The Queen of Savannah Bridge
Copyright 2016 by Donna Heinsbroek
Honorable Mention--2016 Biographical Nonfiction
Editor's note: Donna died on May 5, 2016. She was a beautiful writer and a brave one.
personal journey started at the Cancer Pavilion with a quiet and shy
woman whom I recognized from our bridge club. She was the best
female bridge player for many years in Savannah and her name was Lura
McKinney. I learned that we were both fighting the same Stage IV
colon cancer and we also shared the same doctor, George Negrea. Lura's
colon cancer had metastasized into her lungs, liver, and lymph
nodes; mine had metastasized to my liver, spleen, and spine.
was not shy about approaching Lura. When I told her that we had the
same cancer, I saw the light go out of her eyes as she said, "I
am truly sorry," and I felt she truly was. She didn't go on to
say the obvious, which we both knew, but I didn't want to hear - that
I was still young and had so much living to do. Instead she just
talked about more positive things, and I was happy she did. We
talked about our advanced cancer, our fears, our love of family, and
the hope we shared that we would be able to survive long enough to
benefit from the amazing progress being made in cancer research.
told me she had two sons, Franklin, married to Lisa; and David,
married to Nancy. We talked about her precious only grandson, Clark,
whom she desperately loved and truly did not want to leave. He was
her joy in life, and her eyes lit up every time she spoke about him. I
met Clark only once and he was just as remarkable as Lura's
description. He had beautiful blond hair and baby blue eyes that
shimmered when he spoke. He was very respectful and called me Ma'am
whenever he answered a question. I remember hearing a story that
Clark came down to the bridge center and sang the National Anthem.
There was no shyness in him; only his beautiful voice and his love
could see immediately why Lura loved Clark so intensely, and he
easily reciprocated her love. She would drag out his name in two or
three syllables, almost as if she forever wanted to keep his name on
her lips. She was his GaGa , (he could not say grandmother when he
was young); and he was her world.
was one of the first people in the Chemo Ward with whom I became
close. Even though we saw each other at the bridge center, we didn't
really know one another. The chemo sessions were different. We
talked and laughed together. We shared our fears about the cancer
inside our bodies and we talked about death. Lura always filled me
with positive thoughts which kept me believing that I could continue
to fight this awful disease with the same courage and dignity that
she had shown. She told me that she did not fear death and neither
should I. She often joked that if only we could find two more bridge
players in the chemo ward, we could spend those long sessions playing
our favorite card game, instead of sleeping or sitting there watching
the minutes slowly tick by. I always told her that when our cancer
was in remission, we would go down and ring the bell in the lobby of
the Pavilion together - furiously and joyously.
the days I came into the chemo ward and saw Lura sleeping and snoring
softly, I would tip-toe in and kiss her on her cheek. She would look
up with these unbelievably kind and sleepy eyes and say "Donna,
I was hoping you would be here today."
I only knew Lura the person with cancer; I met her a year and a few
months after her diagnosis and she was already heading towards the
end of her valiant fight. Cancer had clearly taken its toll on her. She
had little resemblance to the photograph of her I had seen online
in our Unit 202 bridge newsletter.
have been many complimentary things said about Lura. She was an
ethical player who was always gracious. She played with many
partners and everyone who remembers her said that she never said an
unkind word. Ever! Amazingly she would do well, regardless of the
skill (or lack of skill) of her partner. Lura found a way to make
her partner's mistake, her mistake. She would always have a smile
that would brighten her beautiful face.
to Lura's son, Franklin, Lura was no stranger to tragedy. Her eldest
son John (Johnny) Allan McKinney Jr., was diagnosed with prostate
cancer at the age of 12, and passed away at the tender age of 13. Lura
was devastated by his passing, but knew she had to be strong for
her two remaining sons. Lura was diagnosed with bladder cancer
around 2001 or 2002, which she survived. In 2009, Lura's brother,
Van, passed away from leukemia and Lura's mother passed away from
colon cancer when she was eighty-nine.
started playing bridge when she was about twelve years old. She was
about 200 points shy of attaining the rank of diamond life master
within the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) which was quite an
was known as 'The Voice of Reason' at business meetings, because of
the respect and high esteem in which she was held. She was named a
Goodwill Ambassador for Bridge in 2014 and received a standing
ovation and thunderous applause when her nomination was announced at
our sectional game in Savannah.
