When I was a sophomore in high school, my mother decided for a number of complicated reasons to send me to a boarding school in Virginia. Nestled at the base of a mountain in the Shenandoah Valley, it was the perfect place for me. I could canoe, camp, ride horses, play tennis, and even join a synchronized swimming team. Classes were tiny: typically five or six students, maybe 12 in my biggest class. We got to know our teachers personally. After overcoming initial loneliness, I made some friends by the end of the year.
Sadly, that was the last year the school, which had been in operation for nearly 100 years, was financially able to stay open. A number of my classmates chose to attend similar schools in the area. For some reason, inexplicable to me now, I decided to try something completely different: a large urban school in the swanky north end of Atlanta that accepted only a few boarders, largely international students.
It was an academically competitive school, and I devoted hours every night to homework, rarely finishing before the wee hours of the morning. The Southern norms and mores mystified me. I joined the marching band and the volleyball team, but otherwise completely isolated myself. I was miserable.
I became anorexic, starving myself both to avoid solitary meals in the cafeteria and in a vain attempt to exert some control over an immensely painful situation. When I dropped to 82 pounds, even the women who cleaned the dorm were asking me about my health, expressing genuine concern. I batted away their inquiries.
At my previous school, I couldn’t avoid knowing that a number of the girls purged after meals. One in particular, a friend of mine whose room was across the hall, was a competitive figure skater from Wisconsin. She didn’t come back the second semester, and I heard through the grapevine that alcohol and bulimia had landed her in the hospital. The public was just becoming aware of eating disorders and their toll on young women and their families, but I couldn’t imagine myself falling victim to such self-abuse. Then my circumstances changed.
My dad’s first cousin, Joe Moore, lived in Atlanta, and he and his wife, Jean, periodically brought me to their house or took me sightseeing around the city. They gave me a taste of normalcy. I was deeply grateful to them for taking me in when I most needed to feel welcome somewhere. I doubt I was able to express at the time what their kindness meant to me.
At Christmastime that year, my mother recognized the severity of my illness and didn’t let me return to Atlanta. With her quiet, non-pushy supervision, comfortable in my own home, my health improved.
A few years ago, my cousin Sandy Goodlett helped me reconnect with Joe, his brother, John Allen, and their sister, Jane. We made a couple of trips to Atlanta and Owensboro, Ky., and relished the family stories they could share with us. Having lost my father at a very young age, I was always thirsty for details about my dad from those who knew him best.
On Sunday, January 9, Joe’s wife, Jean, died of complications from Covid and increasing dementia. She was fully vaccinated but still vulnerable at 83. As I work through my own sadness, I realize it’s tied to the kindness she extended to me in a time of real distress.
A new year, more time to grieve. This virus is not done with us. We’re still losing more than a thousand Americans each day. Each victim leaves behind a loving family and friends. We know this. It sounds trite. But we should not forget it. We should not get complacent. And we should not decide it’s OK to sacrifice the aged and the vulnerable so we can blithely go about our lives without disruption. We must take the simple steps that we can to limit the virus’s spread: get vaccinated and boosted, wear a mask, avoid large crowds. That is not asking too much.