A Dear Friend Passed Away This Week: Memories of Barbara Mendius

Friday, April 06, 2018
I lost someone close to me this past week, and her death has hit me hard.  You know the expression "you don't know what you have until it's gone"?  I have a deeper understanding of that now.  I had let some time pass since last visiting Barbara, and when I heard the news she had passed away on Tuesday (April 3rd), I lost it.  I cried long into the night, unable to go to work the following day.  When the tears finally stopped, I spent the day creating a special garden for her with plants and rocks I know she would have loved. 

Barbara and I at my graduation from OHSU's School of Nursing

I met Barbara in 2012, while I was a nursing student at Clackamas Community College.  She needed a new caregiver, so we met for coffee, hit it off, and I accepted a part-time job taking care of her a few mornings and evenings a week.  This job lasted almost two years, only stopping when I started working as a nurse in The Dalles.  Barbara had poliomyelitis, contracted when she was just three years old.  She told me her parents thought she might have been exposed from an orange that was being passed around when she was at another family's house one day.  She went through multiple orthopedic surgeries as a child, but never let her disability stop her.  She earned a Masters of Science in Biology from the University of Illinois in October, 1977.  Aside from my husband Adam, she has been one of the most inspirational people I have ever met.

 She had this to say about education and disability, excerpts of which were published in The art of teaching science: Inquiry and innovation in middle school and high school by Hassard (2004):

I acquired my entire formal education while in a wheelchair. Since sixth grade my major academic interest has been science; this culminated with a M.S. of Biology from the University of Illinois in October, 1977. 

In considering my own education, I firmly believe that my laboratory experience was most important in shaping my scientific ability. The first major obstacle for the handicapped student of science is getting the hands-on laboratory experience so important to engender scientific expertise.

I feel lucky indeed as I recall the variety of lab work which I performed in school. I have thought carefully about the factors which contributed to my successful scientific education; it all comes down to people---parents, administrators, teachers---willing to cooperate in my behalf. Realizing the value of scholarship, my parents took an active interest in my education. Active, but not pushy. Beginning in fourth grade I attended the local public school. for class field trips, mom would drive one of the groups to the museum, or to the nature center---for laboratories are not only found in schools. Dad went to all the parent's nights, talked with my teachers, and came home glowing about my progress. Impressed with my parents' interest and my ability, school administrators were wonderfully cooperative. For some of the administrators, I was their first and only handicapped student.

That all changed in high school. There, all of my parents' interest, and all of the administrators' cooperation would have been wasted were it not for enthusiastic science teachers who gave me the freedom to do as much as I could of what everyone else was doing. Sometimes it only meant putting the microscope or analytic balance on a low table. Sometimes it meant rearranging the greenhouse so I could get down the overgrown isles. In one case it meant encouraging this shy student to enter the state science fair and helping me choose an appropriate experiment which I could carry out myself. My teachers were the ones who ultimately placed science within my reach. 

But we worked together, so my stubbornness and perseverance deserve some credit also. Science had piqued my brain; I was determined to learn as much as I could, actually doing as much as I could. I realized that if I wanted to do the acid/base experiments I would have to show that i could carry solutions around in my lap without spilling. If I wanted to fire-polish my own glassware I had to show I could use a Bunsen burner without setting myself aflame. If I needed to move a microscope to a lower table, I had to show that I could do that without smashing it to smithereens. I had to prove myself all along the way, but my teachers accepted my physical abilities and, although I often caught a watchful eye on me, they did not stifle my enthusiastic investigations.

In summary, my major recommendation for science education is to involve the orthopedically disabled student in laboratory experiments. Visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory clues can elucidate scientific principles; ingenuity and perhaps some extra work are all that are required.
She loved Portland International Film Festival, Portland Art Museum, The Joinery (her dining table and sideboard were made by them--absolutely beautiful!), Powell's Books, Backyard Bird Shop, Portland Nursery, Lovejoy Bakers, local restaurants like Caldera Public House and The Observatory, the Audubon Society of Portland, Oregon Community Foundation, and supported local native plant sales.  She also loved Bonnie Rait--I always think of her when I hear her songs.  She was a charitable donor to several non-profits supporting environment and the arts, and when she passed away, she left her house and property to the Nature Conservancy.  I love her for that.

Juniper and Barbara at my graduation from OHSU School of Nursing
She loved my kids, and we'd often go visit her, even after I stopped working for her.  She'd let Juniper pick out her necklace for her to wear for the day from her jewelry hook, and she'd listen while Juniper told her about her day.  She loved children, though never had any of her own.  When she heard Juniper was performing in Classical Ballet Academy's The Children's Nutcracker, she bought a ticket and attended--this production delighted her--she said she couldn't imagine enjoying any other ballet production more than the children's production.  She also attended my graduation at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall from OHSU School of Nursing in 2014.  I loved her for coming that day  I couldn't find her before or after the ceremony, but as I was leaving with my family, I saw her on the sidewalk in her wheelchair, waiting for public transportation, and I made my family stop the car.  I ran up to her and hugged her, thanked her so much for being there, and we snapped the photos above.  She was the sweetest woman ever, and a friend to me.


