Judy Baggs came into my life in 2003, when a friend of her husband, Mike, introduced us. My first memory of Judy came when I was a cocktail waitress at Ten Beach Drive. Mike asked me to bring them a saucer of maraschino cherries. I complied, and Judy used her tongue to tie a cherry stem into several knots.
As far as Judy went, that wasn't even in the top five of what made her exceptional, but that's how I met her, laughing, performing a slightly suggestive party trick on a Friday night. She exuded happiness and warmth; I was drawn to her instantly.
For me — and for so many of my Gulfport friends and neighbors — memories of Judy abound.
My last memory of Judy is a woman who still exuded happiness and warmth, surrounded by a lifetime of love and grace in a Hospice bed, kissing me goodbye. She wasn't scared to die, she'd told me. She was at peace.
"I love you," I told her, and walked out of the room so she wouldn't see me cry. The day before, when I started to cry, she scolded me in her gentle, southern way. Her voice was weak but that Southern belle accent somehow remained.
If Southern belles exist in the purest possible form, Judy was one. She and her husband Mike called Gulfport home, but Judy started her life in the Deep South, in Moultrie, Georgia, on April 23, 1948. By the time she met Mike, she already had two kids, Shawn and Shannan. She fell hard for Mike, taken, she told me, by his good looks and his body.
"She was a cougar," Mike says now, laughing. "She stole me away from the Marine Corps."
In reality, Mike took some convincing. He was a military man, and marriage and family? He wasn't sure he was ready just yet.
"You may find someone prettier, someone smarter, but you will never find anyone who loves you as much as I do," she told him.
"She was right," Mike told me Monday.
Shortly after I met Judy, she and Mike and their two Yorkies (Mickey and Minnie) had someone else in tow: Judy's granddaughter, Kayla. Kayla's mother couldn't properly care for the little girl, so Judy brought her from Texas to Gulfport, where Kayla had the best of everything. If Judy minded putting her life on hold, she never gave any indication. She, along with Mike, adored Kayla.
Judy's doctor found the cancer right after Kayla, in her teens, returned to Texas in 2012.
"I'm not going to tell her," Judy said to me shortly after her diagnosis. She'd called to ask me my opinion on juicers. At the time, she and Mike believed Judy would survive the cancer. There was no need, Judy said, to upset Kayla or make her feel guilty for moving back home.
It seemed then the cancer would be a brief dark spot in Judy's sunny life. The treatments beat back the cancer and, as recently as a year ago, Judy's tests showed no cancer. Last April, though, the cancer returned. Her oncologist spoke frankly with her and Mike: Get your affairs in order.
Judy did, with, it seemed, steel in her spine. She didn't hide from her fate. If she was angry at God or the cancer, she never showed it to the world. Instead, she focused on the practical. When she came to one of my photo shows wearing a multicolored knit scarf, I told her I loved it.
"Do you want it?" she asked me. "I mean, you can't have it now; you'll have to wait."
Every time we visited, I would go home and cry, but I kept visiting because I truly loved Judy, and also, selfishly, it felt good to be around her. I would cry because the idea of a world without her seemed somehow wrong, but feel good because all those prosaic things I could say about her also happened to be true: She had so much light and goodness in her, it spread.
One of the last times we visited, I asked Judy if there was anything she wanted. She was in bed, in her purple nightgown, with her little dog, Millie, lying by her side.
Finish my story, she said. We told most of it in December, but Judy wanted me to write its ending. And, if I could, could I please tell everyone how amazing Hospice was, maybe write an article about Hospice? Also, she said, she wanted me to write her obituary.
"Do you want to read it to make sure it's what you want to say?" I asked her.
"I trust you," she told me. "But don't say I fought courageously."
On this she was crystal clear: I was not to describe her diagnosis as a battle. That implied she hadn't fought hard enough.
"It's not a battle," Mike said. "It's a sentence."
Judy went to Hospice at Bayfront on March 9. Mike texted me: "She asked for you."
On March 12, Mike brought Millie to see Judy one last time. Millie licked Judy's face, then lay down between Judy's knees and kept guard for hours.
Mike played her music she liked: Bob Seger's Old Time Rock and Roll, Cups and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
The next day, Mike and Judy's friend Diane, with the help of a Hospice nurse, brushed Judy's teeth. They bathed her and fixed her hair. As they put lotion on Judy's skin, Mike could feel her start to go.
He pulled her into his arms where, a few moments later, Judy Baggs died.
She was at peace. She wasn't scared.
Judy Baggs, 67, died in her husband’s arms at Suncoast Hospice Care Center South Pinellas on Sunday, March 13. Judy, born in Moultrie, Georgia in 1948, made Gulfport home alongside Mike, her husband of almost 37 years, and their dog, Millie. Her love, strength and grace live on in her father, James W. Scott of South Pasadena; her son Shawn Jones, his wife Jackie and their son Michael; Judy’s granddaughter Kayla, her husband Justin and their daughter Olivia; Judy’s grandson Kenten; and Judy’s daughter Shannan. Judy’s brother, James W. Scott Jr. and her mother, Lila Scott, both preceded her in death. Because her oncologist spoke frankly with Judy about her chances of surviving cancer, Judy and Mike celebrated Judy’s life while she was still alive to appreciate the love and support of her community. At her wish, there will be no funeral, although friends may choose to gather over Corona Light or an unsweetened ice tea at a future date. In lieu of flowers, Judy asked people make a donation to Suncoast Hospice, who allowed Judy to die with dignity and surrounded by love.
About Suncoast Hopsice: "Those people were absolutely phenomenal. Everybody did everything they could to help make her passage and transition to her next place better," Mike says. To make a donation, follow this link.