A memorial

I probably met Dr. Virginia K. Proud within a few weeks of my birth, but my parents discussed me with her well before that. I was their first child, born with a staph infection, and hospitalized for the first week of my life.

My parents weren’t starving, but they weren’t high-paid professionals, either, and along with my health, the cost of a week in the hospital for their very ill newborn was scary. Dr. Proud said, “Well, it’s not like the hospital is going to take her back if you don’t pay the bill. Send them ten dollars a month. It will be fine.”

Dr. Proud, by the way, is my Aunt Ginny, my dad’s only sister.

Many years later, i watched the movie RED and wondered who had been spying on Aunt Ginny to write Helen Mirrin’s part, Victoria. At one point, Victoria travels down an escalator into a restricted area and a guard repeatedly says, “Ma’am, you can’t be here.” She repeatedly answers, “It’s fine. It’s fine. I’m sure it’s ok…” And then she knocks the guard out with her purse.

“It’s fine” is the way Aunt Ginny lived her life. If she was any more than five foot, you couldn’t tell by looking at her, but that didn’t make her someone that listened to “no” easily – if she bothered to ask for permission in the first place.

Aunt Ginny and Uncle Ken were forced to leave one of their first apartments because they adopted a dog, and when she told me the story close to forty years later, she still seemed amazed that the landlord was serious about the no-pets policy. But, she told me, it gave her the chance to rent a professor’s house instead, so it was fine.

She had no qualms about walking down South Street in Philadelphia after dinner at 11:00 at night, even with an 11-year-old (my sister) in tow. South Street was on the news virtually every night back then, and I’m pretty sure my sister was convinced they were going to be shot. “It’s fine,” Aunt Ginny said, and it was.

When she had the kids at the beach and someone needed to use the bathroom, she marched all of us through the lobby of one of Virginia’s most stately hotels, sandy and dripping, to use the restrooms at their pool. We weren’t guests, and I was sure someone was going to come yell at us any minute but Aunt Ginny said it was fine, and it was.

She was the kind of person who didn’t worry about what time it was. The idea that an aquarium would be annoyed if ten of us showed up fifteen minutes before closing, or that a restaurant wouldn’t just reopen the kitchen if we showed up for dinner at nine o’clock and they had already closed the grill, never seemed to enter her mind. And if those things did happen, it was fine, we’d just make another last-minute plan in its place.

From Aunt Ginny’s example I learned that expressing confidence in a decision was much more important than knowing every single piece of data required to always make the right decision. Gather just enough information to say, “It’s fine, and here’s our plan.” When better information is available, change the plan accordingly. Don’t look back and regret things that can’t be controlled or information that arrived late, which might have taken you down a different path. All that matters is that you make the best decision you can when a decision must be made.

She also taught me that responsible people do their research, write down the facts, and work hard. Confidence breeds trust, but it’s not enough to nourish the trust into a long-standing healthy relationship. Only sharing knowledge, being sincere, and love can do that.

And oh, did she love. No matter how bitter, burned-out, or nasty I was feeling, Aunt Ginny loved me. Even when she was frustrated with me, she loved me. She told me how amazed and proud she was of me whenever she saw me. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a doctor like her daughter, or a teacher like her son (both of whom she lauded regularly), or a firefighter, CNA, biologist, pharmacist, or professor like so many of my other family members who have saved lives. It didn’t matter that I saw myself as worthless, that my daily battles with anxiety and depression left me feeling broken. Those were (and are) my doubts, not hers.

If Aunt Ginny did measure me agains my own potential, it didn’t show. She looked at who I was at that moment. If she could help me learn and develop, she did. And if she could learn from me, I knew she’d be pulling out one of her yellow legal pads filled with unreadable doctor writing so that she could write down everything I said and study it.

A few years ago, Aunt Ginny was diagnosed with multiple myleoma. With her daughter’s help, she engaged teams of specialists from Boston, MA and Duke University in North Carolina. She made it into remission. She saw the birth of her first grandchild. And the cancer came back, this time with an attitude.

Aunt Ginny brought the attitude to the cancer in return. She rollerbladed until it became too dangerous to continue. She biked with a rod in her thigh. When I visited her a month ago, she groused about having to use a walker, and planned to walk the Virginia Beach half marathon with me Labor Day weekend. She wasn’t just wistfully hoping to beat the cancer; she bought a sea kayak.

When I saw her ten days ago in a hospital bed in Norfolk, she could barely stay awake from the pain drugs, and she was having a terrible time finding a comfortable position to lay in. She wanted to know where we – she included herself – were going out to dinner that night.

When I saw her Sunday and Monday of last week, she had been moved to hospice care in her home, and to be honest, I don’t believe the true spirit of my aunt was still in the body that leaned on us for support. Those were very hard days, but we got though them in part because of the confidence perseverance she taught all of us, and in part because of the love she gave us, and we to her, and to each other.

Aunt Ginny, Dr. Proud, died late in the night last Monday, July 15th. My family and I spent as much of the week as possible with her family. I see reflections of her in every one of them. I am honored to have been welcomed to stand by their side.

On Friday I attended her memorial service, along with dozens of her peers and co-workers from the hospital, parents of patients, family friends, and family. I heard firsthand accounts of the doctor I rarely met and the family member I already knew. I am so amazed and proud of her I can only say I love her.

The hole she left in this world is huge, and will not be filled. Her death has pushed us on to roads we’d preferred to have left untaken, but it will be fine. We will gather the knowledge we need to navigate around the hole. We will find our confidence again. We will share what we know and share our love. We will never forget that the hole is there — that somewhere in the universe she is there, even if we can find her only in our memories and our stories — but it will be fine.

It has to be. She won’t have it any other way.

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3 responses to “A memorial”

  1. Robert B Kent says:

    Thank you, Please don’t ever down-play your abilities to write and be truthful

  2. A touch late to the party, but I just wanted to express our hopes and condolences, as well as echo M. Kent’s words — this was beautifully written, and it seems to me a fitting tribute to an extraordinary woman.

  3. […] And my brain (being my brain) replied, “No, see, I can’t, because she’s dead.” […]

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