Category Archives: Relationships

Burton Farbman gives us signs he’s watching over us

Hunter and little Beau receive a rainbow GodSign from Grandpa Burt.

Soul: noun. The spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal regarded as immortal.  Emotional or intellectual energy or intensity.

I like to think my dear late husband Burt’s soul is Up There—Up Everywhere—hovering, protecting, sending loving vibes. He spent his living years as the family provider and protector.  No doubt he’s spending his spiritual, immortal years with the same watchful attention.

We’ve had signs he’s watching over us.

The most dramatic GodSign happened during Burton’s funeral service.  Burton adored being a grandpa.  Five months before Burton died, our grandson River, at 12, was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)—an illness that’s 90% curable but involves over two years of grueling treatment. River had bravely undergone several chemotherapy infusions, involving numerous hospital stays and lumbar punctures.

An early test had shown cancer cells in River’s bone marrow. Months later, after treatment, River received a second lumbar puncture. It was a few days before the funeral. Our family anxiously awaited the outcome.

River’s adored Grandpa Burt had been sick for over four years. Burton died on July 1; his funeral took place four days later. Minutes before David stood up to give a powerful eulogy about his dad, “the man, the myth, the legend,” he received a text: “River’s treatment is working. No more cancer cells in his bone marrow.”

“Baruch HaShem,” I said. “Dad’s already on the case.”

Other Godsigns occurred. A few days before Burton died, our sons took me out for lunch. As we got back into the car, a song I’d never heard played: Riley Green’s “I Wish Grandpas Never Died.”  I used the song in a photo montage video we created for a celebration of Burton’s life.

At the cemetery our family plot is near a train track. When visiting, I’ve never seen a train pass by. In their eulogies, both David and Andy referenced the “train bound for nowhere” in Willie Nelson’s “The Gambler”—one of Burton’s favorite songs. As we shoveled dirt on Burton’s grave, a train rumbled by.

Burton’s spirit, on the move.

Another GodSign occurred in Traverse City, MI. David’s wife Nadine has an identical twin sister.  Natalie Shirley was dining with her family at Sleder’s Tavern in Petoskey. Burton and I ate there once, several years ago. Photos of patrons hang on the walls. Connor Shirley, Natalie’s son, pointed to a photo hanging nearby. “There’s Grandpa Burt,” he said.

On July 8, three days after Burton’s funeral, the heavens smiled on grandsons Hunter and Beau. They went outside to practice baseball. Hunter’s a talented JV pitcher at Bloomfield Hills High School. After a brief rain shower, a double rainbow appeared. A celestial special effect, compliments of a recent heavenly arrival.

Lately I read the book Signs. Author Laura Lynne Jackson, a medium, recommends deciding on a symbol that represents your departed loved one and consciously looking for it. I decided upon a white horse. Burton loved horses, and I saw him as a good guy in a white hat. At an antiques show, I came upon three white toy horses.

In a life filled with high highs and low lows, as an Oprah-endorsed author and relationship expert, I’ve concluded one thing:  relationships are complicated. Nobody gets through a long marriage without challenges.

Three weeks after Burton died, I took myself to a healing retreat, “Calm Your Nervous System,” at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. Facilitator Priti Jane Ross gave attendees a handout on which participants rated our stress from 1 to 10.

Losing a spouse: 10.

The hundreds of notes, cards and donations our family has received mostly say the same thing: time heals.

Until then, I’ll take all the GodSigns I can get.

The Farbman family at Timber Ridge farm

Shanda Sullivan fulfills sister Penny James’ dying wish to publish her memoir about the cost of her once glamorous modeling life, addiction and health issues

Shanda, her husband Patrick and friends.

Shanda Sullivan knows the joy of having a sister.

And the pain of losing her.

Click the cover to visit the book’s page on Amazon.

When Shanda’s sister Penny James died at 77, in 2019, Shanda was bereft.  She was also determined to fulfill Penny’s dying wish—to finish and publish her memoir, How Nature Healed a Broken Soul. No small feat considering that both sisters dealt with serious health issues, Shanda isn’t a writer—and Penny was brutally honest in telling her story.

Shanda has suffered from Multiple Sclerosis for 35 years. Penny faced challenges as well, contracting Raynaud syndrome, a painful disease associated in her case with scleroderma.

Beautiful and outgoing, Penny led a high powered young life.  She was Miss Colorado, 1962, and a runner up to Miss USA.  A fashion model during the Twiggy era, Penny was represented by top NY agencies Wilhelmina and Eileen Ford. She appeared on five Playboy covers but refused to do a centerfold. Her life wasn’t as enviable as it appeared. During what Shanda calls her sister’s “difficult” 20-year marriage, Penny suffered “dangerous alcohol addiction and self-esteem challenges.”

