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In Memory: Barbara Seranella
January 22, 2007

I received news this morning of the passing of Barbara Seranella, who was a good friend, a beloved colleague, and one of the most unique characters I've met in a very long while.

Generous, funny, sensitive, proud—her heart was as huge as her wit was quick, and she was simply one of those people who always made you feel better the instant you spotted her across a crowded room—and most of the rooms containing Barbara were crowded.

A great many of us have Barbara stories to share, and I'm sure the Internet will be abuzz with them in the coming days and weeks. I have a mere three worth sharing, and though they may not be as grandly outlandish or heartbreakingly poignant as those of some other folks, I think they very much capture who Barbara was, and who she'll always remain in my memory.

The first occurred early on in my career, on one of the first occasions I ever met Barbara, at the Barnes & Noble store in Aliso Viejo, where we were on a panel together with Jeff Parker and Earlene Fowler. It was a very relaxed and gregarious event, with the veterans making the newcomer feel very much at ease. Perhaps too much so. I noticed that as Earlene spoke she repeatedly reached around with one hand and idly scratched the middle of her back. Now, I was raised to be attentive and courteous (having a gay older brother will do that to you), and I just figured Earlene had an itch she couldn't quite reach. So, perhaps not having the boundary sensitivity I should have (being raised by an alcoholic will do that to you), I reached over and obligingly worked my fingers into the spot she seemed just unable to get to—at which point Earlene let out an ungodly whoop of shock and nearly shot out of her chair. Barbara, without missing a beat, and realizing the moment could still be saved, remarked in that husky voice of hers: "It unhooks in the front, David."

The second occurred at a party held in 2003 at the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood. Barbara came up to Bill Fitzhugh and me with a merrily wicked gleam in her eye, and confessed that she'd had a somewhat vague but memorably pleasurable dream in which we both had appeared. "I really can't recall too many details, and I'm sorry about that," she admitted, "but I do remember waking up in a pretty good mood." Bill and I pressed her for the rest of the party to see if we couldn't tease a little more out of her—size, as I recall, was a major point of interest—but Barbara wasn't the kind to dream and tell. From that point on, though, whenever Bill or I crossed paths, we'd greet each other with: "Hey! Stay out of Barbara Seranella's dreams." To which the other would respond: "No! You stay out of Barbara Seranella's dreams." (Actually, the back and forth grew to become a bit more colorful than that, but I'll let you fill in the blanks on your own.)

The third recollection isn't quite as light-hearted, nor could it be given the circumstances. It came after her first two liver transplants, when she was still quite weak (though undaunted). We bumped into each other at Bouchercon in Chicago, and she said she wanted to talk to me about something personal in nature, but about which she thought I might have an insight. A short time later, I received a note from her explaining that her illness and convalescence had taken a serious toll on her husband, Ron, and she wasn't sure how to handle the tensions that had arisen between them since she'd been released from the hospital. I wrote back that, having been in Ron's shoes—I was the husband caretaker during my late wife's battle with ovarian cancer—I wasn't surprised that, now that the period of greatest crisis was over, Ron was feeling the need for some recovery of his own. The caretaker is called upon to be there twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and attends to every emergency, no matter how sudden or undignified. The constant state of stress and fear and concern is draining, and all the compassion is rightly directed at the patient. The loneliness can be quite severe, and the guilt can be pretty damning too: guilt at feeling tired, or put out, or overwhelmed at having to take over the daily business of the home and marriage alone, or jealous of the attention the patient is receiving—and in Barbara's case, the outpouring of devotion was staggering, so much so Ron was at a loss at how to deal with all the cards and flowers. Guilt very often finds its outlet in anger: My temper went into overdrive when my wife was sick—there's a thin line between grief and rage, unfortunately, for a lot of men—and I used it to fuel my commitment that Terri receive the best treatment possible. I told Barbara I wouldn't be surprised if Ron experienced much the same thing, and that he was very likely worn out physically and emotionally, felt raw from the top of his head to the bottom of his heart, and was conflicted over some of his own emotions. She thanked me for that, and seemed particularly grateful to learn that there was nothing unusual in what was happening, for she loved Ron, and would feel crestfallen to learn that by some bitter irony she'd gained a second lease on life only at the cost of her marriage, which she cherished.

In case anyone's wondering, Ron was right there at Barbara's bedside when she passed. And that doesn't surprise me one bit.

This is the first of my Weekly commentary entries here on the web site. I'm saddened that this maiden offering is timed with Barbara's passing, but I'm honored to be able to remember her here. She was an incredible, indomitable lady who at one and the same time could demonstrate dazzling complexity and startling simplicity, the whole time being an utter crack-up. The world of crime writing, and in particular its various conventions and festivals and other gatherings, will lose a great deal of glamour in her absence. I'll miss her.

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