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Vivian Rice, Requiescat in Pace

(Although recent events in Knoxville and Los Angeles dragged me back in like Al Pacino in "The Godfather, Part III," it had been my intention to step away from the weblog for a few days. What follows is an explanation of why. It is completely unrelated to sports.

The King family and the Rice family have been close for many years. Brad Rice and my Dad knew each other through the local Kiwanis Club; my father served as the school photographer for the high school at which Brad’s wife, Vivian, taught; I was a student of Vivian’s in high school and of Brad’s at the college I attended before transferring to Athens. Brad’s and Vivian’s son, Travis, is an old friend of mine. He was a groomsman in my wedding, and, at my wedding rehearsal, Travis met my wife’s sister, Jeannie. Jeannie and Travis started dating in 1998 and were married in 1999. They have three children.

On Labor Day weekend, while Brad, Travis, and I were out in Oklahoma attending the season opener between the Bulldogs and the Cowboys, Vivian began to notice that something was not quite right and went to see a doctor. On October 2, she was diagnosed with cancer. After a brief but valiant battle with that disease, she passed away at her home on Monday evening. She is survived by her husband, her son and daughter-in-law, her daughter and son-in-law, and her six grandchildren. She was 61 years old.)

My earliest memory of Vivian Rice dates back more than 25 years. It was the end of the summer before I began my sophomore year of high school, back when ninth grade represented the high end of the junior high totem pole rather than the freshman year that followed the conclusion of middle school. Vivian was the sponsor of the school newspaper staff, on which I was about to begin my three years of service, and she had invited all of us over for an ice cream social to discuss the plans for the coming year.

We sat around in a circle and ate ice cream while Vivian talked about how we were going to do what we were going to do. Travis, who was nine at the time, was sitting next to her; there was ice cream available and pretty teenage girls in the room, and that was always enough to get Trav to your party. I remember him wearing a white T-shirt stained with the runoff from the chocolate that surrounded his mouth as he shoveled in spoonful after spoonful of Mississippi mud.

Adrienne Gibbons, who was a senior and the editor in chief, and who had been to a couple of these shindigs before, got up while Vivian was speaking. Her intention was to go into the kitchen for another bowl of ice cream, listening as she went, but, as soon as Adrienne stood, Vivian cut herself off and sprang into action, immediately asking Adrienne if she needed anything.

Adrienne told her it was all right; she was just going to get another bowl of Mississippi mud. Travis paused in mid-gulp, his spoon poised between his bowl and his mouth, and he looked up. "There is no more Mississippi mud," he said, and went right back to shoveling ice cream into his face.

I have told that story many times in the last decade and a half, mostly because it embarrasses Trav and that is what old friends do to one another, but it occurs to me that the story really is about Vivian. Had we been in the home of merely an ordinary hostess, after all, the story never would have happened; Adrienne would have gone to get more ice cream and not a word would have been spoken. It was, however, not Vivian’s nature to allow any person whose welfare she might influence for the better to suffer the slightest inconvenience or discomfort in her presence.

Vivian hosted both of the baby showers that preceded the births of my two children. No one asked her to do that; no one had to ask her. We were only tangentially family---I was married to the sister of the woman who was married to her son---but our lives intersected with one another’s and it was the proper thing to do, so she saw that it was done. Her hospitality became famous to the point of being funny, as guests in her home tried to see how close they could come to serving themselves before she intervened to save them the trouble.

Vivian, whose name derives from the Latin for "lively," believed in living exuberantly. Although she took that outgoing approach even to the most mundane diurnal duties, the energetic mode that defined her lifestyle was not confined to the many small gestures and tiny kindnesses that cumulatively added up to a lifetime spent selflessly improving the world around her, one decent act at a time.

When I turned 40, I resisted my wife’s suggestion that we plan to visit her younger sister, Joy, in New York by noting that, when a man reaches 40 and hasn’t yet been to New York, going to New York probably just isn’t one of his things; when Vivian turned 40, she told Brad, "I’m 40 and I’ve never been to California" . . . and they went to California.

My uncle Charles, who introduced my parents, greeted new opportunities by pronouncing them "a once in a lifetime thing." That proved to be a prudent course for him, because he died at 42. Fortunately, Vivian was allotted more years than that, but, at 40, when she believed she was middle-aged but two-thirds of her life already was behind her, she adopted a similar attitude and refused to treat age as anything other than an arbitrary accounting.

Vivian was a teacher of English---I was a student of hers, so I am sufficiently well educated to know better than to say she was an "English teacher"---so she knew well her Andrew Marvell; thus, though she could not make her sun stand still, yet she would make him run. Her rapid decline was debilitating for her and disheartening for those who watched it happen to her; one of her family expressed regret that Vivian had gone from being a 35-year-old in a 65-year-old’s body to being a 95-year-old in a 65-year-old’s body with the same sort of swiftness seen in every preceding chapter of her life.

At this moment, all of us who knew Vivian have difficulty focusing past the plummet, but time will enable us to remember the soaring that made such a descent possible. I am sad for myself, and for her family, because we didn’t have as much time as we wanted; I am not sad for Vivian, though, because she had all the time she needed, having proven up to the task of stuffing all the abundance of a well-lived life into a scant 60 years where those of us of lesser zest need 80 or 90 years to experience such fullness.

When I got the call from Travis on Monday night, I didn’t know what to say to him, so, the next day, I sent to Vivian’s family a quotation from Thornton Wilder: "All that we can know about those we have loved and lost is that they would wish us to remember them with a more intensified realization of their reality. What is essential does not die but clarifies. The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude."

The lives of those of us who were not destined to transform the world usually are useful mostly as metaphors; that is, we teach through our most ordinary actions moral lessons, irrespective of whether we wish to do so, and the aggregation of these actions over a lifetime outlines an approach to living that serves either as a worthy example, a cautionary tale, or (more often) a messy mixture of the two.

What we who knew Vivian Rice were taught was that individual increments of thoughtful behavior are more than mere manners; they provide more than the simple filigree of politesse that makes interactions with others gracious rather than grating. What we learned from her was that daily acts of basic decency and an impassioned insistence upon doing well by doing good form the foundation for a life that radiates cheerfulness even in the midst of sadness.

The ripples of such a life do not fade when that life ends; the darkness enveloping a final four months spent moving downward cannot come close to overwhelming the light given off by six decades of previous and ceaseless ascent.

I choose, therefore, not to remember my longtime family friend, Vivian Rice, in a way that diminishes who she was; nothing would have been more abhorrent to her than the thought of everyone she cared about enduring unpleasantness on her account. Rather than concentrate on my sorrow in this moment at her absence, I elect instead to celebrate the joy she brought to all who knew her through her presence. The sorrow, after all, is fleeting; it is the joy that will endure.

Donations to the American Cancer Society in memory of Vivian Rice may be given by clicking here. Your contribution to the fight against the disease that represents the second-leading cause of death in the United States would be appreciated greatly by the Rice family and by the many millions of other Americans whose lives have been impacted by cancer.