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Catching up / January 09, 2019
This is not the column I had intended to write to start out 2019.

Regular readers may recall that the dawn of a new year is normally the time when yours truly pulls his Nostradamus ball cap out of the bottom drawer and takes a whack at predicting events to come in the next 12 months, whether it’s future shenanigans in Washington and Richmond (our cup runneth over) or matters as trivial as this year’s Oscar winners. (Go Black Panther! Go Lady Gaga!) I enjoy writing that kind of stuff. Not this.

The tail end of 2018 was a rough one for our family. As some may know, and many others may not, my little sister Sylvia died at the end of October after a year-long battle with cancer. She was the youngest of five McLaughlin children, each of us spaced two years apart, although the difference in age between Sylvia and me was exactly one and a half years (my birthday is Feb. 27, hers is Aug. 27). She died two months after her 55th birthday.

On Christmas Eve, my mother, Sylvia O. McLaughlin, passed at age 84 after going into the hospital the day before Thanksgiving with respiratory issues. We had almost lost Mom a decade earlier when she lapsed into a coma from an infection that took a long time to figure out. She came out of that, blessedly, and we were gifted 10 more years of her beautiful self that we probably had no right to expect. My mother was more than just the family matriarch: She was also part-owner of this newspaper and the unquestioned leader of our two-paper family (The Sun and sister publication, the News & Record in South Boston). Mom was beloved by her employees, the local community and countless others. Their words of comfort and solace have been a bright light in these dark times.

It was with a heavy heart that I wrote the Dec. 27 article in the News & Record about Mom’s passing (she was a resident of the Town of Halifax), and if you’d like to know more about her extraordinary life, go read the story. We loved both of our Sylvias dearly and it remains difficult for me to go on at any length about the void that will follow around our family to the end of our days. We are going to make it through this as all people do, whenever a loved one dies, which doesn’t make the process any easier. The fact we’ve just taken a one-two punch doesn’t help matters.

When my dad died in 2003, I spoke at his funeral, despite missing him very dearly, then and now. By the same token, there are many, many things I want to say about little Sylvia and my mother (and maybe I will write that column someday), but I wouldn’t have dared to speak at Mom’s funeral because there’s no way I would have gotten through the first minute without completely losing it. Thankfully, the service (held this past Saturday in Halifax) was lovely, thanks to presiding pastor Rev. Leigh Felton of Boydton United Methodist Church (before entering the ministry, Leigh was owner of Boston Lumber Company in South Boston and a dear friend of my mother’s), and our speakers: retired Circuit Judges Charles L. McCormick III and Joel Cunningham, and my dear uncle, Henry McLaughlin, retired director of Central Virginia Legal Aid Services who now has a private law practice in Richmond. My cousin Sandy Pfeiffer of Wisconsin played piano and organ, and members of the Abiding Branch Christian Ministries Ensemble sang gospel songs to stir the soul, and it was all very beautiful.

The night before, we held a memorial in honor of my sister in South Boston, not knowing if anyone outside the family would show up. (Sister Sylvia was raised with the rest of us in Halifax but for several decades had lived in Seattle with her husband and two girls.) Instead, we got 50 or so people who came from all over to pay their respects to little Syl. I can’t thank them enough for having spent their Friday night with us, just as I cannot thank people enough for their extraordinary acts of kindness: cards, messages of sympathy and togetherness, food, flowers, generous praise for Mom and Syl and our newspapers and everything else that attended the lives of these two exceptional women. You have helped to lift us up from down low. It is appreciated beyond measure.

(On the topic of thank-yous, allow us also to thank the respective medical teams at Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital in South Boston and Virginia Baptist Hospital in Lynchburg, where Mom died on Christmas Eve night, and the doctors, nurses and other providers who provided professional, compassionate care as her health was failing. A special shout-out to the ICU nurses at Sentara Halifax Regional, who are wonderful and cared for Mom as they would for their own family members. By its very nature, the ICU is a depressing place, but the people there work hard and diligently to keep spirits up.)

In addition to losing my mother, the rest of the family and I have lost our leader: Mom worked full-time at the News & Record until the moment that her declining health made doing so impossible. (That point finally came in November.) Mom was nothing if not pragmatic, and the last thing she would have wanted would be for anyone to sulk or shrink in her absence. So we won’t do that — at least we’ll try not to. Yet as readers have probably noticed, our columns have been few and far between lately, and while I’m trying to adjust to our new normal, it’s going to take a while — so no promises for now on how reliable an editorial page columnist I’ll be over the coming weeks and months. Filling up this space takes time that I may not always possess. Hopefully things will sort themselves out. With time, I guess.

Maybe I’ll be able to chunk out our annual Fearless Forecasts next week. To be determined. Until then, our fondest wish is for a better run in 2019. For us and everyone else.

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