Meet Virginia

When I was in my twenties, I read a book where the author explained in the acknowledgments that she had not written the book until she was in her thirties. “Take heart,” she seemed to be saying, because your big break may not happen until you are much older. And “in her thirties” seemed pretty old to me then.

Later, when I was in my thirties, I was raising three children and the idea of doing something really big with my life (aside from raising three children) seemed preposterous. My plate was full and I was fulfilled. I knew I had plenty of time after the calling of motherhood to pursue my own passions. I didn’t mind if I was past the mid-thirties deadline for achieving fame and fortune.

Lately, I have a lot more time to focus on my own career. And although that’s going well, there is a sort of lingering feeling of, “oh, I’m in my forties now.” In other words, I’m doing great work, but I’m “past deadline” on making some great breakthrough. On changing people’s lives.

And that was fine. Until I met Virginia Bell.

I met Virginia on a chilly March morning at her home to conduct an interview for an article I was writing for Kentucky Alumni magazine. The background information given to me by the editor, Linda, told me that Virginia was 94 years old, a graduate of the University of Kentucky and well-known for her ideas on the treatment and care for people with Alzheimer’s. I was expecting the interview to be somewhat interesting, but not overly exciting. I was expecting to write the article and then mostly forget about Virginia Bell the way I mostly forget about all the hundreds of people I interview over the course of any given year.

Instead, I had a profound and life-changing experience.

Right away I knew Virginia was a kindred spirit, of the kind Anne Shirley refers to often in Anne of Green Gables. I was entranced by her perfect manners and storytelling abilities as we sat together at a little table in her living room, surrounded by books and photos of her large family. She made me feel like a friend immediately, and the differences in our ages was a non-issue as we shared intelligent and delightful conversation.

She talked about growing up on a farm outside of Lexington and I could have written a book on that subject alone, I was so taken with her story. Later we talked about how she received her master’s degree at age 60, and then subsequently begin her life’s work changing the way we approach Alzheimer’s care. Today she is the founder of the Best Friends approach to dementia care, author of multiple books on the subject, and world-wide speaker on Alzheimer’s care, among other accomplishments.

And as I listened to her and marveled at all she has done in the last 30 plus years, I realized: my life has barely begun. 

Later, when I was reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed, I came across a passage where Cheryl’s mother is contemplating her recent terminal diagnosis and says, “I never got to be in the driver’s seat of my own life…I’ve always been someone’s daughter or mother or wife. I’ve never just been me.”

And that really hit home. It’s not that I haven’t had a terrific life so far. I went to college, I married my best friend, and I’ve made my own choices–such as starting my own business. But it’s true that I have never just been me. Now that I’m coming out of the mothering fog–my kids less dependent on me and about to fly away to their own lives–I see a delectable, enticing future ahead; one open to a multitude of possibilities.

That turns my thoughts back to Virginia Bell. Rather than a life well lived at 43, I look forward to the possibilities of the next 40 or 50 years. I try to remind myself every day: Virginia did not even BEGIN one of the major chapters of her life until age 60. It’s true she had other, prior, accomplishments. Raising five children is no small feat. But the idea that I could take everything I’ve accomplished so far to date, add 20 more years of accomplishments and living, and THEN begin a 30 year journey of greatness–well, it takes my breath away. And it gives me such hope.

Now instead of thinking, “It’s too late to write a novel,” or “I better hurry if I want to travel the world,” I think of Virginia. And then I think: Maybe I’ll do that now and maybe I’ll do that 20 years from now. There is always time to do great things.  The goal of course is do them with as much class and grace as Virginia.


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