An ordinary woman of extraordinary goodness

Posted: June 11, 2012

A few months ago, my cousin Nanci’s friends threw her an early 50th birthday bash.

Just 160 of her closest buds.

In the photos, she is beaming. She’s lost some weight. Her hair is cropped short. Her makeup is perfect. You hardly notice the wheelchair.

The music, the food, the decorations, everything was just the way she had wanted it, because Nanci really knew how to whoop it up.

In her 20s, she threw a toga party in her backyard and asked her father, Herb, to judge the costumes.

He was a state supreme court judge at the time.

"One more thing," Nanci said when she sprung the request on him. "Could you put on your judge robes to do it?"

He hesitated, but only for a second. He would do almost anything for her.

Herb told that story last week at Nanci’s funeral. And when he did, the room, packed with relatives and many of the same friends who had been at her pre-death party, rippled with laughter.

Just the way she wanted it.

At the beginning of the service, the rabbi asked us to think about our relationship with Nanci and choose one of her many good qualities that we could integrate into our own lives.

Quite the challenge.

I’ve been to enough funerals to know that upon taking their last breath, even creeps, misers, and misanthropes are remembered as virtuous people. What I didn’t realize was how the death of someone I didn’t know very well, but who had lived an exemplary life, could affect me so deeply.

When I say an exemplary life, I’m not talking about Ivy League degrees, stock portfolios, or noted publications. She wasn’t famous, rich, or powerful and didn’t aspire to be. But Nanci was one of those relatively rare modest humans who was hugely influential in her relatively small world. Someone who sang off-key but with heart, who loved golden retrievers and dressing up on Halloween, and who, like her father, would do anything for her kids.

An ordinary woman of extraordinary goodness.

Nanci was related to me by marriage and lived hours away, so we only saw each other at high-heeled events. Mostly funerals. Her mother died young. Her sister, too.

Nanci was divorced, but after she remarried eight years ago, her happiness arc seemed to have soared. Her son from her first marriage and stepdaughter had bonded and the reconstituted family was purring along.

I always thought of her as gregarious and sweet, but it was only recently that I had sampled some of her generosity. For my daughter’s wedding last year, Nanci created a slide show from more than 50 photographs of the bride and groom from infancy to engagement, set to their favorite music.

The project was ridiculously complicated and every time I apologized to her for fumbling with the scanner or asking her to add a picture or told her I couldn’t thank her enough, she’d laugh.

"Don’t be silly. You’re doing me a favor. You don’t understand, this is my pleasure. Now, are you sure everything is the way they want it?"

In November 2008, she was diagnosed with stage 3c ovarian cancer. Like most women, she’d had no clue that anything was wrong until the disease had its hooks in her.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 22,280 new cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed in 2012 and that it will kill 15,500 women this year. Only 20 percent of cases are caught before the tumors have metasticized and fewer than 50 percent of patients survive longer than five years after diagnosis.

Surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy bought Nanci some time, but she was allergic to the most effective drugs.

Instead of wallowing in her dismal luck, she started raising money for ovarian cancer research. She organized marches and founded a nonprofit, the Circle of Strength.

A Facebook junkie, Nanci updated news about the organization’s progress daily. My e-mail was so barraged by the feeds that, I admit, I shut them down for awhile.

Note to self: Generosity. One of the qualities to think about integrating.

Three months ago, when Nanci’s doctors told her they had run out of tricks, she began planning for the end. First, the birthday party — a kind of Waking Ned Devine pre-funeral. Then her instructions for the gathering she would attend only in spirit.

She told her father she didn’t want everyone sobbing and moaning. She wanted a celebration of her life.

She called a few friends and asked them to write eulogies on the condition that they swore not to cry. Her father, son, and stepdaughter were kept to the same contract.

They all managed, remarkably, to keep their word.

The rest of us failed miserably.

We laughed at the story about the toga party. And the one about how she and her best friend would religiously cut class in high school. And the one about how she once stood in the middle of a Home Depot, put a bucket on her head, and began singing loudly for the joy of watching her stepdaughter turn red. We wanted to applaud when we heard the one about how, on a compassionate impulse, she organized two tractor-trailer loads of donations for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. And when her college roommate said she always found the best in people.

But when her father spoke about how wrong it is for a parent to have to attend his child’s funeral. And when her son, who is about to graduate from high school, spoke about how terribly he would miss her, we were done for.

Note to self: Finding the best in people. Another quality to integrate.

During her last weeks, when she was in hospice, and in considerable pain, she still managed to stay in touch on Facebook, thanking her friends for their encouragement and reminding them to keep the Circle of Strength alive.

She died on her 50th birthday with her family by her side.

It was an honor to know her. And it will be a challenge to do her memory honor by living half as fully and well as she.

Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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