She passed away one year ago today.
She was 49.
But it’s exactly a year, to the day.
Barbara Tonti was like a big sister to me. In fact, to say she was “like” a big sister really misses the mark; she was my big sister. A close and supportive family friend since I was little, Barb actually came to live with us during my middle and high school years, after her husband left her to indulge his drug habit. In reality, she was almost old enough to be my mom, but she always treated me as an equal, seeing my loneliness and awkwardness and meeting me with encouragement and support and friendship.
Interestingly, my fondest memory of Barb revolves around books. In the sixth and seventh grades I loved nothing more than reading - nothing. And I didn’t have many friends to talk about books with. But Barb would let me go on and on about the books I was reading; we would talk for hours. I remember she would lean in and smile as I rambled, paying full attention to my precocious theories. I felt, for the first time, that I was talking to someone who got me; the conversation was engaging, challenging, stimulating.
Like no one I’ve ever met, Barb was a servant. She really, literally, gave without expecting anything in return. She did this for me, and my family, throughout most of my life. I am incredibly indebted to her in every way.
And Barb was a radical for Jesus. When I was just a little punk pastor’s kid and Barb was a college student, she would take me along for rides with she and her friends in an amazing, convertible VW Rabbit. There would inevitably be U2 or some other sweet 80’s Christian band playing on the tape deck. Barb and her friends would witness to people out of the car window. It was crazy!
Last year, as she battled this vicious cancer, I literally saw the good news of Jesus made manifest in her body. The good news of a future hope that brings an impossible present strength and joy. The good news of God’s power made perfect in our weakness. The good news that even when the cancer has hit the lymph nodes with unstoppable force, God is even stronger, lifting up a faithful woman’s hands in praise to inspire and instruct an entire church community in what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
A few weeks before she died, I went to Barb for some advice about conflict that had arisen in our little church plant. I wanted to know if she felt I was leading well. She said, “Zach, don’t stop. You have to keep doing what you are doing.” When the book project was set to be a go, she was proud. All through the writing process, even in her bodily absence, I felt her encouraging presence – it drove me.
When someone this special dies so young, too soon, before her time, one is struck by the injustice of it all. It is not right. This is not the way the world is supposed to be.
I miss Barb.
This book, whatever it may accomplish and whomever it may reach, is dedicated to the memory of my big sister.
One year later.
To the day.
In the new heaven and new earth, I can’t wait to talk with Barb about this book I wrote.
I’m sure we’ll go on and on for hours.