|My sister, Barbara Anne Fogel Lis and her son, Chris Rudolph, circa 2008|
|Marilyn, Barb, and my mother Florence Fogel, 2009|
Everyone—without exception—deals with personal or family trauma or drama sometime during her/his career. There is often a false sense that these things don’t happen to other people, just us. We then wonder why me? How did I end up with the wrong partner, difficult family, or life threatening illness? As I wrote earlier, I was no exception to this rule, even though after several years passed, no one remembered any more about my early trials. I am fortunate to have grown up in a loving family with parents who never divorced, a brother and sister who shared the family joys, and a nuclear family of husband and two children who get along completely most of the time. Although the big picture of family life was strong, there were constant challenges.
Almost 54 years ago, I gained the role of Big Sister when Barbara Anne Fogel was born. It was Thanksgiving evening when my mother went into labor and that day we had hamburgers instead of turkey. Having a baby sister was a real thrill. We were very close during the years we overlapped at home. I both helped her and terrorized her. I told her there were alligators living under my bed named Theodore and Guinevere, and if she came in my room and messed around with my things, those alligators would come after her.
Barb quickly became the Little Princess, charming my oft-grumpy father and busy mother. Barb followed me everywhere as a youngster, imitating everything she saw. She learned to count in German and Chinese, two languages I was learning in school. She listened to rock and roll music of the times, and “studied” by writing primitive letters in my high school textbooks. As a youngster, she was a character. When my brother would call home from college “collect”, she told the operator her name was Garfunkel, after the singers Simon and Garfunkel. I started college when she was 6 years old. Essentially, she grew up as an only child in our house in Moorestown, New Jersey.
|Fred, Marilyn, Barbie, my dad Art Fogel, 1972|
Around the age of 13, Barbie was suddenly ill. Her doctor checked her blood sugar, and she was sent immediately to the hospital for further tests. One of the unlucky few who have Type 1 Diabetes, Barb began the trial that colored the rest of her life. The diagnosis 40 years ago was tragic. Rounds of needles, insulin injections, meal restrictions, made her rebel as a teenager. She wanted to be a “normal” person, a popular girl, and step away from the daily grind of blood sugar testing etc.
In her senior year of high school, I got a call from her.
“Mar, promise you won’t tell, “she said between sobs.
“Tell what?“ I answered.
“Promise me!” she pleaded.
“What?” I asked again with pain.
Of course, I am not the first, nor the last, to learn of an unwanted pregnancy. I tried to calm her down and got off the phone. Because she was a diabetic and had not controlled her blood sugar during early pregnancy, she was a serious risk for problems. I needed to tell my parents the news. I phoned my folks that evening and said I needed to speak to them about something serious—in person. With husband Jack, we drove up the next afternoon. My sister hid out at one of her friends, while I gave them the news. My mother cried, and my father seethed with anger ready to shoot the boy who got her pregnant. It was one of the worst evenings of my life.
Our peaceful family life was in tatters. Within a year, Barb, once she reached 18, married boyfriend David in a small private ceremony. I was not in attendance. My mother was the only one with the gumption to see the event. Barb and David’s life was a continuous roller coaster. Their first son Christopher was born within a year, and not long after that, David was sent to one of many prisons for petty crimes like driving without a license. After their second son Michael was born 13 months later after a troublesome pregnancy, Barb called me from the hospital.
“What should I do?” she whispered.
“Leave him. Go home to Mom and Dad.” I answered.
“Do you think they’ll take me?”
“Yes, Dad’s been waiting. Give them a call.”
Barbie moved in with my parents, Florence and Art Fogel, when Michael was born in 1985 and lived with them until she remarried in 1995. The separation was tough on everyone. David’s crimes became more serious—he harassed my sister and my parents when he wasn’t in jail. The family was on constant alert that Chris and Mike weren’t abducted. Fortunately, David never made good on his threats.