In her memoir, Penny writes of rubbing elbows with Cher, Jackie O and Ali McGraw in New York in the 1960s and 70s, and of the glamorous life she led. “Having a keen fashion sense can attract royalty. Crossing legs at the right angle while sitting and sensually using body curves to full advantage while wearing an Yves St. Laurent garment could be far more effective than a college degree in ‘getting a man.’ A marriage proposal from a rich, powerful gentleman promised the peace of mind that comes with financial security and… an exciting lifestyle. Knowing how to dress was a free ticket into the newly opened Studio 54…”   

Penny’s husband had a fling with fame as well. A plastic surgeon, he briefly starred in a syndicated tv series “Today’s Health.” Penny spent many hours teaching him how to appear comfortable and convincing on camera.

Regarding her Jet Set younger years, Penny recalls a trip to Greece with her husband and his nurse/mistress. They dined at the home of an Onassis cousin on whom her husband performed a rhinoplasty. She mentions another evening at the home of Golden Globe nominated actress Carlin Glynn. Robert and Lola Redford and Dustin Hoffman were there, dressed in jeans. About the evening, Penny writes, “My flowing gown and leg placement at a flattering angle didn’t cut it with this group…. I came home and knew my world was crumbling.”

After 20 years of marriage, Penny and her husband divorced. In her memoir she examines the price she paid for her so-called glamorous life. “…as youth faded, that sense of security was lost.  Was I afraid of being tossed out with the trash? Drugs propped up my self-esteem, then turned on me, bringing desperation and insecurity I hadn’t known before.”

Click on the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

After 11 years in the spotlight, Penny gave up her modeling career and the pressures of the ‘60s and ‘70s party scenes in Chicago and New York. In the 1980s, she moved to a 100-year old farmhouse in northeastern Pennsylvania. There she found the peace of mind that had eluded her. An  attentive neighbor was a bear she named Sophia. In Muffin: A True Story, a charming children’s book Penny published about the experience, Penny writes, “I heard an odd sound, a delicate tap… tap… tap.”  She looked out the window to see a black bear peering in at her.

“She seemed polite and good natured,” Penny writes. To entice the bear to stay, Penny tossed out a donut. “The bear had such good manners. She picked it up, ate it carefully, then wanted another.” Many more donuts followed. Tapping occurred daily. Before long, Sophia clicked her teeth together, signaling to three cubs it was safe to descend from the tree where they hid.

Even the Muffin story was part of the roller coaster in Penny’s life.

Here’s the sad epilogue to this story: While Penny relished her relationship with Sophia and her offspring Muffin, the National Park Service advises against befriending wild animals. Attacks, though rare, most likely occur when bears are “protecting food, cubs or their space,” the park service says. Bears that are too comfortable around humans run the risk of encountering other less friendly humans. Such was the case with Muffin and three of her cubs. All four animals were shot and killed by a hunter.

Penny developed achalasia, a rare digestive disease that impedes digestion. She handled her  complications with grace, writing, “I am a patient with achalasia, scleroderma, pulmonary hypertension, AFib and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Yet I’m still alive and look healthy.”

Shanda says joining AA allowed her sister “to develop a relationship with God and begin her healing journey.” Penny reached out to others. As a volunteer, she shared her story with female inmates at Riker’s Island, reading to them and collaborating on a sculpture garden featuring a totem of branches and twigs.

“Penny believed we’re all connected on God’s earth with zero degrees of separation,” Shanda says. Zero degrees describes Shanda and Penny’s relationship. In her memoir, Penny credits her sister for tireless medical advocacy and moral support. “Shanda has always been the one beside me when I’ve really needed help.”

I met Shanda, who lives in Virginia, several years ago at a Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko, Nevada. Our dear friend Richard Webb convinced us to fly from Florida across country and then drive for about three hours to this small but lively western town. A bonus of attending, including the high voltage poetry of Paul Zarzyski and music of Texan Tom Russell, was meeting Shanda.  Her husband Patrick served on the board of the Elko-based Folklife Center, which organizes the annual event. Poets and singer songwriters perform around town on stages including the high school gymnasium.

Though more low key than her sister, Shanda shares Penny’s determination. Developing MS at 37, Shanda more recently had breast cancer—twice. For now, her MS symptoms are “relatively mild.” She theorizes the disease may have been slowed by chemo she took for breast cancer.  Shanda was born and raised in Colorado. She was a flight attendant for United Airlines until MS ended her 20-year career in the air. With a close friend, she then started what became a successful interior design business.