Lura also had a fun side to her as related in a story from her very
close friend. They had gone on a cruise of the Caribbean and were
having a great time. When they got dressed for bed time, Lura's
friend dared her to "moon” someone from their cabin
window. Lura said "No way" and told her friend that she
didn't have the guts to do it. Lura's friend pulled up her night
dress and placed her "bare necked behind" against the
window. When she looked down, there were people looking up and
pointing in her direction. They fell on the beds, and possibly
rolled under them, and just laughed until they cried.
was an amazing and unexpected privilege for me to spend time with
Lura away from the bridge table. In competitions you don't get a
chance to know your opponents. You have to play your boards within a
certain amount of time, which does not allow much time for
a year after we met, Lura's medication stopped being effective
against the cancer inside her body. The cancer had started to mutate
and became stronger. Lura had to go to the second or third line of
therapy. It was successful initially, but became ineffective about a
remember Lura giving me the news in the kitchen of the Savannah
Bridge Center and I was so distraught. I just held her and hugged
her so tightly. We both knew what that meant, but we felt it was
better left unsaid. Shortly thereafter, it was announced at the
club that Lura had begun hospice care. She had started on the
slippery slope that no one wanted to see her go down.
went to Lura's house a few weeks before I left for a regional
tournament in Augusta. Lura was supposed to be honored at that
Regional, but her body had already begun to shut down. She was not
eating, and her sister, Inez, had come from Mississippi a few months
earlier to stay with her and attend to her needs until the very end.
my last visit with Lura, I remember how elegant she looked in her
beautiful satin pajama suit. As I went to say goodbye, I hugged Lura
and felt only her bones. She was very fragile; literally starving to
death. I whispered in Laura's ear and told her that she was in God's
hands now. I didn't know how religious she was so I tried to give
her comfort by telling her that her memory would be permanently
engraved in the hearts of her sister, her sons and their wives, as
well as her precious grandson, Clark.
were many other friends who truly loved and respected her. She had
touched so many lives. I thanked her for her beautiful spirit and
the times she spent helping me adjust to my Stage IV diagnosis.
passed away quietly on November 7, 2014 around 6:00 a.m. Her sister,
Inez, was right there beside her when she died. Their relationship
was, of course, the longest of all the others that Lura had made in
life; they were sisters, born just a few years apart. In their later
years, they had become very close. They went on trips together and
would vacation at each other's home. They were together long before
the children or the grandson came into the picture. They loved one
another deeply and it was only appropriate that Inez would be by her
sister's side until the very end.
story was told to me by those who were with Lura the day before she
died. David's wife, Nancy, was gently holding Lura in the bed, when
suddenly, frail Lura sat straight up, and firmly grabbed both of
Nancy arms and went into the sign of the cross. Reportedly, in a
loud and strong voice, Lura said "God is real, God is real, God
is real." Then she quoted a passage from the King James version
of the Bible (KJV)...."He that believeth on me, out of his belly
shall flow rivers of living water." Inez was certain that Lura
did not know that verse from John 7:38 and everyone in the room felt
it was not Lura's weak voice that had spoken those words. The voice
was powerful and clear; but according to them, the words did come out
of Lura's mouth.
funeral was attended by approximately 150 people consisting of her
family, her many friends and those who loved and admired her.
Unfortunately, I was away on travel which made it impossible for me
have often commented to me that I seem so positive in light of my
severe diagnosis. Very few of them, if any, realize that Lura was
the angel who guided me, and helped me smile when I really wanted to
have a feeling of emptiness whenever I walk into the Chemo Ward and I
see Lura's recliner against the wall. She always sat in that same
chair for every visit. I really believe that Lura is somewhere out
there, watching over me, and encouraging me in my fight against this
will miss you Lura Chaney McKinney, but I will never forget you and
your presence in my life. When you find two more bridge players in
heaven, please grab a convention card and save me a seat.
Heinsbroek, a native Washingtonian, is a retired Foreign Service
Specialist, having served 35 years in the government, almost 30 of
those years within the U.S. Foreign Service. She has served
extensively throughout Africa and the Middle East. Donna has worked
at the White House during the first Bush Administration as Executive
Assistant to Dr. Richard N. Haass, former Special Assistant to the
President on Middle East Affairs and current President of the Council
on Foreign Relations.
of her work at the White House during the Gulf War in the early
1990’s, Donna was invited by Ambassador Saud Nasir al-Sabah,
the then Kuwaiti Ambassador to the United States, to accompany him on
the first freedom flight to liberate Kuwait.
1995, Donna was honored as “Secretary of the Year,” a
State Department Award which is given yearly within the Foreign
Service. In 2000, Donna was appointed as the Coordinator for Office
Management Specialists, an Ombudsman position created by the Director
General of the Foreign Service to oversee issues pertaining to the
over 800 Foreign Service Specialists.
recently before her retirement, Donna worked as the Executive
Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador in both Angola and Zimbabwe. It
was during her latter assignment that Donna met Dr. Hans Heinsbroek,
the then Dutch Ambassador to Zimbabwe. They have five grown children
– two from his previous marriage and three from hers.
played Double A softball in Washington, D.C. and is an accomplished
amateur tennis player. She has won the American Tennis Association
(ATA) Mixed Doubles National 35's Championships, and was runner-up in
the ATA Singles 40's Championships the following year. She has also
won several National Tennis Championships in singles, mixed doubles
and ladies doubles while living overseas.
is an enthusiastic Bridge player, winning the 2014 Mini-McKenney
Award Nationally in her Strata by accruing 402.35 master points in
one year. Donna is a Bridge Life Master and a lifetime member of the
Aileen Osofsky ACBL National Goodwill Committee.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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