. . . She’s Barbara
Barbara is an older woman, I’m guessing in her sixties or early seventies. I may someday be surprised to learn she is in her eighties, she has a youthful aura. She lives somewhere in the building next to mine. I’ve seen her in several different apartments (from my window), although I cannot tell you which one is hers. My guess is that I see her in different places because she is helping people in her building. I have known Barbara for nearly four years, but I don’t actually know her. We bump into one another almost every day. She is almost always smiling and she almost always has her dog Beckis (sp? pronounced Beck ish) and her cat Toy walking beside her. Neither animal is on a leash; however, they never stray too far. Well that’s not entirely true, sometimes I spot her looking under bushes for Beckish — calling her known, knowing she couldn’t have gone too far.
I believe Barbara is Portuguese, I’m not certain and I’ve learned not to assume. I know she speaks Portuguese and that she knows no English; not even hello or goodbye (perhaps she’s shy — like me with Portuguese). I can tell she wants to speak English, if only to communicate with me. I’m learning Portuguese so that I can communicate with her. We have a common interest that has formed a mutual affection since the day we met on the street. Barbara’s Beckis is old and moves very slowly. Through our made-up sign language and hand gestures, I have learned that Beckis is about thirteen years old. Toy, a black cat who is never more than three feet away, has terminal cancer; Toy is hand fed and heavily medicated. Barbara cares for these two 24/7; in addition, she feeds every feral cat in the neighborhood. Volunteers take cats in to be neutered, so there aren’t hundreds or thousands. I believe one ear is clipped as a marker, but I’m not 100% sure. The neighborhood cats depend on her and adore her and she never fails them. I’m not a religious man, but I know an angel when I encounter one. Barbara is not looking for awards, prizes or praise, her satisfaction comes from the love they shower upon her.
When I lived in New York and Maine, because of my early outings with Giorgio, I encountered many street rats — feasting on urban garbage; dropped on the sidewalk chicken bones and pizza. As I walk Paco through the streets of Faro during the wee hours, I never see or hear rats. I’m sure they exist, but I’m also certain that the cats are keeping the rat population under control. We have Barbara to thank for this.
Four months after relocating to Faro, I lost Giorgio to heart disease. Although he lived three or four years longer than his vet’s expected, I was beyond consolable. Here I was, alone and without a grasp of the language. My friends and family were thousands of miles away, unable to console me in person. The day I put Giorgio down, it was late morning when I left the vet and I was walking mindlessly toward my building. Barbara saw me and mimed a question regarding Giorgio’s whereabouts. I pointed toward the sky and shook my head in despair. This woman who only knew me from the street, reached out her arms and held me as I wept. No words were exchanged, only love, compassion, and the assurance that I was not alone.
Humans are creatures of habit and pets love routine; therefore, I mostly see the same faces when I’m out with Paco. When Paco sees Barbara his tail wags and he whines cheerfully. She usually calls his name, putting emphasis on the P and the c — sounding something like Pa koo. Barbara almost always lifts Paco high over her head and shouts, “O rei do seu domínio.” For awhile I had no idea what she was saying. One day I mentally noted her words and looked them up when I got home. She is stating that Paco is the king of his domaine. Indeed she is correct, Paco rules. I don’t think you have to be a pet owner to understand why this bond, created as a result of a common adoration, is so real and special. Barbara is my hero. Her warmth, unbridled joy, and loyalty, make her one of my favorite humans. During quarantine, I made sure that I got to see Barbara every day. I believe her approach to life and her altruism are a lesson for all of us. You don’t have to be a world leader or activist to make a difference in the lives of others.
I’m not sure how much longer Beckis and Toy have left. I find a great comfort in knowing that they have Barbara to care for them as their health declines. I know that they are probably remaining alive partly for Barbara’s sake — dogs and cats no doubt live almost entirely to serve us. I don’t like to think about how their deaths will affect Barbara. I know that I will be there for her, just as she was there for me. Showing up for someone without fanfare or payment, is the essence of human kindness. Be that someone a family member, friend or a person you only see on the street. Barbara has taught me that and so much more.
“I believe cats to be spirits come to earth. A cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through.”
“Pet was never mourned as you,
Purrer of the spotless hue,
Plumy tail, and wistful gaze”
– Thomas Hardy