"Virginia," we don't use last names in hospice, "has a reputation as a hard case," the volunteer coordinator told me. When I knocked at her door, Virginia's neighbor David introduced me to Virgie and her dachshund, Maxwell. "Really hateful, so watch your ankles," David warned. Did he mean Virgie or the dog?
"Well, take a seat, though I doubt you'll be back. Watch it! Hey, he's not biting you... He likes you. Who are you, anyway?" I explained to Virgie that as a private criminal defense attorney, my time was my own. I chose to give it to hospice, because nobody should die alone.
Over the next four months Virgie told me of her life as an activist for race, gender, religion, gender preference, and finally for the dying. Each week she told me a different story, like an inverse Shaharazad. She would end the way the fabled Maharajah began each night with Shararazad: "I'll probably banish you by next week, or the dog will bite you, but sit down and listen today."
Virgie and her late husband had moved to Louisville before Dr. King made a name for himself. The first time she boarded a public bus, an old black man stood and offered his seat. A young Yankee girl, she politely declined. "You look so tired, Sir. You sit." He explained that he could not sit if she stood. He tried to explain without explaining. Virgie remembered that he had such trouble conveying the concept of entrenched racism to a genteel young lady who had never heard of such a thing. Shortly after she got off that bus, she started an organization to fight for equal rights between the races. Just a simple little housewife perhaps, but one with friends, influence, charisma and a little money.
After she scratched out a place for integration and race relations in Kentucky, Virgie tackled equal pay. She never had to work a day in her life. She observed, however, that her husband's friends earned 60% more than her friends for doing the very same jobs, like managing restaurants or teaching school. She helped her friends and their friends appeal to the Kentucky legislature and then the Ky. Human Rights Commission. We don't have wage equality yet, but things are much improved for my generation, thanks to her.
A few weeks had passed, and Virgie still supposed that she would soon tire of me. "You fascinate her," her caregiver told me. The dog let me sit closer to his lady, as long as I brought him a sausage.
In the 70s they moved to Western Kentucky and Virgie, a Presbyterian, noticed a glaring lack of Jewish people in her new city. They were there, she learned, but they had to keep a low profile. After Virgie finished with them and their cause, they had a temple right down town. During the week I Googled her and her causes. She really had been all that and a bucket of chicken. The dog started permitting me to take him for walks.
In the 1980s her daughter came out. Virgie supported her, and they worked together, tirelessly fighting to get gender orientation recognized as a protected class for civil rights. In the 90s her daughter contracted lung cancer. Virgie stood beside her, cared for her, and wrote letters to improve the rights and privileges of the dying. Just a simple little housewife with friends, influence, charisma and a little more money.
Virgie's daughter died shortly before she herself received a diagnosis of lung, liver and other cancer. One day I asked what she could tell me about a colonoscopy, because I had one coming up. She said, "I guess I have to say...better you than me." Then we discussed the importance of testing and early diagnosis. Virgie had planned to fight the Cancer State, the dirty little secret about Kentucky's obscenely high rate of cancer, but she ran out of days.
She never ran out of stories, though, whispering to me on her last day. By then the dog and I had an agreement, that I could hold his lady's hand as long as he sat in front of us and thus could not see me. "Why do you come to see me?" She had never asked that before.
"Because I want to understand everything," I answered.
"You will not succeed," she predicted.
"No, but what a journey," I answered.
"I can respect that," she replied contemplatively. She grew quiet, pondering our words. Then she slipped away.