Photo of Honduran dancers provided by Barbara Joe
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Barbara Joe continued the interview talking about the impact of her loss.
In her words, “After my son’s death, my three other children and little granddaughter kept me going, though I immediately became hyper-vigilant about them, jittery about each late night phone call or delayed arrival. If not for them, I don’t know what I would have done. I cannot imagine losing any of them, though, unlike other parents innocently taking their children’s lives for granted, I know that death always exists as a possibility for them and for any one of us. I’ve realized how short and precious each life is and that every day is a gift, clichéd as that sounds. Things that might have distressed me before, such as my ex-husband’s refusal to speak with me for years, or even such ordinary travails as being snubbed by a former friend or getting a parking ticket fail to bother me anymore.
Although it in no way can bring back our lost children, I’ve found solace through a support group for bereaved parents, The Compassionate Friends, where I’m now able to comfort parents still in shock after losing their own children. My son Andrew was buried along with our pet black Lab, Claire, whom he had named, in property we own in rural Virginia. On his gravestone, we put a line from Walt Whitman, ‘I stop some where waiting for you.’ Alex is buried in Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery in Miami, where he died. In 1997, I visited Alex’s family in eastern Cuba and gave them my photos of him. I am also trying to get him commemorated with a panel on the national AIDS quilt. Jonathan, my younger son, named his own son, now age 10, Andrew after his late brother. Andrew died on my older daughter Melanie’s birthday, making that always a bittersweet occasion. He also died a few days before Christmas, as did Alex, so those holidays are devoted more to remembrance than to celebration in our family. There are photos of both boys all over my house. I don’t mention their deaths when first meeting someone, as that is an immediate conversation-stopper. However, if asked, ‘How many kids do you have?’ I may say, Three on earth and two in heaven.”
Barbara seized the moment, “On my 60th birthday, with my kids and granddaughter gathered around, I made a wish and blew out all the candles (only 6). I then announced that since I’d be getting my wish, I would join the Peace Corps. My children were skeptical, because I’d often spoken about that possibility before, but had never followed through. Yet somehow, turning 60 was a turning point for me. Since the application process would be long and detailed, I decided to get started. I wasn’t afraid of the unknown because the worst had already happened to me and I was still left standing. I was not afraid of my own death, rather more afraid of not seizing available opportunities available while I still could. We only go through this life once. I thought I’d benefit from being in a totally new environment with new challenges, which turned out to be the case. However, death among children was a sad reality in Honduras, though I was able to offer genuine sympathy to parents there through shared experience.”
She talked about her life currently, “Today, I still live on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, a few blocks from the historic Eastern Market and the capitol building, near the national mall and museums. The brick row house, which I bought with my husband back in 1969 when we first moved here, is now more than 110 years old. My granddaughter Natasha and her five-year-old son De’Andre live in a nearby Virginia suburb. Her mother, my daughter Melanie, lives in Norfolk, Virginia, about four hours away by car. I don’t own a car myself, preferring to use public transportation out of concern both for the environment and my own pocketbook. My other two children, Stephanie and Jonathan, live in Honolulu, almost on the other side of the world, although we do visit back and forth. I share my home sometimes with foreign visitors or friends on an informal basis, as the location is very convenient.”
She is active in her community.
Barbara explained, “After Mother died in 2006, I expanded my interpretation work, which has proved helpful to others and gratifying to me. Occasionally my clients have been bereaved parents. At age 74, I still work almost every weekday for a few hours as a Spanish interpreter, traveling everywhere on public transportation. Neither heat, cold, rain, snow, or sleet can keep me from my appointed rounds! I also return annually to Honduras, 9th time this past February, 2013, to volunteer with medical brigades and other projects partly supported by my book sales. I also have been invited to speak about my book and Peace Corps at libraries, in senior centers, on radio programs, and at continuing education centers. Grass doesn’t grow under my feet! I advocate for Peace Corps service for all ages, as it can enrich the lives of older as well as younger people and volunteers with more experience under their belts usually have more to offer and enjoy more respect. We also act as mentors to younger volunteers.
