Virginia and Me

Posted on: October 18th, 2013 by

I’m lucky to have two of her art originals – one a beautiful photograph of a monarch butterfly she gave me on my birthday and the other her artistic rendering of alligators.

One of my best friends, Virginia Pezalla, died from leukemia on November 6, 2012.


We met as colleagues at our college. What started as a few shy smiles and nods of acknowledgment turned into something deeper.

We started getting together socially, often including other friends as part of our group. We got to know each other well, and I can tell you, Virginia was as genuine and down-to-Earth as it gets. And she had a wicked-but-kind, playful sense of humor.

She was lovable.

How could anyone who wrote her PhD dissertation on dragonflies not be cherished?

It was Virginia who suggested we collaborate on a special project: my English business writing students and her Environmental Science students would work together to help garner publicity and donations for a 3-acre garden, nature center, and grass-roots organization called Eden Place. Founder Michael Howard turned a polluted dump site in an impoverished area into a lovely garden and wildlife refuge to give underprivileged urban children an up close and personal relationship with nature.

Our students loved the community-based project and came away with hands-on learning that complemented the courses’ textbooks. Virginia and I worked hard to make this collaboration succeed. And our hard work paid off. (If you want to see more of the story, read page 18, “Community Trailblazers” and/or read about it here on page 87.)

While the project was a lot of work, it was also a lot of fun. As our students sat on the school bus ready to transport us to Eden Place, the camp counselor in me from years past came out. I stood up (probably not wise) and gave students a rousing rally cry as Virginia hid in her seat laughing in embarrassment. Students introduced themselves and stated why they were looking forward to this project. We helped create a stream on the premises, and it was a joy to hear students singing as they worked.

Virginia was also an exquisite writer. She asked me for editorial advice on an animal behavior book she was writing, Animal Behavior: Conflict, Cooperation, and Communication, but she really didn’t need it: the book was brilliant, reader-friendly, and so darn interesting. I felt privileged to read the entire book before its publication. Although she enlisted my help, I was the one who needed the help – in understanding the complexity of animal behavior.

I kept peppering her with questions.

And she patiently had all the answers.

Aware of my cancer background, Virginia always gave me the emotional support I needed. I remember that she visited me while I was recovering from my bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. She and another colleague brought ice cream and other delicious treats. Even though I hobbled bent over and had those horrible drains, we had so much fun.

And I remember, upon publication of Voices of Breast Cancer, an anthology containing one of my essays, that it was my thoughtful friend’s idea to set up a book reading and signing at the college. This successful event was well-attended. Once again, we had fun.

Virginia (right) and me at my book signing

Virginia (right) and me at my book signing

And I remember when I brought my daughter home from China, Virginia threw us a baby shower! That was so very kind of her. In adoption circles, parties are common, but not baby showers. Adoption is a long process, and unlike a biological birth, adoptive parents don’t know when the “stork” will bring their little one. Per my request, the shower was low-key, with a few close friends coming over to her place to meet my new baby.

And I remember that fateful call.

When Virginia told me that she was diagnosed with leukemia.

And how the world crumbled.

I will never forget her physical and emotional suffering. She had intense chemotherapy and two bone marrow transplants, the first from her brother who was a 100% match – what are the odds of that? Perhaps we were naïve, but we hoped the bone marrow transplant would take.

It failed.

The second bone marrow transplant was also a 100% match – from her sister.

It failed.

As a result of her intense chemotherapy treatments, Virginia developed Graft Versus Host disease , a horrible condition. My last visit with Virginia was still fun, as all my get-togethers with her were; she was strong enough to take a walk and play with Barbie dolls with Ari.

As with Faun, my last conversation with Virginia was a week before she died. She was completely lucid and believed, as did the doctors and her family, that she had more time provided she would have more chemotherapy. Nobody expected that she would be gone within a week. And, just as with Faun, my last words to Virginia were that I loved her.

A naturalist, environmentalist, scientist, artist, and amazing professor who captivated her students, Virginia could identify just about any insect and identify any bird just by its sound. Before she got sick, Virginia and I had made plans to go bird watching. I was eager to learn even more from her. That never happened.

Despite her many accomplishments and talents, most importantly she was a great wife, as well as a terrific mother to three wonderful daughters. She had two grandchildren whom she doted on.

Virginia was that one-of-a-kind special person. And it was my good fortune I got to call her friend.


