For rare few, love undying — even with death
EDITOR'S NOTE: How can death and Valentine's Day possibly be connected? It's obvious when the story that links love and loss is as special as this one, referred to the Daily Courier by the sister of Virginia “Ginny” Knight, a Connellsville native who lost Jack, her husband of 35 years, in November 2011.
Jack and Ginny Knight's marriage was a testament to the old saying that true love never dies.
Ginny will revisit that idiom on Valentine's Day, her family around her. Jack won't be there — except in spirit. When he passed away in November 2011, Jack left messages and memories behind that just might prove that family love does conquer all.
Jack and Ginny were raised in the Connellsville area. They married in 1976 and moved away from Fayette County in 1985. Since 1993, the family has lived in South Carolina.
“We went there looking for jobs and stayed,” said Ginny, a nurse practitioner.
The family was emotionally devastated when, in January 2011, Jack was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a scarring of the lung air sacs that makes it impossible for oxygen to be absorbed into the blood.
No one could believe it. The strapping 6-foot, 3-inch father and grandfather loved nothing better than physically romping with his large brood, whom he nicknamed “the boys, the belles and the babies.”
While visiting his mother in Connellsville during the Christmas holiday in 2010, Jack suddenly noticed he was short-winded. He had no energy and great difficulty climbing stairs. At first, Ginny believed he might have had a setback from bronchitis he had suffered earlier that month.
Ironically, the couple learned that bronchitis had indeed played a role. It was what triggered the underlying pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that Ginny, as a longtime nurse practitioner, knew is terminal.
“Jack never was a smoker, but he worked many different jobs, including in steel mills and on the railroad, construction and in factories,” she said. “He obviously had a genetic predisposition and the bronchitis set it off. It was just his time.”
Faced with bad news, Jack wanted it straight.
“That's the way he was. He looked at me and said, ‘I'm gonna die pretty soon, aren't I?'” Ginny remembered. “I said, ‘Yes, you are.' Then he said, ‘OK. I can accept that.'”
There was one catch, however.
Jack refused any treatment except oxygen, choosing instead to spend whatever time he had left with his family. He and Ginny have four sons — Matthew, Michael, Mark and John — and their wives and children.
“We have 10 grandkids and one on the way,” Ginny said.
“He wanted quality time at home and not to die in a hospital,” she added, noting that he lasted less than 11 months, which is about average for pulmonary fibrosis.
As Jack's condition worsened, the family purchased a golf cart to give him mobility. Jack decorated it with an awning, an American flag and a Steelers hat.
In the summer of 2011, they went on a beach vacation to Pawley's Island, S.C., where Jack managed one last stroll in the surf with “the boys, the belles and the babies.”
He planned his own funeral, selected his own clothing and wrote letters to his five siblings, his many in-laws, his children and grandchildren. Nieces and nephews received wrapped gifts in memory of their Uncle Jack.
In the fall of 2011, the family posed for their last photos together.
Throughout his disease, Jack had encouraged Ginny to keep occupied by working. But on Nov. 16, he told her, “You need to stay home today.”
“He asked, ‘Are you going to be OK without me?'” Ginny said. “I told him,'Jack, you're the bravest person I know. I'll be OK.'”
‘See you later'
Approximately 10 a.m., Jack called out to his family, “See you later, boys and girls.”
About five minutes later, he was gone at age 60, ending a 40-year friendship and love affair that began when he met Ginny (whose maiden name is Bigham) at a 1972 family wedding.
“His sister, Mary Ann, married my brother Greg that day,” Ginny said.
Among the in-laws to receive a goodbye letter was Jane (Bigham) Sandusky of Connellsville.
“Jack and I were great friends,” she said.
Sandusky said that Ginny and Jack's relationship “complemented each other. They're people of great faith and it helped them at the end.”
She was awed by Ginny's courage. After Jack died, Ginny shaved and bathed him and dressed him in preparation for the funeral director, “so that Jack went out in dignity.”
“Jack made his impending death easier on everybody — and it was all because of love,” Sandusky said.
Ginny soon returned to nursing.
“What else would I do,” she said.
Ginny takes comfort that her immediate family lives close to her. She also keeps in touch with her Bigham siblings (there are seven) as well as Jack's brother and sisters.
She said Jack will be present in spirit on this Valentine's Day and always.
“We'll have a party with the grandkids,” she said.
Jack Jack, 8, is the oldest.
“He always talks about his pappy,” Ginny said. “Jack was an enormous part of their lives and he will be forever.”
Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.