The first time I met Barbara for breakfast I got a parking ticket. She was an academic of sorts, a woman who had written large federal grants and was trying to start her own non-profit. She had a bag full of papers with her. Resumes, she told me, of fellow guests at the café. She liked to help people find jobs. Everyone raved about her computer skills. I got so caught up in her stories I forgot about my meter.
We were dining at Inspiration Café, where restaurant-style meals are among a menu of services that enable people to rebuild their lives against a backdrop of poverty and homelessness. I was a volunteer server taking individual breakfast orders. Blueberry pancakes. Eggs over hard. Breakfast burrito topped with salsa. Nothing was too small to ask. Barbara was a longstanding guest, her round face framed by tiny crow’s feet and patches of silver above her temples.
I served breakfast for years on Friday mornings. When Barbara wasn’t regaling me with her latest find at the thrift shop, or encouraging other guests about their job prospects, she was gushing about the seafood omelet with hollandaise sauce, the sautéed vegetables, and the small bowl of grits with cheese she ordered every Friday morning. “The Barbara,” the volunteer chefs loved to call it. They knew her order by heart.
One morning, after everyone had been served, I sat down to eat my own eggs. An orange Gerber daisy stretched out of the slender glass vase in the middle of our table. Carole, a fellow volunteer, decided to join us. Barbara was sitting next to me. Her bowl of grits was only partially eaten. She was busy breaking pieces of old crusty bread into tiny bird-size portions. Her plastic grocery bag was already half full.
Carole and I started talking about her job, and before I knew it my plate was practically empty. I turned to engage Barbara in our conversation and realized that she was having a seizure. She had them regularly. Grand mals, less so. Bits of cheddar cheese and grits hung in her mouth, half in and half out, as her body shook like an earthquake tremor, unpredictable in its duration. Her arms flailed at her side, the pieces of bread having fallen to the floor.
I looked up for James, the café manager, and saw him running across the hard wood floors. I touched Barbara’s arm, trying to give her some sense of reassurance that help was on its way. But James ran straight past us toward the phone. I watched in fear as Barbara’s teeth began to gnaw her lip. The grits and cheddar cheese were not moving down her throat. Her body had begun to convulse.
“Is she going to choke?” I asked. But no one answered. The café was full and breakfast conversations, mixed with the beat of cool jazz, reverberated off the walls.
Carole reached out to touch her back, and without warning, Barbara slid right off the side of her chair. I screamed.
“Don’t let her head hit the floor,” someone yelled.
I found myself kneeling on the floor. The café was suddenly very silent. Barbara’s body shook, and her mouth was still full of grits. But her head was resting in my lap.
Carole knelt down beside us and stroked her arm. JC, another guest, ran over. Evelyn and Steve too. Then James joined us on the floor. He wiped the excess grits from her lips and tried to pull more out of her mouth. The paramedics, he explained, were on their way.
We watched as her body began to ease up. I heard James call her name.
“Barbara,” he repeated softly. “Barbara … You can open your eyes.”
I didn’t know how else to help so I joined in.
“Barbara, we’re here.”
“We know you’re fighting it.”
“Open your eyes, Barbara.”
Several long minutes passed and nothing changed. Carole leaned forward, looked into Barbara’s eyes, rolled back as they were, and said gently but firmly, “Barbara, wake up. The birds need you. You need to feed the birds.”
My eyes filled with tears.
“Yes,” I whispered, “They’re waiting for you to feed them.”
Barbara’s head tilted to the side. Her body slowly began to stop shaking. The paramedics arrived, and we watched as her eyes opened and then closed and then opened again.
“The birds need you,” Carole said.
The paramedics slid Barbara onto a stretcher. She seemed dazed and confused. I grabbed her bag of resumes and her bag of ripped up bread and slipped them to James who was planning to ride with her to the hospital. I knew she’d be looking for them. The world has many needs and we’re all called to serve in whatever way we can.