For Christmas one year, she gave me a copy of Molly Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook, earmarking one of her favorite quiche recipes, Chilean Squash, with movie tickets for our family to a favorite local theater of hers, The Academy.  She taught me a lot about cooking, and had an eclectic collection of pottery in which she baked her delicious quiches and from which she drank her morning stovetop espresso.  She introduced me to the Oregon Potters Association and the Ceramic Showcase at the Oregon Convention Center, as I admired her pottery and always asked about it.  I now attend every year.  If it wasn't for Barbara, I wouldn't have discovered Natalie Warrens' beautiful work.

Every time I look at the night skies, I will imagine her out there in the Universe, free as a bird.  She loved astronomy, and got to see the solar eclipse last summer, something she was anticipating for years.   She lived her life to the fullest.  One of my favorite photos of her was a look of sheer delight on her face--someone had carried her wheelchair down to the beach, and there, her toes got to feel the ocean water for the first time.  Over the years, she had lovers and many close friends.  She was a hippy at heart.  She never married, but had a longtime close friend, Jay, and the two went out most Friday nights for dinner and a movie.  Her house, located on Mount Tabor, was built by her design on a lot she purchased after seeing it for sale one day.  Many renewable materials were used in its construction, and it was built to perfectly accommodate her wheelchair within the house--it had ground level entry so a wheelchair ramp was unnecessary.  She had a worm compost bin, and believed flower petals had special properties for the garden, so all the flowers that wilted inside her house were thrown off her back porch balcony into the garden below.  She lived an independent and empowered life in the way she wanted to.  

One year, she bought me a $50 gift card for Christmas to Portland Nursery, and I bought a Callicarpa Beauty Berry bush just like the one she had in her own garden.  The berries are purple and vibrant during the winter months.  She often had one of her caregivers bring inside small cuttings from her garden to beautify her house during the winter.  She always had vases of fresh flowers sitting around from her garden throughout her house.  A couple of her caregivers gardened with her, and she had a beautiful garden that I admired every time I came over.  She had an extensive knowledge of gardening.  One way Barbara supported local businesses was buying gift cards as gifts for friends and for her caregivers.

Barbara told me she had worked with OHSU in the past (1990s) to help improve language around disability.  One time when I was caring for her, I described her as being "confined to a wheelchair" and she lovingly told me that she liked to say she "uses a wheelchair".  She taught me a lot about respectful disability language and empowerment with disability.  Later that afternoon, I e-mailed her to say that I was sorry again for using the word confined and that I had heard Bonnie Raitt on the radio, and it made me think of her.  She wrote back,

Karli, I love that you thought of me while listening to Bonnie Raitt; she's one of my favorites. And no worries, you said something about language and I simply brought up that word confined, because I do feel it's not a good use of the word. I'm very glad you don't view me as confined - that makes me feel very, very good. I hope you realize that your role in my life is most enabling because of your competence, positive manner and intellect!

 Another time, I e-mailed: 

Taxes done, and they were pretty easy this year.  So grateful to be working for you in more ways than one!  Earning income now has helped me immensely in terms of earned income credits for childcare expenses.  You cannot use those deductions with income from alimony, child support, or scholarships, but the income I earned by working from you set me up nicely this year to maximize all my deductions.  And working for you is more than a job to me anyways, though it has helped a lot over the past year . . . you are one special lady to me!  --Karli

She replied:
This was so sweet of you to write, and made me feel very good. I'm so happy that having earned income helped you with taxes, because your pay seems incomparable to what you're worth. Truly, the nicest thing you can say to me is that I'm not just a job... And you are certainly not just an employee. I hope you realize how much you empower me to live the life I want. That is priceless.

Since Barbara had shared my love of gardening, I wanted to create a space in my garden just for her, "Barbara's Garden".  The Wilson Family is going to make me a cedar sign with "Barbara's Garden" burned into the cedar garden sign.  I planted Oregon grape, trillium, garry oak, western azalea, and bear grass (all purchased from Bosky Dell Natives--thank you for all your help, Lory Duralia!).  I placed a solar garden light from Backyard Bird Shop, a place she introduced me to--I have grown to love it as much as she did!  I also purchased a large lace rock, as well as an Indian feather rock, from Smith Rock, Inc. that look lovely--Barbara loved geology and rocks.  It was sunny all day when I created the space, but when the sun went down at the end of the day, the solar light came on, signifying to me that Barbara lives on . . . somewhere out there.  And now I have a place in my garden to remind me of her, a place to keep her memory alive. 

I will never forget Barbara--I loved her dearly, and love her still.  x o, Karli


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