|Family Birthday celebration, circa 2004|
This family ordeal was ongoing at the same time I was getting a divorce, working on my career, and then starting my own family. While thinking thoughts about stable isotope fractionation, bacteria in hot springs, oxygen in the atmosphere, I had to partition my brain to be sensitive and empathetic to family. I had become the family’s major problem solver, many times getting a call regarding a health or financial emergency in New Jersey, arranging for someone to cover me in the Lab, then bee lining up intestate 95 to Jersey. I handled heart attacks in both parents, strokes, cancers, pneumonia, broken bones, wounds infected with MRSA, alcoholism, drug addiction, and dementia. I worked through financial crises—college loans for Barb’s son Michael, foreclosures, business failures, within-family theft, and credit card fraud. Barb’s son Chris developed an addiction to prescription pain medication that brought a raft of sorrow and heartbreak to our close-knit family. It pretty much destroyed the happy holidays and birthdays we once shared.
|Fogel Family: Barb, Tim, Mike, Chris, Fred, Linda, Dana, Chris S., Marilyn, Evan; Flo and Art seated, 1996|
Nephew Chris died in my sister’s arms on the evening of his 30th birthday from a heart infection. Although some stress was relieved by his passing, my sister’s problems became ever more clear. Barb was beautiful, blonde, funny, caring, kind, loving, sweet and orderly. With the loss of her son, Chris, she and Tim got an enormous dog, Cooper, who as a dog, has many of the same qualities as Chris—good hearted, friendly, goofy, untrained. Their life reached a new level, where they no longer had to worry about Chris.
Her second marriage to Tim Lis, a kind, hard-working man, had pulled her from poverty and disaster. But it wasn’t enough. She cycled in and out of periods of substance abuse, serious health complications from diabetes, and one step ahead of financial ruin. By this time, husband Chris and I had moved to California. I no longer hopped in the car for the white-knuckle ride to New Jersey. They were on their own. Tragically, her second husband Tim died at the age of 53 from a massive stroke, and Barb followed him eight months later dying of “despair”--despondent grief over his death and financial problems too large for anyone to solve.
|Barb, son Mike Rudolph, Tim Lis, Graduation, 2010|
What makes a life turn hard? It doesn’t take much. We’re all one doctor’s visit away from a changed health status. For Barb, the diabetes starting taking its toll around the age of 40. Barb was proud of the fact that she had over 30 or 40 surgeries in her lifetime. How she withstood the constant onslaught of medical issues was a defining characteristic of her life. When you saw her, you could tell in an instant how she was feeling: if it was a good day or a bad day.
There were many times when Barb was at her best. Entertaining on the back patio in summer: BBQ meats, potato salad, fresh Jersey corn, coleslaw, Jersey tomatoes, appetizers, clams, flounder---more food than anyone could possibly eat. Then there were the Christmas parties: the fried turkeys, the crisped prime rib roasts, kielbasa, sauerkraut, potatoes, succotash---all served hours after people were starving for food. Together with Tim, they built a business, worked together, and helped their families. The backyard at their home in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, contained a stunning garden that Barb and Tim were proud of. She loved puttering there, picking tomatoes, beans, and basil. In summer, clamming and fishing at the shore were favorite pastimes. Barb was most happy here.
|Chris Rudolph and Barb, Christmas Party, circa 2007|
There were also those times when you found her exasperating. We could never get her to quit smoking. She never ate decent meals. Her sleep habits were troublesome. The “glass” was more often than not “half empty” rather than “half full”. She challenged everyone from her family to her friends to associates. She rarely sat down and kept still.
Beyond the daily ups and downs, Barb was a loyal friend. We had long phone conversations, where she’d launch into a story, forget why she started it, then end it 15 minutes later. She followed everyone’s life. Your children, their birthdays, your anniversary, your birthday, your job, you name it. She was a friendly neighbor, offering up to those less fortunate to her, the last $20 even though she couldn’t afford it. She loved animals, hated spiders, and fought with ground hogs. There were times when you didn’t talk to her every day. For me, I always suspected something wrong. For most of you, you probably got texts out of the blue asking you “what’s wrong?”
Her early and sudden death’s taught me that above all else, think about others and help them. Take care of yourself—your care is as important as the care you give to others. I wish that Barb had taken more care of herself. Love your family. You didn’t choose them, but they are the most important things in your life. Laugh as much as possible, and shed yourselves of “stuff” that can only weigh you down. Forgive those you might resent, and keep strong.
|Florence Fogel, Mike Rudolph, his wife Sheri, and Barb, 2018|