To Feel the Sun from Both Sides
I met her fifteen years ago, when I was 29, and she was 59. We taught at the same college, and my first semester there was her last.
She retired when she turned 60, and although we’d met when we were colleagues, our friendship didn’t really begin until we no longer worked together. Having encountered each other at a few dinner parties and grazed glances over the cassoulet–recognizing in each other a mutual humor—we took to email, where our acquaintanceship evolved over months through nightly typed conversations.
I courted with my husband through email a few years later, but Virginia was my first modern epistolary love.
In our nightly emails, we shared stories of romances, dysfunctions, students, travels, families, community involvements. As we grew closer through writing, we grew closer in life, as well. I ate dinner at her house often; we met over coffee; we eased the transition of a Polish Fulbright Scholar and her daughter into Midwestern American life.
At some point along the way, Virginia admitted her sexual orientation to me, which came as no surprise. I like boys; she likes girls. That openness freed us to discuss her on-again-off-again-always-there-but-never-healthy long-term partnership with a woman in town. That openness freed us to agree that, because hair, including that on the chin, continues to grow after death, we would be there for each other to perform any post-mortem plucking or shaving necessary to present a respectable corpse. That openness freed me to gift her with a pair of thong underwear covered with smiley faces; when she tried them out by wearing them to church one Sunday morning, she was gripped with such giggles about her I’m-sixty-one-and-guess-what’s-under-my-pants-as-I-take-Communion secret that she had to bury her head in the hymnal and search for a non-existent song called “Oh Holy Jeebus, I’m About to Pee My Thong.”
After awhile, we took trips together: visiting Madison to eat Ethiopian food; driving to see the circus and National Crane Foundation in Bariboo, Wisconsin; flying to Ireland to travel the West Coast in a group of four women. As we rode on the bus that took us from Dublin to Galway, Virginia provided me with one of my all-time favorite memories. We were traveling with my cousin, someone prone to fits and pouting when not given her own way; said cousin—adult in chronology more than temperament–was in a snit about some aspect of the travel plans and had crossed her arms belligerently and refused to look at or talk to anyone, creating tension and anxiety amongst us all. After a stretch of tolerating the manipulative huffiness, Virginia leaned across the aisle and announced, gently but firmly, to Crabby Cousin, “Say, you see that clock up there?” When Crabby Cousin cut her eyes up to the clock at the front of the bus, Virginia continued, “You have until the big hand hits the twelve to get over yourself and shape up.”
I still regret that I wasn’t wearing a thong, as I would have peed it right there and then before sliding it out the leg of my jeans and quietly setting it onto my seething cousin’s knee.
The years followed each other, and Virginia was always there, always attentive to me, always gracious, always thoughtful. When I turned thirty and was living alone in our small town, she invited me over for cake and candles. Without her, there would have been none. When I was cavalier about recycling and couldn’t be bothered to set up a system, instead tossing my pop cans into the trash—clearly being an adult in chronology more than temperament runs in the family–she suggested, “Just put them into bags in your garage, and I’ll come pick them up every few weeks.” When my car neared death, and I needed a replacement but couldn’t see how to finance such a thing under the weight of existing debt, she noted, “I’ve been needing a new car. Why don’t you take my old one? Pay me, let’s see, $500. Payments are due whenever you can make them, in any amount.”
Then I fell in love with Byron, and she did too. When I suffered a miscarriage on a night when Byron was five hours away, and I called her in tears at 10:30 p.m. to whimper, “Something bad just happened in my toilet, and there’s lots of blood,” she was at my house by 10:35 and held my hand for two hours as I lay on the table in the ER and let the medical staff extract bits of tissue from my cervix. A few days later, when we discovered I’d been carrying twins, and one Little Gripper still hung in there, Byron and I called Virginia first. A few weeks after that, at our wedding, at our request, she stood up and recited the Lord’s Prayer in Norwegian, thus including Byron’s Norwegian-speaking Christian grandparents. A few months later, as I pushed my first baby out into the world, Virginia stood at my knee, welcoming Allegra into the world.
But I am just one person, just a speck in her larger sphere. Outside of all the many everythings she has done for me, Virginia has a long history of public service, in particular of easing newcomers into the community. As a former foreign language and communications teacher and someone who lived at one point in Germany and some decades later in Madagascar, she is particularly sensitive to the hurdles immigrants face. Thus, she sponsored a Bosnian family when they moved to town and for several years after, setting them up in an apartment, getting them work, caring for their children. This, she has also done for multiple other families and couples; her kitchen table has a permanent open seat for those wanting to learn English, wanting to learn how to drive in the U.S., wanting help translating a letter from one language to another.
