I don’t like to remember people on the day they died; I’d rather remember them on their birthday. It seems happier somehow. My sister-in-Law Shari Baskin was born in Brooklyn on May 24, 1950 and died last September in Baltimore at the age of 58. She moved to Baltimore with her family in 1955, rarely traveled and worked in retail for most of her life.
Shari was known among her friends and family as generous person. Once my husband Ken admired a leather jacket she was wearing and she took it off and gave it to him. She dearly loved Max, her only nephew, and made sure his holidays and birthdays were filled with gifts. She did the same for her family and friends. She asked for little in return save loyalty and honesty, because she always suspected that any generosity paid to her came with hidden conditions she would be expected to fulfill without warning.
Shari’s parents were good people, but damaged by their families. Shari’s mother was incapable of respecting Shari’s boundaries because of her own tortured personal history. She loved Shari very much, but she constantly worried and fretted about Shari, projecting her own fears onto her daughter in an effort to shield her from hurt and disappointment. She thought this was love, but Shari experienced it as an attempt to control, and her response was to cut herself off emotionally and sometimes physically.
Shari’s mother saw her children as an extension of herself and didn’t understand that they were separate people. She was terrified that they would be hurt by life. She worked hard to prevent this and her efforts manifested themselves in ways she did not foresee. For example, she got frantic with anxiety and exploded into anger every time when her children took steps toward becoming independent. How many of us are afraid of success and sleepwalking through life because of a dynamic like this? How many of us are so terrified our children will be hurt that we won’t let go and we call this love?
For years, Shari only dated men who were emotionally unavailable. She never let a man get close to her until she met Ray, her life partner for the better part of fifteen years. They were both complicated people, battered by life. Their relationship was far from idyllic. But they could relate to one another on a level few people could understand.
Ray was in a motorcycle accident that left him a paraplegic in August 2007. He was still in the hospital and Shari had just moved their belongings into a wheel chair accessible apartment when she was diagnosed with lung cancer in January 2008. When Ray died in April, Shari moved in with her mother to take care of her because she, too, had lung cancer. Her mother died in May. Then Shari began to change.
The changes weren’t obvious at first. She spent every day sitting on the porch, thinking. Ken, who relocated to Baltimore to take care of Shari, didn’t interrupt her or try to control her. He didn’t try to make her talk. He didn’t insist that she was sick and should be in bed. He didn’t get angry when she started smoking again.
And another thing happened. Instead of abandoning her, her friends lined up to help. All the favors, hospitality and gifts she had spread among those around her over the years started to come back to her. Shari never asked for anything, because she never expected to receive anything unless she paid a dear emotional price. But her friends and relatives wanted to give back and asked nothing in return. Shari was mystified, but too sick to refuse. So she accepted help for the first time in her life. And as the weeks passed, her view of the world shifted. She was recreating everything she had believed.
Shari didn’t change because her mother died. We all have the power to change and Shari was no different. Shari didn’t change because she was dying. I have seen more than one person die repeating the same insane mantras they recited though their lives. Was it religious? I never asked her if she believed in God. In the end, I don’t know why Shari changed. Maybe it was because she accepted the fact that unconditional love can exist and under the direst of circumstances.
Even though we knew Shari’s death was close, Ken and I took her to Nags Head, North Carolina that August. Ken’s son Max and his wife Leigh rented a beach house for all of us. Shari spent most of her time outside looking at the beach and the ocean. We didn’t need to do anything. Being together was enough.
A few days after Shari died, her friends, Sandeye and Phil Jurus went to a restaurant for dinner. Both were grieving terribly and Phil prayed for Shari to send him a sign that she was all right. As they left the restaurant, Phil noticed that it had rained while they were inside, and he looked up at the sky. He saw something that he feels was Shari telling him she was at peace. Here is the picture he took: