Eulogy for my co-worker Donna
by James T Lang
A mirror or reflection. I want the audience to see in their imagination what the life of Donna was all about. See Donna’s whole person: her strengths, joys, challenges, achievements.
Donna’s sister, Joy asked me to tell you about my years working with Donna at P&C. I am an attorney. Donna was for many years a paralegal in our family law section working with my partner, Bart.
P&C is a large organization; 35 attorneys, 100 employees, spread across 3 offices. I would probably have only barely known Donna in that setting except that, from 2005 to 2008, Bart and Donna were there for me when I went through a divorce.
Donna left P&C in September 2007 to take work in another firm. In the spring of 2012 (April 30) Donna returned to our firm to work directly with me and Jack. I saw Donna every day, all day. We worked hand in glove together.
Donna started getting sick and missing work in 2014. I started seeing Donna at her home (the condo at Cypress Point Country Club). I saw her at Virginia Beach General, when she was in the hospital. I saw her when she was in Kempsville Health and Rehabilitation Center on Indian River Road in Chesapeake. I saw her many times during the hospice period of her life when she was staying in the home of Linda and Sherrise in Thoroughgood.
Donna arrived back in the company when I was in the middle of a knock down drag them out federal case. I represented a government agency.
We sued a tug company after a tug hit a bridge. The cost to fix the bridge was more than $1M. The insurance company representing the tug company did not want to pay notwithstanding that the reason the tug hit the bridge is that the man driving the tug fell asleep at the wheel. It did not help matters any that the government agency waited more than 3 years before it brought the case to me. This is what Donna walked into when she was hired.
Let me tell you what she did. Remember . . . she had been doing family law for decades. What a learning curve this woman had! Divorces in state court – what she knew backwards and forwards – are way different than cases that arise in the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction and are litigated in the federal court.
She read the emails I sent to the other attorneys so that she knew what was going on in the case. Then she started figuring out ways to help me WITHOUT ME EVEN ASKING. She was calm when under pressure.
I was assisted by 3 other attorneys. We had numerous expert witnesses. Boy, when I wanted a meeting, Donna could really herd the cats.
The result - $1.25M recovery for our client!
But what about THAT SNEEZE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Those of us living in Hampton Roads know all about jet noise. As it comes on you stop talking and wait for it to pass. There is no talking over it.
Same with Donna’s sneeze. A lot more than just the “chooo”. The voice got involved. It was a cross between a growl and a yell and a foghorn. It was the deep-throated loud part of her voice. She let one loose when she worked for Bart on the 5th floor that was picked up on a dictation tape made by one of Bart’s colleagues down the hall (the colleague’s secretary told us that she had to go back to Bart’s colleague to ask what was said because the sneeze drowned out the words).
Another time when Donna let loose one of her signature sneezes a fellow employee and longtime friend in the cubicle next to her Peggy said: "Girl, I am waiting to see tonsils flying out of your cubicle and hitting the wall."
Donna said in return: "You smart ass. That’s never gonna happen because I had my tonsils taken out when I was a little girl."
Donna’s theory about this, if you asked her, was that if you did not fully release the convulsion of a sneeze you would blow out the blood vessel in your eye.
This woman was strong, very strong, and very determined, maybe even stubborn.
During the 2007 to 2012 period when working at the other firm, Donna overcame breast cancer - surgery, radiation therapy, chemo therapy. Through all of that she only missed one day of work. Here is the stubborn part.
I could see in 2014 that Donna was starting to get hobbled by pain. It got progressively worse. She started to miss work – which was a major red flag because she had told me how she missed only 1 day of work when she fought off breast cancer. I started out with occasional questions . . . have you had your doctor look at this?
Those of you who know her know what she said:
No . . . I am using affirmations . . . I am healthy whole and free.
One of Donna’s co-workers is a paramedic who runs rescue one night a week with the VB Rescue Squad. This co-worker many times approached Donna and was told the same thing. As Donna’s illness progressed I began to push Donna harder, telling her I would take her to the doctor.
No . . . I am using affirmations . . . I am healthy whole and free.
I was out of the office on the day when our paramedic co-worker had to arrange for the Virginia Beach Rescue Squad to take Donna out of our office in an ambulance. That was the last day that Donna was able to work. She was at that time counting down the days until she was leaving with Bonnie to go on a trip to Ireland. Donna never came back to work and, sadly, she had to cancel the trip to Ireland.
I want to say that I am very proud of how everyone rallied around Donna - her sisters, especially Joy who I have gotten to know, and her daughter, Heather, Donna’s work family (Diane, Teresa, Valerie, Peggy, Jack), and Donna’s extended family (Bonnie).
Most touching of all, Linda and Sherrise, who opened their home and cared for Donna during her time of hospice – what you did for Donna is an example of the very highest ideal of compassion.
Okay . . . what about Donna’s rat-a-tat machine gun staccato manner of speaking. It was 250 miles an hour and if you asked her she would say “It must be my southern accent. I’m from Georgia. It’s my southern drawl.” I thought her accent was closer to what I hear from my friends who grew up in Brooklyn.
How about Donna’s conscientious sense of duty to her boss. Did you know that she would not leave her work station, even briefly to go to the ladies room, if her boss was in a meeting with someone? She was worried that he (or she) might need something and she insisted on being available to deliver it.
Oh, was Donna ever good at sizing up people! She could sniff out the pretentious and the fake a mile away. She was not one bit shy about telling me that I should not trust so and so.
Here is something I learned from Donna that I use every day. Always compliment a person who is trying to help you: “Thank you for going the extra mile for me!”. Say this to them while they are helping you instead of waiting to see whether their efforts on your behalf bear fruit. Let a person know that you appreciate the effort they are making for you.
What about Donna’s shopping? One day in 2007, right before she left the firm, we had a fire drill that stranded all of us outside on the street for 4 hours. Donna took off and went shopping. She returned with 10 pairs of shoes!
Shopping was one of Donna’s joys but it also got her into trouble. I can tell you that another of Donna’s joys was when she got control of her shopping and put her financial trouble behind her.
We can’t leave the subject of Donna’s joys without mentioning her cat Zoey and all of the beautiful artwork Donna used to decorate her home.
Another joy was her stuffed bear. She latched onto her stuffed bear whenever she was confronted with something that scared her, including going to the dentist.
And then there is her sense of humor. Donna knew what was on my calendar 24-7, including the weekends. On Fridays, before she went home, she would bring a print out of my weekend calendar into my office and give it to me so that I would not forget anything. One of the weekends had me and my wife, Susan, getting away to a seaside location in North Carolina.
On Monday morning Donna asked me if I had a good weekend. When I said “yes” she replied “Well at least one of us got some action this weekend”.
Over the last year and one half of her life, whenever I saw Donna, on parting she would say, “Love you much”.
Donna . . . I love you much . . . I am a better person for having you in my life . . . thank you for everything that you did for me.