Year later, Geppi-Aikens still touches those she left

Laura Vecsey

HER PARENTS woke up yesterday, one year to the day that Diane Geppi-Aikens finally flew away with the angels, and they laughed more than they cried.

John and Katherine Geppi knew it was a day to play some of their daughter's favorite music, but wasn't it just like Diane to make them shake their heads in joy and laughter, thinking back to how Diane wanted "I Shot the Sheriff" and "I Will Survive" played at her funeral?

"Diane loved her music. She loved to dance. She left us a list of songs, but I thought it might be a little sacrilegious," Katherine Geppi said, thinking back on a year that sometimes felt like a day and other times felt like 100 years.

No wonder. There was the posthumous Alumni Award of Valor that her parents accepted for her in September from the Eastern College Athletic Conference, requiring a trip to Cape Cod. There had been banquet appearances at Parkville High, where there's now a Diane Geppi-Aikens MVP award.

There were book signings for Lucky Every Day, an inspirational book by Chip Silverman about the lessons Geppi-Aikens taught, published in April.

On March 7, Loyola renamed its lacrosse field in her honor. There's a new $5,000 scholarship award given in conjunction with lacrosse's Tewaaraton Trophy.

There is also the Diane M. Geppi-Aikens 5K Memorial Run, set for Sept. 25, with proceeds to go to the Aikens Children's Fund for the education of Michael, 19, Jessica, 17, Melissa, 13, and Shannon, 10.

"People think maybe we should be walking around in sack cloths and sad faces. Are you kidding? She's still got me jumping through hoops," Katherine Geppi said.

The parents recalled how a year ago yesterday, after more than six years of battling brain cancer, Diane was finally cradled in the arms of her sister, Caroline, as the entire family, including her grandmother, Marie Meyers, and Diane's four children, gathered around her. Her father knew about a week or so beforehand that time was running out.

"I went to pick her up from the chair and put her on the couch so I could rub her feet, which swelled a little. She said, 'Dad, don't sit down. You'll sit on an angel.' I said, 'What angels?' She said, 'Don't you see them?' So I knew. Her last words to me were, 'Dad, I love you,' " John Geppi recalled.

And so after one of the most valiant and public and inspirational fights against brain tumors that never yielded to surgeries and, finally, cancer that no radiation or laser could make disappear, Geppi-Aikens and her family stopped after six years of praying for a miracle and instead embraced what was to come.

"I think it was very positive," Katherine Geppi said. "When it came to that acceptance part, Diane was very much at peace. Finally, I knew it was time. She said, 'Mom, I'm tired.' The children were with her. We were talking with her, and she kind of slipped into a coma."

"She had a big smile on her face when she went. We told her, 'The next time the angels come, you go with them,'" John Geppi said.

Boy, did she. Yesterday, in glorious sunshine everyone who knew Diane Geppi-Aikens believed she was part of, it was a perfect day for a memorial service.

So John and Katherine Geppi, their daughters, other family and a few friends gathered in the chapel on the campus where Geppi-Aikens arrived for college in 1980 and basically never left. She became the Loyola women's lacrosse coach whose amazing record (197-71) over 15 seasons doesn't begin to tell the story of her far-flung impact and otherworldly success.

It was hardly a surprise the sort of effect Geppi-Aikens had on people, before the brain tumor and especially later, when her strength and optimism and energy were powerful enough to propel others to try to equal her outlook and output.

She ran practices with staples in her scalp, her surgeon knowing better than to order bed rest. She barreled along in the passenger seat, her left side suffering some paralysis but so what? She was making her father take her up and down the East Coast on recruiting trips.

She mothered her four kids, her lacrosse team, her assistant coaches, making everyone gather around her on the field and, later, in her Overlea home, when the steroids that swelled her body and the pressure from the tumor wore on her - though not to the point where she didn't attempt to navigate the narrow halls and door frames in her wheelchair.

She was on the sidelines all the way to the end, coaching her team to the NCAA Final Four, losing in the semifinals to Princeton to end a season that no one - and that includes the thousands who read about her in national magazines, newspapers and saw her on TV - wanted to end.

Her team wasn't the national champion, or was it? "Fond memories have softened the pain of loss," Loyola president the Rev. Harold Ridley said yesterday in his homily.

"Every morning after breakfast, I would see Diane pulling into the parking lot in her car. I'd see her and my day would get off to a great start. ... She made me want to bring more energy, more focus, more vision to my job," Ridley said.

"I taught Diane her first class, that first semester in the fall of 1980. We were friends ever since," said Sister Helen Christensen, a longtime Loyola teacher who organized yesterday's service.

"She was the same Diane then that she always was. There were many resident students who lived on campus. They would have the hardest time getting to class. They'd roll in around 8 o'clock, stroll in and sit in the nearest seat to the back of the room. Diane [a non-resident who had to make her way from Parkville] would be there at five till 8, in the front row, in the middle of the row, willing to ask questions about whatever it was they had worked on the night before," Sister Helen said.

"It was a math course for elementary education. There were a lot of students who didn't want to be there. But she was always so energetic. I pray to her all the time, if I'm in a pinch. I usually get what I'm asking for," she said.

Then the family was off to visit Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, where there's a new plaque on a newly planted tree near a headstone that is simply marked, Loving Mom. On the back of the grave marker, two lacrosse sticks are etched into the stone.

Sometimes, when the family stops by, Diane's grandmother, Marie Meyers, will tend to linger a little longer. It's then that Diane's mother will ask her 87-year-old mother to come along.

"She'll just turn and tell Diane, 'I will be there soon, so we can talk about things then,' " Katherine Geppi said.

What better things can you say about a person then that other people feel your presence here on Earth, but they still can't wait to get to heaven to talk with you?

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