by Jack Rooney
“Merry Christmas” is a weird thing to say at a wake. But Ms. B was delightfully weird. She would have loved it.
Mary Eileen Barkowski, better known to over 25 years of Brother Rice High School students as “Ms. B,” died on Dec. 20 with little warning to those outside her immediate family. Everyone knew she was sick — she had Crohn’s disease and bouts with pneumonia, causing her to miss long stretches of class — but I don’t think many of her students, past or present, were even remotely aware that she would leave us at age 64.
My two brothers, one of whom was in her her senior Honors Psychology class this year, and my mom and I arrived at her wake at Blake Lamb Funeral Home in Oak Lawn at 3:20. Three minutes later, the line was out the door. And it stayed that way for a long time. My family and I only assumed the decision was made to have the wake at Blake Lamb because it is the largest funeral home in the area. It still overflowed. In his brief eulogy the next day, Ms. B’s oldest son Brian, who also works at Brother Rice, said the funeral director remarked that his mother must have been a special person because they only had turnout like that for fallen police officers and soldiers.
And in that capacity crowd at Ms. B’s wake, there were many familiar faces from my past — teachers, friends, parents. One of those faces, a round and lightly five o’clock-shadowed one, belonged to the best friend I made in high school, Marty Kyler. I saw him from across the large parlor room, and after he paid his respects he strutted over to greet me with a warm hug. I walked away from my family in line and Marty and I talked for a minute or so, but he left me with something to think about, as he often does.
“There are a lot of smiling faces in this room,” he said. “She would have liked that.”
He was right. After he left, with a promise that we would have a proper reunion after the funeral the following day, I looked up to see lots of smiles and hear bursts of hearty laughter. And Ms. B would have loved it. She was one of those people who most definitely would have insisted on a true celebration of life rather than a period of mourning. And after all the stories swapped, memories shared and laughs had, I think it’s safe to say Ms. B’s wake and funeral were a celebration, complete with the Brother Rice marching band she loved so much.
When I returned to line, smile on my face, my mom reminded me of how both she and I first met Ms. B. After my years of class and memories of Ms. B, I had almost forgotten that the first time we ever met perfectly encapsulated who she was.
It was a warm, humid day in late September of 2008. I was a short, pudgy, ill at ease freshman at Brother Rice and it was the day of the Homecoming Dance, which Ms. B. oversaw for as long as I think anyone at Rice can remember. But the dance wasn’t what was worrying me. Instead, my chronically nervous 14-year-old self was concerned about finishing a biology project on Sickle Cell Anemia due the following Monday.
I had been working on the project, which consisted of a paper and an accompanying poster board, since early in the school year, but because it was the first major project I had in high school, I wanted to make it perfect. But I forgot my Biology notebook. Which had all my notes for the project. I was screwed.
My mom graciously drove me over to school on the off chance someone was there to let me in, go to my locker, and grab the all-important notebook. Sure enough, Ms. B was there.
After a few minutes of wandering around the gym and the hallways, which were decorated with balloons and streamers for the dance, my mom and I found Ms. B sitting under a tree outside of the cafeteria. She was with a student, not surprising for a woman who spent most of her time at Brother Rice as a guidance counselor. As I nervously approached and asked if she could possibly unlock the door to the academic wing for me, she looked up with a smile warmer than the day and handed me her bulky keychain.
“Just come right back,” she said. “My house keys are on there and I’m going to need to go home eventually,” Ms. B. said with a chuckle, which I timidly reciprocated as I made my way toward the door.
I don’t remember much after that, but I know I finished the project, went to the dance, had fun, and then two years later found myself in Ms. B’s junior Theology class. And then in her senior Psychology class. I can’t say I learned much Theology or Psychology from those classes, but I learned more about being a good, honest, caring person from her than from any teacher I’ve ever had.
Her classes might as well have been “Being a Man 101.” She was a mother in the classroom that so many of “her boys,” as she lovingly called us, needed as they were on their way to becoming men. She was a mother to her own two boys, Michael and Brian, too. And she loved all of it. She loved all the loving.
Ms. B was the third Brother Rice faculty member to die in 2014. A senior, Cameron Fahey, also died of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in August, making it an awful year for my alma mater. But Ms. B’s death seemed one too many.
She died right before Christmas, when all of her former students, her boys, were home. When my family and I left the funeral home, the line had wrapped around the second row of cars in the parking lot, but nobody seemed to mind the wait. I saw more familiar faces as we made our way to the door.
“It’s good to see you. Merry Christmas” was the chorus as we kept going backward through the line. It was said with sincerity and warmth. And a love that Ms. B would have loved.