Each time I hear the opening notes of Sting’s remarkable song, “Fragile”, I am transported immediately to that evening. I can see the deep, deep darkness of the Alaskan night, and almost feel the cold air that penetrates everything in its way.
Barney and I made our way toward the light of the KBBI studio, seeking the warmth we would find inside the building. We were going to make a Public Service Announcement for the Amnesty International group I had started in Homer, Alaska. The radio station would provide recording services for us, and I would do the voiceover. We used “Fragile” as the background music, since its message was tied directly to our cause.
I was 40 years old, married to a “rough neck” (oil rig worker) who commuted to the far away North Slope every two weeks. Alone for two weeks at a time, I filled my days with many things; one of these was my fervent dedication to Human Rights work, and thus I started our AI group.
Barney Ryan appeared at the first meeting, dressed in raggedy jeans and well-worn sweater. He had long, straight dark hair and piercing blue eyes. Irish, I thought. Very Irish. He was tall and thin, and smoked a lot. He had the lean look, that I have come to know since then, of a Fisherman. The rough seas of Alaska had beaten his skin and toughened him in a way that only the Ocean can do.
Barney was a Yale heritage kid who had dropped out of college to seek a far more adventurous life than New Haven would offer. Smarter than most people I have ever known, Barney was incredibly literate, hysterically funny, and possessed a double scoop of Empathy for animals, humans, and our delicate planet. He and his wife, Lynda, soon became close friends and proved to be kindred souls. They constantly rescued cats and dogs from the local animal shelter where they were volunteers; I believe at that time they had about 17 furry kids.
The reason we were allowed to record at KBBI, was that Barney had been doing a regular program there for some time. Homer is a very small town, and he had “connections” at the station. I was thrilled that we could get local publicity for our group for free!
So, there we were that dark, cold night: inside the tiny radio station, recording a message to inform people about our Human Rights work. We hoped the announcement would entice people to join us. It was almost a metaphor for what all Human Rights workers do: try to send out a small beacon of light and hope against the Great Darkness of brutality, war, and hatred.
We completed the recording, and were very pleased with the result. The song was the perfect match; it gave us legitimacy and hipness at the same time. Our Amnesty group became known in the town, and we had remarkable success for a small group. I recently heard that the group had disbanded, but had held together and worked for our cause for over twenty years. I have to say that I was quite proud to hear that.
Barney and I went forward and became close friends. When my husband and I were leaving Homer to move back to Maine, Barney bought my Lazy-Boy recliner. He always loved that comfy green chair, and sat in it whenever he visited. I was happy to know it would have a good home with Lynda and him.
We stayed in touch for years after I moved. My phone calls to Barney were always filled with laughter, discussions of the antics of our various pets, and invitations to come visit Maine. I would describe the seasons to him, and he would tell me how much he missed the Autumn, and the cider. I think I even sent him some Maine cider once. I really hoped they would visit us, and looked forward to showing Barney the Maine Coast.
In late Summer of 1999, I wasn’t able to reach them. I called several times, and got no answer and no reply to messages left on their answering machine. My daughter was 5, and I had gotten divorced a year earlier, so my life was busy as a single working Mom. But occasionally I tried calling, to no avail.
November came with its usual blustery winds and foreboding skies. Winter would be coming soon: get ready.
The phone rang one chilly day. It was Lynda. She had a tone in her voice that I recognized and did not want to hear. She choked back tears as she told me that Barney had come home from work (he was now working and studying at the local hospital in a medical training program) and fallen asleep in the comfy green recliner. She got up about 2 a.m. to cover him with a blanket. He was dead. Barney, my friend who was so full of life and love and laughter, was gone.
Lynda had tried for weeks to summon the courage to make the call. She apologized for not letting me know sooner, but she knew the news would shatter me. She was in such deep despair trying to shoulder the horrible load of her own pain, that carrying anymore was impossible. We cried together on the phone, and when I hung up, I cried alone.
I stayed in touch with Lynda for the next sixteen years. She had to take on the care of her invalid Mother soon after Barney’s death; and then her Mom died and she was responsible for all the details. She became increasingly sad and depressed.
After a few years, she moved and I could no longer find her. She stopped all communication with me. I speculate that after Barney’s death, and then her Mom’s death, she retreated anyway she could. Barney was the Love of her Life, and he took so much of her with him when he left.
So the wonderful lyrics and music of Sting’s song have come to have an even more profound meaning for me. They remind me that all Life is so fragile. That relationships are delicate and must be carefully tended, and certainly not taken for granted. They also remind me that we can leave indelible marks on the hearts of others, as Barney did on mine.
“On and on, the rain will fall, like tears from a star, like tears from a star, On and on the rain will say how fragile we are, how fragile we are”.
(From FRAGILE by Sting)