As I write this, it is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As some know, I don’t believe in assigning a month or day to a particular disease. That’s because cancer should be a year-round obsession. And not just breast cancer.

Cancer, period.

The war on cancer has been long declared, but the “war” has been nothing but empty words and empty promises.

We might be making strides in research, but we are failing in the war against cancer. Why is this? Maybe it’s because greedy pharmaceutical companies line their pockets through the suffering of patients. And cause marketers just love cancer.

Funding for research to cure cancer – all cancers – is sorely needed.

And hospitals/cancer care centers are also trying to get in on the profiteering action. Every day radio ads for hospitals and cancer care centers give these maudlin stories about how cancer patients came to them in need and became cured. And in one radio ad, there are – get this – violins in the background.

We don’t need violins in an ad for cancer.

We need more funding for cancer research.



On a shelf at home stands a striking picture of Virginia before I knew her. The photo was on the memorial service literature. It is a glorious picture of a glorious human being.

I will never forget our strong friendship. I will never forget one of the most remarkable women I’d ever met. She made the world a better place for having been in it. She touched the lives of each person she crossed paths with.

And I’m lucky that I was one of them.

Virginia's Memorial

For more on Virginia, see her daughters’ recent post on their new blog Lively Running (and it’s a great new blog on running).

Have you lost someone special to cancer?

Feel free to share a story or stories about a loved one who has or had cancer.

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16 Responses to Virginia and Me

  1. Marcia had this to say about that:

    Beautiful sentiments about your dear friend.
    Xoxo Marcia

  2. Kate Pezalla had this to say about that:

    Beth, this was so beautifully written, and it was so nice to read it and recall all the wonderful work you and my mom did together. She treasured her friendship with you, and projects such as Eden Place were so very important to her. Thank you, so much, for this loving tribute.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Kate, thank you for your kind words. I know this year has been so very hard for you and your family. Your mom was so enthusiastic about environmental projects. It was a great gift to me to be able to work alongside her at Eden Place.

  3. Susan had this to say about that:

    Beth, thank you for sharing such wonderful memories of you friend Virginia. All cancer is devastating and we need more funding for research.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Susan,

      I’m glad I was able to share these memories. I’m so tired of losing friends to the beast known as cancer. Research funding can help the most.

  4. Paul G. had this to say about that:

    Great post, Beth! Virginia was wonderful. I miss my daily chats with her when she and I sat next to each other in the old “DiSH” office in Chicago. As you said, she was so funny and delightful, and I was always learning something from her.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your comment and kind words. I think it’s great you got to sit next to each other. I can only imagine the wonderful conversations you two would have. I’m so glad you both had a great relationship and you are yet another person to have crossed paths with her.

  5. had this to say about that:

    I’m so sorry you lost your friend. She sounds like she was a special person and that you shared a close bond. So sorry, Beth.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for your comforting words. She was so special, indeed. Cancer stole my friend from me, but it couldn’t steal our friendship.

  6. Kathi had this to say about that:

    Beth, it breaks my heart to read about your losing another good friend to cancer. And you’re so right — we need to work on research for all cancers. Not ads with violins. Hugs.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      The tragedies just keep piling up, don’t they? I know you lost quite a number of dear ones to cancer, too. It just is a crappy disease all the way around. Hugs received and back at you. :)

  7. Roz Iasillo had this to say about that:

    Beth, thanks for writing about this wonderful woman. When I began at RMU 13 years ago Virginia welcomed me and became my mentor. She was extraordinary. I still use some of her lecture notes and lab outlines. When adapting or changing them for current use I cannot bring myself to remove her originals from Blackboard or take her name off the new labs…even the work that says Robert Morris College. And, I always tell my students about her knowledge and courage. She was an inspiration. I miss her too.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Roz, thank you for your thoughtful response. You said it so well: “She was extraordinary.” I can’t even imagine how many lives were changed for the better because of her. I bet her lecture notes and lab outlines will live on forever!

  8. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    It’s wonderful that you shared about your dear friend and even more so that you did during October for some reason. It makes a statement somehow. True friendship is a beautiful thing, as you so eloquently showcase in this tribute. Thanks, Beth. I’m sorry for your loss, but also grateful you have memories of Virginia to treasure. hugs.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for your kind words. It just seemed like the right time to write a tribute to my friend, between her birthday and the day she died. I was definitely trying to make a statement; I wish October wasn’t the month assigned to breast cancer. And, as you know, too many other cancers are getting ignored. Thank you for your insightful comment, as always.

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