Shanda’s husband Patrick is a retired navy pilot, aeronautical engineer and professor (aka “rocket scientist”).  A “super duty” pilot in Vietnam, Patrick flew a MEDEVAC to pick up wounded brothers—something he did on alternate days off after flying Navy helicopter gunships and SEAL ops.  Aboard USS Enterprise, the first nuclear aircraft carrier, Patrick took charge of on-board filming, arranging the opening scenes in the original “Top Gun” movie with Tom Cruise.  When Shanda and I first spoke, Patrick was away, escorting his friend, legendary  cowboy and blues singer 91-year old Ramblin’ Jack, on tour of Nashville and the South.

As maternal and caring as Shanda is, she and Patrick didn’t have children, lest pregnancy worsen her MS. She’s as devoted to her other two sisters, Bobbie and Sheila, as she was to Penny. During the four months Penny underwent chemo, Shanda convinced her sister to live with her and Patrick. She accompanied Penny to appointments. As challenging as those months were, the sisters still managed to “be silly and laugh.” They especially delighted in composing a tray full of beautiful but inedible foraged mushrooms.

Penny, sober for 34 years, called Shanda every Sunday to go over a Bible passage. Joining AA helped Penny recover a sense of sanity. She believed her story might help others through difficult times. “She wanted others to know they could learn from her mistakes and come through them, as she did,” Shanda says.  When ill health prevented Penny from finishing her memoir, she asked Shanda to complete it—a seemingly impossible request considering that on top of her existing health issues, Shanda had lately been diagnosed with Lyme disease.

“I stared out the window thinking I might never be able to garden again, no less complete Penny’s book and publish it,” Shanda says. “But it was a deathbed promise, and in our family we were taught to be tenacious. So I did my best. I learned how hard it is to turn a rough manuscript into a finished, edited, and finally published book. Especially when it covers such painful moments in the life of someone I dearly loved.” The experience, she admits, “took a toll.”

Thanks, Shanda, for sharing your resilient sister and equally resilient self. On Nov. 8, you’ll turn 72. Happy and HEALTHY, well-earned birthday wishes.


A Penny James Gallery from her heyday in media







Looking for angels? Gather your own angels like this …

Although Santa Barbara made headlines this week for a tragic shooting, it is normally a heavenly place.  No wonder so many Angels abound there.

17 years ago, my sweet sister met a new friend.  “I loved Betty instantly!” Anne says.  Betty wore a sparkling gold pin with her name, Betty Hatch, spelled out.  The pins are sold by an organization Betty started in Santa Barbara, the Council on Self Esteem.  (The idea behind the pins: If you meet someone wearing one, you can focus on what they’re saying and not on trying to remember their name.)

Anne offered to host a 60th birthday party for Betty.  Asked for a guest list, Betty said: “I like your friends.  Invite them.” Those guests became the nucleus of 12 women they’d come to call their Angel Group.  Each month, a different member hosts a luncheon.  Members talk in turn around the table about different issues.  “Over about 160 lunches, we’ve supported each other through death, illness, family crises and good times. We all do our darndest to make every luncheon,” Anne says.

Betty says, “Our Angel Group means we have 11 best friends to call on during sickness and health.  Believe me, we have.  We’ve supported one another during down times with love and action.  I’d like to see Angel groups formed everywhere, a worldwide network of Angels.”

The hostess decides on a theme.  Recently, the host was Judi Weisbart (mother of Macho; see my earlier column about a Lhasa Apso’s Buddhist Roots).  After the group gave updates, Judi asked them to mention something meaningful they own from their family.  Betty talked about “the beautiful silk scarves my mother left me which I wear most days.”  

You’ve met Betty and husband Stan before on this blog.  (See my column headlined “World’s Children Healthier Thanks to Chance Meeting With Israeli Exec“).  Betty is a dynamo in her own right.  For 28 years she ran an international model/talent agency and professional training school. Her most famous model, Cathy Ireland, still lives in Santa Barbara.

Having survived breast cancer, two strokes and other health challenges, Betty appreciates the messages of support the Angels often send each other.  In 2005, she received a favorite.  Numerous children were asked: What does love mean?  The elderly neighbor of a 4 year old boy had just lost his wife.  The child walked next door, climbed on the man’s lap and sat there.  After, the boy’s mother asked what he’d said to his neighbor. “Nothing,” he said.  “I just helped him cry.”

“Now that,” Betty says, “is love!”


Many people intentionally form new circles of friends, as these angels did in Santa Barbara. Have you formed such a circle? Tell me about it. I’d love to hear more stories like this about the Godsigns that come when we’re intentional about reaching out in new ways.