She also has worked building community amongst the GLBT population and their families through her decades of work with a group originally called SMAC (Sexual Minority Advocacy Council) but which has evolved in name to Q & A (either Questions & Answers or Queers & Allies—as she says, “Take your pick”). In the spare minutes not occupied with helping all the struggling souls in a sixty mile area improve their lots or overseeing the care of her Alzheimer’s-riddled mother, she has also helped awaken the community to the need to make sidewalk corners, public buildings, and bathrooms accessible to people with mobility impairment. Rounding out her volunteerism (but in no way completing the list) have been her work with People Needing People, a weekly social group for developmentally challenged adults, and her participation on the boards of the Christian Education Center and a local nursing home.
At some point, do-gooder work can turn into a litany of “did this, did that” and sound self-congratulatory or like resume stacking. Here’s where Virginia is different: her purpose is not to be a Do Gooder. Her purpose is to live life right and well and, thusly, to do some good.
More than a decade ago, she noticed that the new family across the alley, having just moved up from the South, seemed oblivious to the way the frigid Minnesota weather was affecting their tiny dog. They left the three-pound dog outside all day and night, all year ‘round. Once she realized this, Virginia ventured over and caught the mother of the family when she was hanging up laundry, taking the opportunity to offer a piece of thick foam for the dog to stand on; to offer a smaller, lighter chain for the dog to be tethered on; to offer the addition of a dog house; to offer to adopt the dog as her own. “Oh, no,” the mother replied.“The kids love Purdy too much to let her go.” Eventually, the mother—overwhelmed by parenting children with disabilities and an unhappiness with her life—approached Virginia and said, “You can have Purdy. For $50.”
Unable to stomach the name “Purdy,” Virginia morphed it to “Perky” and bestowed upon that pup the finest of love and care (sharing dog ownership, as she had with her previous dog, halving it with a woman in a neighboring city, an agreement that afforded them both the benefits of life with a pet and freedom to travel). Soon thereafter, a hot fifty bucks in her pocket, the mother across the alley left her family. The father had a job and was not the right person to tend to his left-behind children. However, in keeping them—despite severe disabilities—at home, he continues to receive state aid. With the most functional child, whose issues stem from Asperger’s and neglect, Virginia has forged a life-altering relationship. When he was very young, she took him to the library every week, read to him, fed him, rode bikes with him to the nature center for picnics, spent two years teaching him to blow his nose. Now that he’s in high school, she still feeds him (steak and potatoes—the meal he’ll eat), buys him the winter coat and boots he wouldn’t have otherwise, washes his hair in her kitchen sink once a week with the vegetable sprayer, loans him her shaver, requires him to brush his teeth with every visit. More recently, Virginia and her wife, Kirsten, have constructed a hygiene chart for him and reward his achievements with Pokemon DS games; they also helped him obtain a violin so that he can continue to learn the instrument. Were it not for them, his friend count would be zero. As it is, his friend count hovers at two: Virginia and Kirsten.
In the midst of living this rich life, Virginia was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in the mid-1990’s. She had a full hysterectomy and underwent an intense three days of radiation at the Mayo Clinic, during which her movements were restricted due to the little diamond of radioactivity suspended inside of her; she was dressed in blood-circulating balloon pants, no thong required.
After being declared “clear” for a few years, the cancer returned. More radiation. Remission.
It was after that second round of fighting off mutant cells that Virginia met Kirsten (in a darkened theater, their fingertips touched…), a woman roughly half her age. Early in their relationship, when it was becoming clear they would have a future together, Virginia advised Kirsten, “You’ll lose me to cancer, you know.” Accepting the odds, Kirsten committed fully to sharing the rest of Virginia’s life with her (my standing up as one of Virginia’s two witnesses during their ceremony remains a life honor). On a daily basis, they have been living out a dizzying love story.
And then, well. Last spring. There was a new diagnosis. The cancer in Virginia’s pelvis was awake. Growing. It was time for new action. In the past, it had been radiation. This time, it would be chemotherapy.
Bolstered by Kirsten’s upbeat approach, Virginia viewed chemotherapy as a chance to rock the world of head gear. However, even a dresser drawer full of beautiful scarves, knit caps, and biker hats didn’t ease the painful morning when Virginia staggered out of the shower in full tears, holding a handful of hair.
How full of grace is the universe that, at that moment, she didn’t have to shave her own head? Kirsten held her, hugged her, and revved up the clippers.
Some weeks later, still missing the feel of hair and the ability to pass as “normal,” Virginia decided she wanted a wig. Kirsten and I shared a quick “Ewww. But we hate wigs” before taking a look at the bewigged Virginia and conceding that she looked incredible. Probity channels through the eyes, not the hair.