Her advice, “I help others and they help me, it’s a continuous circle; anyone can initiate their own reciprocal and expanding circle, different for every person. Follow your interests, your passions. Baby boomers, you have years of useful life ahead of you! When I go to Honduras, I work closely with local volunteers and also stay with local folks. They don’t have e-mail and few have phones, so they don’t know when I’m coming, but they always open up their homes to me. Honduras is a fairly small country, 8 million people, and I’ve become a well-known person there over the years. Hondurans call me, Dr. Barbara, even though I’ve never been a medical doctor, just a health volunteer. But in that capacity, during my Peace Corps service, by default because I’m a warm body with some knowledge and experience, I’ve helped deliver babies, hand over instruments in the operating room, suture wounds, monitor infections, and removed casts. I have escorted at least 100 children and their parents to visiting volunteer medical brigades, mostly for cleft palate or clubfoot surgery. Therefore, I’m often recognized when I travel in Honduras, a fish in a small pond. I say that if something is on your bucket list, as Peace Corps was on mine, go ahead and do it. You don’t know exactly what will come from that, but something new, no matter what your age. The average age of Peace Corps volunteers is 28, but a growing number are over 50.
Change is often more a matter of mindset rather than of getting a rare lucky break, though lucky breaks do help. Mostly, people need to proactively strengthen their connections with family and with their neighbors, friends, and associates, as well as in volunteer activities and travels and hobbies, trying out new endeavors that may succeed or fail—if the latter, just then let them go and go on to something else. I don’t have a TV set, so I never watch television, which with few exceptions, I consider a waste of time. Ditch the TV and you will have more free time to pursue your passions and interests.
Barbara described her written works, “While in service, I posted monthly, Letters to Honduras, on a website whose readers begged me to create a book. The title refers to the two towns where I served, El Triunfo and La Esperanza. On the cover and inside are numerous photos from Honduras. The cover’s blue and white colors are those of the Honduran flag. Readers have included future and former Peace Corps volunteers, baby boomers, arm-chair adventurers, and bereaved parents. My main message is that no matter what your age or challenge, you can forge a new path.
My book starts out with my first visit to Honduras in 1941 at age 3 with my parents, one of my earliest memories. My Dad was working at the time at Mayan ruins of Copán. By great good luck, I was assigned to go there with the Peace Corps, so it was sort of like a homecoming. After briefly sketching my previous life, including the loss of my boys, I get right into the nitty-gritty of Peace Corps service, no sugar coating, telling it like it is, both its successes and challenges. I was very fortunate to have learned Spanish as a teenager when living with my family in Colombia, a skill that stood me in good stead in Honduras, as learning a new language at age 62 would otherwise have been a challenge. Adventure, humor, romance of sorts, surprises, and even boredom, illness, and robbery all are included. The physical conditions, including bucket baths, using outhouses, and making tortillas by hand over a wood fire, are really pretty easy to get used to and, for me, the reverse culture shock of returning to the land of hustle and bustle, supermarkets, hot showers, and flush toilets was actually harder than going to Honduras in the first place. In Honduras, people have a very small carbon footprint. The book displays my photos on the cover and throughout. I’ve been surprised and gratified by the book’s positive reception. And, a few readers have actually claimed it inspired them to join the Peace Corps. I’m thrilled about that. They went in with their eyes open. It’s also nice for me to have the book to reminisce.
Washington Post Columnist Ed O’Keefe said, ‘Barbara’s book is a great read… Buy and read this book, no matter your age (April 27, 2009).’ According to Humberto Rodríguez-Camilloni, PhD, in The Roanoke Times (Feb. 1, 2009), ‘This compelling autobiographical narrative is a remarkable triumph of the human spirit.’ Mid-West Book Review called it, ‘An inspiring read, (March 9, 2010).’ Peace Corps Writers named my book Best Peace Corps Memoir of 2009. It also won awards for Best New Non-Fiction Finalist from National Indie Excellence Awards and National Best Books.”
You can make contact with Barbara Joe through her blog, http://honduraspeacecorps.blogspot.com.