I Don't Know How She Does It
Marcia McGreevy Lewis
Photo courtesy of Connie Niva.
Niva returned to graduate school at mid-life for a Master of Public
Policy. Why this consummate professional pursued a different
direction in life says everything about her inquisitive mind. In her
early years, she had lectured in microbiology to medical students and
then taught Palestinian nurses in East Jerusalem for two years. She
embraced the opportunity to live in a variety of countries and was
also raising four children while globetrotting.
is this woman? Tall, slender, smartly dressed and distractingly
attractive, Connie radiates intelligence. Her wit is irreverently
captivating. She was already a dedicated community activist, so why
not certify that interest with a professional degree? Why not? And so
the time she returned to academia, Connie lived in Everett,
Washington, where she served on the City Council for years,
ultimately serving as chair. That led to a position on the Port of
Everett Commissioners where she again took a leadership role as
chair. Following that was an appointment by the governor for two
six-year terms to the Board of Regents at Washington State
University. Of course, she chaired again--twice.
eventually moved to Seattle, WA, and was appointed to the Puget Sound
Water Quality Control Board, but that didn’t stop her from
becoming president of Housing Hope (a program dedicated to
homelessness) and chair of the Seattle Chapter of the
Women and Democracy. She traveled extensively for this organization
to over a dozen foreign
including Cuba, Vietnam and Jordan. She held seminars and offered
opportunities for interpersonal interactions there to help women
advance leadership. Let’s not forget to add that she was also a
Washington State Transportation Commissioner (and chair).
were other positions too—League of Women Voters
committees to the mayors of Seattle and Everett, fundraising
committees for a multitude of causes, and advisory panels to other
local and state elected officials. Many awards followed: Woman
of the Year for Housing Hope, YWCA distinguished service recognition,
and the 2003 Senator Henry M. Jackson Award for Civic Service to the
Greater Puget Sound Region.
family was (and is) central to her life. She attended endless
children’s sporting and performance events, encouraged their
academic, social, and political growth and sent them all to the
colleges of their choice. Her grandchildren are now a similarly
important part of her life.
all of this Connie remained dedicated to her
friends. She was the
prime mover in starting a women’s investment group, a book
club, bringing political speakers to talk with groups of her friends,
and she never missed the opportunity to arrange showers for
friends’ children when they got married.
is no doubt that Connie spent her life doing interesting things and
changing perspectives, but what’s awe-inspiring is that Connie
accomplished her achievements despite battling leukemia for over 35
years. Her infections, infusions and dysfunctional organs didn’t
divert her from her resolve to change the course of the lives of
those about whom she cared. The ripple effect of the steps she took
resonates today. She has donated endowments to educational
institutions, built wings on buildings and changed the course of
reared its ugly head when Connie was in mid-life, and although the
choice was tough, she decided not to pursue extensive
treatment. She had observed how friends of hers with leukemia
had suffered through debilitating reactions to drugs and bone marrow
transplants. They also had a loss of energy, and she wasn’t
having any of that! She settled for minimally invasive treatment
protocols like infusions to revive her depleting red blood cells. She
sits for hours in a laboratory’s black reclining chair while
infusion bags drip way too slowly for her speed. The doctors gave her
about nine years to live, and she decided that was
be enough. During that time she ramped up her community engagement.
Why waste any of the precious time left?
years later Connie has survived the death of her daughter and has
celebrated her oldest grandson’s wedding. She walks almost
daily with her neighborhood group, reads voraciously, is deeply
immersed in her grandchildren’s lives, travels widely and makes
flaky-scrumptious blackberry pies.
now 80, suffers the effects of a severely compromised immune system.
Some of the most vexing effects are that her sinuses remain plugged
due to a chronic infection, despite several surgeries. She also has
an enlarged spleen that sometimes protrudes through her designer
clothes. She still looks elegant in them.
of her underlying neurological
wounds heal painstakingly slowly. Black bruises envelop
body as a result of the slightest impact because
her platelet count is so low. Platelets are cells that help the blood
clot. Hers doesn’t very well. Her eyes water, and she is
scheduled for knee surgery due to a build-up of fluid in one knee.
Neuropathy in her feet leads to her inability to lift the front part
of her feet.
out walking one day Connie couldn’t lift her feet, and she
fell, suffering a subdural hematoma. That cascaded into further
bleeding of her brain. The result of this brain bleed is that she
permanently lost her ability to verbalize clearly—this for the
woman who addressed many a convocation and articulated incredibly
well throughout all her public positions. She now suffers the speech
deficit known as apraxia, the inability to speak a word even though
her brain recalls it.
hospitalization was complicated by the fact that when she pushed the
call button for help, a nurse would ask over the speaker how she
could help, and Connie could only mumble a response. It took her
three months to be able to speak. Now she goes to speech therapy once
a week and is learning to form letters like U and Z that her brain
doesn’t want to produce. This is the woman who had
gone once a week to French class and traveled to France
complications from the leukemia are enough to down a normal person,
but not Connie. She has had several falls and recently spent months
visiting a wound clinic to heal a large red gash in her leg from one
of her falls. She attempts to be a contributor to conversations, and
there’s no holding her down. There are many words Connie
can’t conjure, and she often doesn’t get the
pronunciation right, but she will try the word and if it isn’t
understood, she will write it down to clarify it.
sat down to lunch one day, surrounded by lime green salsa and warm
tortilla chips, and covered our check-in: my children, her children,
my grandchildren, her grandchildren, our friends, our spouses, the
books we’re reading, travel, cultural events, and then she pops
out with the real stuff. She’s attending a political lecture on
a topic about which she is passionate, having an event to support a
mayoral candidate and is writing a letter to the newspaper to take on
need to brush up on current events before we get together, and it
still isn’t enough. She is much better informed. It is safer
to agree with her than to make a case for a dissenting political
opinion. That’s not the way it started.
met shortly after Connie moved to Everett. We had mutual friends who
claimed that she needed to get to know me because I was so nice. That
was no sale. Nice she didn’t need. She was looking for
stimulating, irreverent, edgy. Then we had the opportunity to sit
next to each other at a friend’s gathering. We landed on the
topic of books, and Connie opined that she didn’t like a
certain author. That caught my attention because he was one of my
favorites, and I told her why. She whipped her head around and looked
at me like I was just dropped onto that brown couch by a drone.
book talks morphed into our starting a book group together, and we
have probed each other’s minds ever since on topics vast and
deep. When we both eventually moved to Seattle, we started another
book group. If we ever move again, we’ll repeat the process.
is speaking more clearly now. She seldom uses a notepad to spell her
words—until she hits a topic that gets her goat: a political
candidate who is missing the mark, an issue that could make an
impact, an editorial opinion that goes against her grain. Then she’s
a ball of frustration. She can’t emit the words she needs,
because they’re lollygagging behind her thoughts. She sputters,
she stops, she gives up, and then her agitation drills through her
frustration. She starts over. Finally, she lets her opinions fly.
She’s getting it down. She does better with one-on-one
communication, but she pipes up in groups too.
moves forward with a spirited sense of humor to meet life’s
challenges despite her inability to communicate as effectively as she
wants. She gives generously to causes she believes in. One is ARCS
Foundation where she provides funding for STEM graduate students to
pursue their doctorates. She is fiercely family-oriented, has
garnered strong friendships and has a loving husband who is her rock.
Connie grips life firmly by the hand because she is a rock too. She
is a force of nature, and even though she’s my good friend, I
don’t know how she does it.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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