As her chemo neared its end, Virginia developed a persistent, dry cough. However, her energy remained good, to the point that she spent hours each day doing yard work, one day tying off eight bags of raked leaves before remarking, “I’m not sure why, but I do feel a little tired.”
The cough became worrying. Follow-up scans revealed that a side effect of the chemotherapy was infection in the lungs. She was put on a drug to treat the spots.
Some months later—fairly recently–further scans revealed that the “infection” was, in fact, not so benign. Rather, the spots of infection are cancerous tumors. During the months of chemo, the pelvic cancer had metastasized.
The thing about tumors in the lungs is that the conversation changes. Hopeful words like “remission” no longer apply. More common are words like “How much time does she have?”
When I first received the news of the lung cancer, I greeted it stoically, feeling that I’d done my major grieving last spring, when the pelvic cancer had first returned. Okay. So there was a new development. We were dealing with a different beast. Okay.
Stoicism doesn’t become me—it holds my face falsely rigid. More natural are the acrobatics of sustained weeping. While we were staying in the idyllic setting of The Fairy Chimney, the weeping hit. At random moments—chopping carrots, logging onto email, putting away groceries—I’d realize I had tears on my cheeks. One night, Kirsten called, and I ended up having the kind of lovely chat with Virginia that made me feel 29 again. As we made moves to hang up (or, in Virginiaspeak, “ring off”), we both were flooded with the unspoken, with the thought of “I wonder if I’ll ever see you again.” The sound of Virginia blowing her nose lingering in my ear, I clicked the off button on the phone. And then I sat at the kitchen table, heaving and heaving, speckling the merry red-and-white checked tablecloth with tears.
As grief gnawed, I continued to wonder if I would see Virginia again. One day, as I attempted to monologue while crying, Byron interrupted me and noted, “Some of this is about your dad, you know.”
I did know. I did. During the weeks when my dad was dying, I was nine months pregnant, and he was more than a thousand miles away. He died in alone, in a room he’d been moved into the day before. Having undergone an emergency C-section thirteen days before he passed, I wasn’t there. We knew he was going, but I didn’t see him One Last Time.
Even more, the way I loved my dad is the way I love Virginia. It’s pure, full of respect, steady, gentle; similarly, with both my dad and Virginia, their returned love—feeling the sun from the other side—landed in me easily and was uncomplicated by show, contrivance, need. The quietest love lodges most deeply, and these two low-key people occupy the same homely corner of my heart.
My dad’s story is over. Virginia’s carries on. Several weeks ago, another scan of her lungs was done, this time to see if the current medication was having any effect. In what could only be good news to someone living with the word uncurable, she and Kirsten were told that the tumors had not grown. They had not shrunk, but they had not grown. Good news. A day for celebration, in its way. The doctors predict she has somewhere between nine months and three years left.
Such a prognosis changes the tenor of every remaining day. Despite feeling guarded, Virginia and Kirsten are now gripped with a desire to live every day intensely, to grab at everything, to make every minute count. Unfortunately, with her diminished health, there are many things Virginia can’t and shouldn’t do. For example, her plan to visit Turkey this year is out; should she run up against a health crisis, adequate medical help might not be available. Yet travel has been her life’s blood, and so, in deciding how to spend their remaining days together, Virginia and Kirsten are trying to satisfy that need and assure, no matter the restrictions nominally put on her by doctors’ cautions, that Virginia revisits the places and people that have meant the most to her. Thus, they are planning a trip to Denmark and Germany this spring, with Kirsten, perhaps, extending her time by tacking on a leg to Turkey while Virginia flies back to the States. Before that, though, they are capitalizing on Virginia’s current high energy and taking a trip (sponsored by the college where Kirsten teaches, where Virginia used to teach) to London this next week. Anything Virginia wants to do there, Kirsten will make happen.
As a bit of a rainmaker, in fact, Kirsten will make things happen that Virginia hasn’t even imagined.
Like flying me there.
I hit Heathrow on Virginia’s 74th birthday.
Indeed, I’m about to get on a plane to London and, Sunday night, walk into a fancy restaurant whereupon I, quite cinematically, will interrupt Virginia’s birthday dinner. Although she doesn’t know I’m coming, I have no doubt that she will draw upon her greatest gift and make certain there is a seat at the table for me.
Then, for three days, we will tour castles, go to the theater, gaze upon past beauties in museums. Personally, I don’t care if we do nothing, if we sit in a bare room made out of cinderblocks. I just want to be with My Dear Virginia and see her
not One Last Time
One More Time.