As a nation, we carry the burden of the date in our souls like sandbags tethered to our waists, dragging, pulling us back. Just as we head into the brilliance of fall, that date sneaks up on me every year, this year more than others.
Twenty years ago, Dora Menchaca boarded American Airlines flight No. 77 heading home to California, but that flight was crashed into the Pentagon. Associate director of Clinical Research at Amgen biotech company, Dora had been in D.C. meeting with the Food and Drug Administration on behalf of drugs to cure cancer.
She was 45. She was my sister-in-law.
Divorced from my brother years earlier, Dora went on to frame a rich family life with Earl and their two children. In the 20 years since her death, Dora’s kindergarten son, Jaryd, has grown into a man. Daughter Imani teaches high school Spanish and lives with her husband and their two daughters in Norway.
Dora would be a grandmother. Her jet-black hair would have softened to silver.
Amgen created a reflection garden honoring her on its campus and donated millions to build a cancer treatment wing in her name in the UCLA Medical Center. (Dora graduated from UCLA with a Ph.D. in epidemiology — a branch of medicine which deals with incidence, distributions and control of diseases).
The first in her Mexican-American family to graduate from college, Dora supported several of her younger siblings in earning degrees. As Imani notes, “Mom wouldn’t think twice about giving her sister $2,100 for a semester of college, yet she would spend hours scouring the 75% off bin at Pier 1 Imports.”
“Dr. Menchaca had a very strong science background, but she was also very personable and played a very significant role at the company,” said Scott Fields, an oncologist at Amgen. Dora told me upon marrying the first time that she would keep her Mexican surname as modeling to younger minority women. She volunteered in schools, encouraging students of color to go into science and medicine.
An ace at work, Dora’s finest accomplishments were with family and friends.
Dora was persistent. She won academic scholarships to Notre Dame (undergrad), University of North Carolina (grad school), and UCLA. She pestered co-workers, her father and her husband to be checked for prostate cancer. Happily this led to Earl’s diagnosis and cure.
Imani noted that she and her college friends used to joke about “doing the Dora,” i.e. behaving as Dora would in varying situations — the equivalent of WWDD, What Would Dora Do?
Decisions about dating, athletics or food? They quizzed one another by asking, “How will you be doing the Dora?”
Dora talked with her hands and her eyes. Warm and vivacious, she pulled you in with that laugh of hers — not a demure little thing, it rang out of her like the bells of Notre-Dame Cathedral.
Through the years and all that has happened, I can’t help but wonder how Dora would look at our times — a global pandemic, many people managing their best, but too many getting sick and dying when it could have been prevented.
Well-educated and firmly rooted in medical science, disease control through years of clinical trials, and human behavior, Dora would be shaking her head these days. Nothing can bring her back, but I can write on her behalf.
Get vaccinated. Wear masks indoors. Do the Dora.