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Barbara Earle

Barbara Earle has always been a no-nonsense woman. Hard working and witty. She lives surrounded by books and music, family, husband, children, grandchildren, friends and good food. Earle likes to say that every seven years she seems to have changed careers; one of them as a professional map-maker. In 1989, she and her husband Jim started island hopping in the Caribbean and then explored Mexico to create visitors maps. But, for this essay, Barbara Earle decided to talk about her concentric circles of friendship and support. Barbara Earle died April 7th, 2011 surrounded by family and friends.

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I was well into life before I really believed that life was hard, for everybody.

You'll probably say, "no kidding, I knew that." Well, I didn't. I came from a not-rich but secure and happy family who loved and respected each other. No hardship there.

But as I grew older I began to see heart-wrenching troubles around me: an idyllic marriage falling apart; a child with severe disabilities born to my daughter's friend; an old friend emailing me she had colon cancer. She had reach out to me and some other close friends and during her last days she was surrounded by loving family, friends and even laughter. She wasn't alone.

Which brings me to the flip side of what I believe; human connections make even the hardest parts of life bearable. My own experience with the hardships of life began when I was diagnosed nine years ago with primary peritoneal cancer, a form of ovarian cancer.

After the first shock and disbelief, I saw support all around me; first my kids and stepkids, and my husband on whom I dump my darkest thoughts and thus lighten my load. And then circles of friends. One friend sent me a post card a day, often in rhyme; another brought me cheeses and chocolate chip cookies. My stepdaughter stayed with us during my first round of chemo, and each morning beat me to the chores I would have done. Of course, this list could be infinitely longer.

I've had many rounds of chemo since then. And this, surprisingly, gave me another circle of human connections. I get treatment at the University of Pennsylvania where I've always had great care. For the first 8 years, chemo was given in rooms with several patients. As we got infused with God-knows-what poison, we'd swap advice for coping with side effects, but just as often speak of family, travel or where to get the best pork sandwich-life affirming topics all.

Last year my treatment was moved to the spiffy new Perlman Center at Penn, where chemo is given in private rooms. Where did the community go, the informal support group, my friends? I shouldn't whine; the staff is still caring and the individual rooms were designed to deal with privacy concerns. Everything in life's a trade off.

I don't know where life will go from here, but I'm sure it will be hard at times-for everybody-and just as sure that the warmth and generous spirit of friends and family will help me through.

Recently I went in to get a routine blood draw. From across the lab I heard "Is that Miss Barbara? Come here and give me a hug" as one of the phlebotomists approached and clutched me to her ample bosom. Now if that bit of warm, human connection doesn't help get you through a rough patch, I don't know what will.