As one of the first women on the North Shore to open her own law practice, Barrie Levine became a trail blazer forty years ago. I first met Barrie, an attorney specializing in separation, divorce, and mediation, through a caregiver’s support group. You do not have to be in Barrie’s company very long to appreciate her strengths and be inspired by her.
At the time she joined the group, Barrie’s focus was her ninety-five year old mother Rose (a retired elementary school teacher), who after a fall and broken hip, had been admitted into a long term care residence. She was otherwise very healthy but her cognition began to fail after surgery and it became apparent that she could no longer stay in her apartment, even with the assistance of a daily companion.
Barrie became well-versed with the options available to her mother for continued care. After careful consideration, Barrie ultimately chose a residence for her mother that was close in proximity to Barrie’s home and work. This afforded her the opportunity to be present for her mother on a daily basis. “I made it my mission not only to be there but to bond with all the staff. This was a community and I wanted to be part of it. My mom was a beautiful, generous, and very sweet person. I wanted her to feel good wherever she was, not just be another occupant.”
Barrie wanted to learn more about the world of caregiving because it was not just a matter of overseeing activities of daily living and making sure people were clean, dressed, and fed. “It was important to stay connected with my mom on every level. There were hidden parts to my mother (as a result of dementia) that she did not have access to any longer and that others could not see. But I knew her in full and it was my joy to care for her. The gift for me was that I also got to know the other residents and felt welcome in their lives.” Barrie sees caring for her mother or other beloved family members as an honor and privilege in life and views caregivers as heroes on the front lines of life’s passages.
It was shortly after joining the support group that Paul, (a hairdresser with his own salon in Beverly Farms), her husband of forty years, was diagnosed with a progressive disease of impairment. Barrie’s focus now changed from mother to spouse. The serious nature of her husband’s illness was taking a huge toll. Barrie needed to scale back her law practice, in fact let it go completely. She was not about to hire people to be there for her husband. “I didn’t question my role at all. I had worked at my career for forty years. Paul now needed and wanted me by his side; he would have done the same for me. I was determined to keep him at home and with the help of our son Ari, we were the ‘team’ that made it possible.” Barrie thought it was going to be a long road of caregiving but the disease had other notions and in December of 2013, Paul passed away.
Barrie describes being totally unprepared for this next stage. “I didn’t know how my life would look now. February of 2014 was a very grim month. The world went back to ‘normal’ for everyone else – except me.” She decided she had to do something to survive the month and the unknown year ahead. She joined an exercise class at a Senior Center. “I needed to use that as a building block – a reason to get out of the house and the pain of being alone. At first, I was moving my body but my mind was in grief, thinking only of my loss. I pushed myself through each class whether I felt like it or not.”
In April 2014, Barrie visited her son Max and his family in Israel. She used this time to heal and recover from the mental and physical exhaustion of three years of caregiving. When she returned to the States and to her exercise class, people asked where she had been. “I didn’t realize that I had become a part of something. New people in my life missed me and it touched me deeply.”
Having her mother in her life at this time was of great comfort to Barrie but it was in October of 2014, less than one year since losing her husband, when Barrie’s mother passed. Barrie understood that she had to rebuild her everyday life in a different way, “but not reinvent myself; I like myself and would miss me.”
Barrie found several ways to rebuild. Paul had always taken care of the gardening and landscaping. She began to spend time in his domain where she felt his presence. “I felt we were working together. I had a sense of sacred ground. It touched my inner life as well as my everyday life. It was a complete surprise to me. I continue with an avid interest in gardening today. It is very life affirming to me.”
Barrie joined a weekly bereavement group in which members wrote to share their experiences and support one another. She developed a sisterhood of friends and it became an inspiration for her to continue writing from her heart after the sessions ended. More recently Barrie composed some poetry and read some pieces at a few venues. This was a new experience and “I felt brave in a way I hadn’t before.” As a result, Barrie is now working on a new writing project. Her father was an amateur photographer in the 1940s and Barrie had always wanted to do something with his photo collection. To honor her father, she is writing a poem or narrative about each photograph and assembling the work into book form.
Barrie made a New Year’s resolution to pursue the endeavors that she had let go of after college. Her liberal arts background was “four years of bliss” and now it felt like the right time to return to learning and open up her perspectives. She joined a discussion group run by a philosophy professor at Salem State University through www.meetup.com and joined the Salem Athenaeum www.salemathenaeum.net, a member library offering discussion groups and programs. “It’s not about ‘reinvention’ for me; it’s about building on what I already have. I welcome these things in my life that are different from what I had before. I don’t consider myself ‘retired’ because the plans I had counted on for the future did not materialize. Now there is some serendipity to what is happening to me and I am getting used to the feeling of freedom, trying to make the most of it.”
Barrie describes how the balance in her emotional life as well as day to day life was thrown off when she was caregiving and then lost her husband and her mother. She had to restore her sense of balance to get her life back on track, just as she worked on physical balance in her exercise class. “Balance is not static, standing in one place and holding on for dear life. You have to keep readjusting and compensating; there is no choice. Finding your balance is dynamic and therefore life affirming. I am grateful for the people in my life, then and now, whose love keeps me standing tall.”
Barrie Levine, at age 71, is a trail blazer in countless ways; an inspiration for the rest of us to move forward with optimism and stay open to adventure.