On the loss of a friend

I’ve been sitting here staring at a blank page, trying to find the words to tell you about Virginia.

It’s hard to know where to begin. When you work with someone for 7 years, side by side on numerous projects and late nights and early mornings and meetings and seminars and drinks after the meetings and seminars, the memories are both too many to tell and one big blur of a moment in time.

If you’re lucky, a workplace is like a family. Your colleagues are people that you didn’t necessarily choose to spend so much time with, but, for better or worse, you’re stuck with them. Over time, you get to know the small things, like that she liked coffee as much as I do, and she liked Jude Law as much as, well, anyone could. You get to know the big things, like underneath a stubborn exterior she was quite sensitive, and that her two passions were, overwhelmingly, her family and her career.

You become protective of your “family.” Even if you don’t always see eye-to-eye, and even if some days you don’t relish the thought of spending hours upon hours with your coworkers, at the end of the day it’s you and them against the world (or at least, the newspaper the next city over …)

I could tell you about the hours I spent with Virginia, sitting in the corner of the Lifestyles department with nothing between us but her coffeepot and the day’s gossip. I could tell you about the projects we worked on together, about how stubborn she seemed at times (her Facebook page is littered with comments like “We didn’t always agree on things, but …”), but really, her stubborness was a result of her being both ultra sensitive and ultra talented. And one-on-one, she wasn’t so stubborn. In fact, she was a great teammate. 

She was one of my first graphic design inspirations. She was also a good editor. She was passionate, always being one of the first to show up when there was breaking news and she wanted to lend a hand.

I’ll never forget an odd time in the company. The Herald was owned by McClatchy Co., and our biggest competition, the Charlotte Observer, was owned by Knight-Ridder. And then, McClatchy purchased Knight-Ridder. So suddenly our biggest competition was our “sister” paper. While the rest of the company was trying to figure out how to make the switch from “those we must beat” to “those we share our scoops with,” Virginia and I had an idea: We’d go spend the day there, to see how they ran their design departments. They were a much larger paper than us, and maybe they’d have some tips we could “borrow.” Not only did we come away with some great ideas and inspiration, but we had a great day together. We made a great team, both during their meetings and during their photo shoots and during lunch at Pike’s with one of their employees. I was glad she was with me, that same day in the parking lot, when I discovered my car was leaking oil. Although neither of us knew what to do, we figured it out together and made it home safely.

Her entertainment tastes were along the lines of eclectic, and she was always talking about Doctor Who or vampires or Jude Law. She hosted parties at her house and she was very invested in her daughter’s Girl Scouts troop (meaning she provided the cookie hookup for the rest of us).

Speaking of her daughter, Sara Elizabeth was her life – it was clear they were best friends. Virginia had been unlucky in love – she had married twice, and both husbands had passed away within the first couple of years of marriage. Both men were employees of the newspaper. This happened before I ever met her, so I didn’t know either one of them. She spoke of Geoffrey, Sara Elizabeth’s father, occasionally, and always kindly.

The last time I saw Virginia was a couple of years ago. She was recovering from surgery, and Jeff and I brought dinner to Virginia and Sara Elizabeth at their home. I expected to quietly drop it off and let her rest, but she was always up for conversation and this was no exception. She impressed to Jeff that he absolutely had to check out Torchwood, which he did, and to this day he credits her for his interest.

I left the paper shortly after that, losing my daily connection to her and the others, but never feeling that they were too far away. I kept up with her, mostly through Facebook, and more infrequently than I should have. When I heard through another former colleague that she had lymphoma, I and others were crushed. Virginia was young, in her 40s, and a twice-widowed single mother of a teenager should not have to face something like cancer. Not fair. Not fair at all.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Rock Hill visiting my grandmother in the hospital. I drove past Virginia’s house. I thought about her and wondered how she was doing. Thought about stopping by but I wasn’t sure if she was still living there, or if she’d be up for visitors. A week later I heard that thing were not good. She’d been fighting this cancer for a year or more.

We were all extremely alarmed when her daughter got on Facebook and posted this message: “This is Eliza, Virginia’s daughter. She isn’t going to be getting back online, and so I’ve taken over her Facebook. If you’ve got any memories of her, any special stories, then please email them here, and I’ll check it everyday. Thank you.”

Anyone who knew Virginia did not take this statement lightly. She was always connected, always not too far away from a computer or an email or a way to get in touch. So this was bad. And on top of that, what cruel world do we live in, in which teenage daughters have to write statements like that about their mothers?

I and others posted happy memories, sad feelings, and concerned thoughts on Virginia’s Facebook page. I wrote about how much I respected her. I don’t know if Sara Elizabeth (she goes by Eliza now) ever got the chance to read these to her mother. Virginia died that night.

The church was packed for her funeral. I’ve never been to a funeral in which I knew so many people. It would have been a great reunion – except, without Virginia there, there was nothing happy about this gathering. There wasn’t a dry eye when Sara Elizabeth tearfully took the podium to tell of the last few weeks she had with her mother. “I told her I loved her all the time. Sometimes she didn’t hear me, but sometimes I know that she did.”

This child has lost two parents. The only relief I felt was when I saw the family escorted in – and it’s clearly a large family. She has a support network, thank God. In fact, I know Virginia’s father-in-law. He taught my Hemingway and Faulkner class at Winthrop (one of the hardest classes I had!) and later we had a professional relationship when I published some of his poems in the magazine I edited.

Virginia apparently was working until the cancer reached her brain, about three weeks before she died. She had a laptop in her hospital room and was in the middle of designing a section for the newspaper, and then suddenly, she couldn’t do it anymore. That was out of character for her – she always finished everything she started.

Being away from the company, I’m still not sure I “believe” that she’s gone. In my mind, she’s still sitting at her desk, surrounded by her coffeepot and her Jude Law screensaver (did I mention she liked Jude Law?), chatting about her weekend plans with her daughter and making tomorrow’s paper look fabulous as always.