someone hurt Barbara and left her on the sidewalk to bleed. Someone walked away. That will always be what happened.
Until now, I’ve always loved a good murder. The suspense of a mystery, the brooding of the detective and, my favorite, the noir of Nordic crime dramas — the darker the better. The one guarantee is that the killer will be revealed and almost certainly caught. The exception is when the killer escapes, providing a good storyline for the next season.
Murder is entertaining when it’s doled out in 60-minute increments. Just like life is entertaining when I think I am in control.
Grief would be tedious to watch. Grief would not be renewed for another season. It’s interminable. There’s no suspense. There’s also no resolution. There’s no poignant music playing in the background as we have a magical moment of acceptance and decide to carry on with our lives.
Instead, I go in and out of two states of mind: fury and incredulity. Because it’s too awful to be true.
It’s awful because she was so tiny; I don’t think she weighed even 90 pounds. It’s awful because she was 87, living life like a boss. She was in better shape than some people half her age.
It’s awful because I agreed to take a singing lesson with her. I had explained to her that I cannot sing in front of people, period. Then I sang, and I was flat, so with great satisfaction I told her I was flat, proving my point. She turned to me and said, “Except you weren’t flat.” Then she gave me a look. It told me to quit listening to my inner critic. My mind tells me I am flat. The reality is I can sing.
It’s awful because I don’t know anyone who was more loved.
Barbara Maier Gustern was a lot more than a singing coach. Even the most seasoned performers need a champion in their lives, someone who lets them know it’s all right to put their imperfect selves in the spotlight. Barbara did that. She had such curiosity and appreciation for every quirk and foible in our characters. She valued people in all their imperfect, human glory.
On the night of March 10, she walked out of her lobby. A few minutes later, a young man banged on the door to the building, holding her as she bled profusely from the head. The young man had come to Barbara’s aid after she was violently shoved to the sidewalk by an unknown woman.
Two friends of mine had been rehearsing with her and were waiting in the lobby for their car. One of them held her as they waited for the ambulance. Barbara was nearing the end of lucidity. Things deteriorated even more on the way to the hospital.
It was a traumatic brain injury. She underwent surgery that night to relieve the swelling, but she never regained consciousness. She died five days later. None of us who knew her have the words to express the enormity of our grief. In a community of people who never shut up, Barbara’s death leaves us speechless.
The pandemic is winding down, we are on the cusp of spring, I am singing with people I love. That’s what I imagine Barbara was thinking as she walked down the street. Then she was attacked from behind.
The young woman had long auburn hair and wore leggings under her dress. She vanished, leaving Barbara bleeding behind her. But before she disappeared, footage of her was caught by a security camera. Why she did it, we have no idea. But it seems she sauntered away, her walk was so casual. She glanced over her right shoulder once. She turned her head back and then kept walking.
I want the story to turn out differently. But someone hurt Barbara and left her on the sidewalk to bleed. Someone walked away. That will always be what happened. It’s the cruelty that takes my breath away.
On Tuesday, the New York police charged the person with manslaughter. I’d looked up the legal definitions of manslaughter and murder. I suppose I thought if the crime only met the definition of manslaughter, it would be less terrible. It feels no less terrible.
I read that one can be charged with second-degree murder when someone demonstrates “a depraved indifference to human life” and “recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person, and thereby causes the death of another person.”
I am hard-pressed to consider fleeing a scene after causing a severe head injury as anything other than depravity.
I seem to be on some noxious schedule. Tears, rage, lethargy, punctuated throughout by one phrase: What’s the point? We spend so much time keeping ourselves safe, doing the right thing, brushing our teeth to guard against gum disease. What a waste of time.
I can’t understand why I ever let myself get talked into believing in anything other than nihilism. I cannot stand being suckered. More than once, I have been in a place where I am certain there is no meaning to life. And because I am an idiot who never learns, I rally. I get it together. I carry on. I pretend that people with good attitudes aren’t the most annoying creatures on earth.
Here I am again. I know with certainty that this attack on Barbara proves that life is cold. Nothing matters. I cannot be fooled again.
I got too comfortable with order. I began to believe that making the bed every day was some magic spell against pointless suffering. Control is a trick of light.
I don’t know how to come out of it intact. I don’t suppose I will. I am changed. But a voice I wish would shut up won’t leave me alone. It insists on reminding me that I cannot ignore Barbara. It’s dishonest to forget the amount of compassion she carried. The large spirit in that tiny body believed in humans, even though we are the worst. She loved us anyway.
I am so resistant to the idea of believing in my species at this moment. Rustling up some hope seems the task of Sisyphus. This week, murder has shown up on my doorstep in all its bleakness. This week, there is no escape. This week, I have to see the world with clear eyes. I’d much rather have imaginary crimes solved than deal with the horror of a real one. I just don’t have that luxury.
Neither does anyone who loved her, including my friend Barbara Bleier, who held her in her arms the night of the attack. She spoke eloquently about what happened in The New York Times:
“A climate of hatred and anger has been growing throughout this country and the world,” she said. “People have had permission to act in ways and speak in ways that they may have felt before like doing, but it’s never been as accepted in my memory.”
The climate of hatred is the problem, but what is the solution?
The climate of hatred is the problem, but what is the solution? Please, not love. Anything but that.
Please, not love. Anything but that. We can’t love Vladimir Putin out of Ukraine. How can compassion and love be the answer to all this insanity?
I decide to bake Barbara’s grandson a cake. He can serve it to people who visit. I’ll drive it down to her apartment, where he’s staying. I burn the cake.
The next day, I bake one that comes out of the oven without a charcoal crust and text him that I’m coming. It’s good to talk with him. I cry, and then we laugh about my crying. When I leave, I drive a few feet before I see the shrine. Flowers and signs mark the spot where she was attacked.
I burst into tears again. Once more, with feeling.
I pull over and cry some more. Then, a calm comes over me, and I say to her, “OK.” I feel her presence, nudging me to rejoin the living. Against my better judgment, I surrender.
On Tuesday, when the accused person is charged only with manslaughter after taking 12 days to surrender, it feels outrageous. I am livid all over again. Hello, rage. Back so soon.