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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Too Young to Die


Virginia and Betsy in 2016

I met Virginia on the same day we said goodbye to our first-to-leave-the-roost daughter. Despite the ecstasy I felt at the mere thought of reducing my daily dependents by a third, I had mixed emotions about my kids being old enough to navigate life on their own. We had driven 500 miles down to Chapel Hill the day before and after unloading too many brand-spanking new Bed, Bath and Beyond products into a sweltering dorm room, were heading back north. It was 150 degrees out, the traffic was a nightmare and we were expected for dinner at my father-in-law’s in Baltimore to finally meet his not-so-new friend, Virginia.

When we arrived, hot and bothered, not to mention an hour late, my spouse and I made an unspoken truce to abandon our “I told you we should have left earlier,” and “We’re never going to get there,” sniping in the old minivan, showing only our sweet and selfless selves at dinner that night.

And Virginia showed us hers.

Virginia already knew everything about our family. She knew that the daughter was fulfilling her longtime dream of attending the University of North Carolina, (coincidentally the same school her own granddaughter chose several years later), that Max was home gearing up for football season and that Leo’s shoulder was still sore from tossing too many baseballs. She asked all about the novel I was writing (that’s still sitting in my computer) and the news stories my spouse was reporting on. 

I could tell from the get-go that Virginia wasn’t trying to make a good impression. She genuinely cared. 

My father-in-law had been widowed for several years and moved into a cruise ship on land. One of those wonderful places with a tastefully decorated lobby adorned with huge vases of fresh flowers, friendly faces who greet you by name and a dining room that serves the best crab toast appetizers this side of the Chesapeake. There are bus rides to town, an indoor pool, an outdoor patio, classes and lectures, a communal garden, day trips, happy hours, card games and crossword puzzles. And, for the first time since college, you’re surrounded by a whole campus of people your own age. I can hardly wait.

When Virginia first came into the picture she was an unnamed friend who lived in the same building and shared an occasional dinner with my father-in-law. But as time wore on, her name slipped into the conversation more and more frequently. Virginia and I saw a show in Baltimore. Virginia and I are taking a road trip to Williamsburg. Virginia and I went grocery shopping…

When it became clear that Virginia and he were together for the long haul, my father-in-law knew it was time for her to meet the family.

Virginia and I clicked immediately. She got my sense of humor. She admired my joie de vivre. And she always praised my ability to juggle my family’s multiple activities and personalities. 

That first Thanksgiving, Virginia came to the first of many family gatherings in Pennsylvania. She met my mother, my three sisters, my niece and nephew and a whole slew of childhood friends who came and went throughout the day. And when the same cast of characters would show up at subsequent parties over the years, Virginia would greet them all by name, always recalling some tidbit about each and every one of them. 

Everyone loved Virginia. It was hard not to when she showed such joy and interest upon meeting friends, family and even strangers.

Virginia loved the arts. She was a painter and a sculptor and had a true appreciation for life’s beauty. She was fair-minded and liberal and worried about the underdog. And, she was wise and wonderful enough to know that friendships could transcend different world, political and religious views. 

Virginia and my mother shared a birthday. They became good friends who often spoke to each other on the phone. I know they chuckled about the crazy things the grandchildren were doing and rolled their collective eyes about the off-color blogs I wrote and the too many road trips we took, but I also knew she was never judging us. Only enjoying us. 

But, it wasn’t quite fair that she got to know my whole family and I never got to meet hers. So, in true Virginia fashion, she kept me informed of their doings and whereabouts and once sent me a bunch of photographs, all labeled with names so I could have a visual of her side of the family tree. 

“I don’t want to meet your people for the first time at a funeral, you know!” I said more than once. But, time and distance got in the way, and that’s exactly what happened.

My spouse and I went down to the cruise-ship-on-land one day shortly before Virginia turned her ailments over to the doctor. She wasn’t feeling great, she was terribly short of breath and her very being ached, but, like a trooper, she ventured down to the dining room to share what ended up being our last lunch together.  

A couple days later I called her. She answered the phone after too many rings, breathless and tired. But upon hearing my voice, immediately kicked into gear and started asking all about me and family, and especially Leo with whom she had a special creative connection. She asked how my mother and all my sisters were doing. She asked about Griffey, the dog. I think she even asked how my childhood friend, Margaret, was. And I finally had to stop her. 

“What about you, Virginia?” I asked, anxiously afraid to hear what the doctors had discovered.

And that’s when she told me she had been diagnosed with lung cancer. 

“But we all have to die of something,” she said dismissively. “I think it’s probably better than having a stroke.” 

Virginia wasn’t my mother-in-law. Nor was she even my step-mother-in-law. But since the day we met, she’s been family.

At Virginia’s memorial service last week, our families finally came together. My spouse and I, our three kids, my mother and oldest sister represented our contingent, admiring Virginia's two daughters, three sons-in-law and three talented and gracious granddaughters during the moving and musical service. It was abundantly clear that Virginia's love of life and warm and welcoming spirit will live on through her daughters and their families for many generations to come.

As for our side of the family, we never knew how old Virginia was. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time trying to figure it out; after all, at a certain point, it doesn’t really matter. Our best guess was that she was somewhere between 80 and 85 years-old, making her younger than both my mother and father-in-law. 

So, upon entering the memorial service, my journalist of a spouse and I were both justifiably horrified at the typo on the front of the program.

IN CELEBRATION OF THE LIFE OF
Virginia Sawyer Duncan
October 19, 1916 – June 13, 2017

But, alas, it wasn’t a typo at all. Virginia had never shared with us that she was 100 years old. She didn’t want people treating her like she was old. She didn’t want people making a fuss over her big birthday. And she was just as happy letting others believe she was dating an older man. She looked and acted that young.
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After the shock wore off, I smiled to myself remembering how she used to sign all the letters that she wrote to me:  Love, from your ONBFF.

Which translated to Love from your Old New Best Friend Forever. 

I suspect she was dropping me a hint, giving me a wink, knowing that one day I’d learn the truth. And that when that day came, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference how old she was. 

Virginia knew that I am a no-holds-barred kind of a gal. That my life is an open book. And that I will always point out my quirks, my mistakes and my wrinkles before anyone can do it for me. 

So, I can’t help but think that Virginia knew exactly what she was doing by not letting on how old she was. And that maybe she was trying to pass on some life lessons with her ageless existence. Perhaps she was telling me to live life the way she did. To fill my heart with hope and happiness and humility. To surround myself with good people. To appreciate the beauty in the world. To never give up on love. And to forget the little stuff, like fretting about turning 60 on my next birthday.

In the grand scheme of her grand and glorious life, I didn’t know Virginia for very long at all. But, I knew her long enough to love her. I knew her long enough to learn from her. And, I knew her long enough to call her my ONBFF.

 


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