As I sat at the funeral of a friend this past week - a brilliant former NASA astrophysicist and mother to two sweet boys, 5 and 7 - I felt the collective reverence emanate like an aura over the pews for a woman who was truly extraordinary. Susan and I met through blogging years ago and though we were writing in a medium that engaged distant audiences, we happened to live within miles. For as long as I knew her, she carried a diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer (diagnosed in 2007). With courage, grace and honesty, she blogged about her journey through chemo, mastectomy, remission, recurrence, hospice, and too much pain. Yet what defined her was not this; it was a true joy of living, of living each breath, of tremendous advocacy, that made her luminous beyond the normal range of our ordinary mortal existence. She was the type of person that if you met her, you loved her. Simple as that.
In the homily, I learned something new about Susan: she had undergone an accelerated Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (the process by which adults convert to Catholicism) to develop a deeper relationship with God and to draw strength from this relationship through her illness. Seeing her and her family at church each week, I had assumed her faith and religion were constants in her life equation - not something so new and dynamic. I thought about my own RCIA experience 9 years ago and how much that has meant to who I am today.
Since her death, so many who loved Susan have written about her and about how they will honor her. Encouraging their children to love science, to practice present-parenting, to support breast cancer research, to schedule their mammograms. For me, she will inspire me to have more faith, less doubt. Yes: More faith. Less doubt.
Because, I doubt. I worry. In the almost-year that my husband has been stationed in Afghanistan, the anxiety has ebbed and flowed, with occasional spurts of outright fear. I play mind games with myself, practice superstition, believing that the course of events could hinge on a mental misstep. In everyday life I worry too. Small things that shouldn't matter. Small things that wouldn't matter if I had Susan's perspective and her faith. Why not practice more faith, more optimism, more belief in the goodness of others? Because life is too short to worry so much for things beyond our control.
A friend on Facebook shared this recently: Worrying is like praying for what you don't want. I never thought of it that way, but how true. Why devote such time and energy to such negativity when there is living, loving to be had? Why not allow one's faith to carry some of the burdens?
Susan was good at many things but perhaps what she was the very best at was loving others. This was evident at her funeral - her love reflected in all those who came was evident. Radiant. Uplifting. Her best friend, a professional musician, sang the Gospel hymn "His Eye is on the Sparrow" in a voice so pure and clear - quite possibly the most beautiful thing any of us have ever heard. We were rapt. Silent. Reverent.
If we all could believe and love a fraction of what Susan could, imagine how many more breaths would be filled with joy instead of fret. Hope instead of worry. Striving towards this is how I will remember Susan. She is the cheerleader I'll hear on the inside. The hug from within.
In a wonderful interview last year, Susan was asked, "you're a role model for finding beauty and joy in life no matter what happens - what are your top 'little things that count?'"
Her answer: Children’s laughter. Soap bubbles on a summer afternoon. Reading books together in an easy chair. Family meals. Cuddling. Taking time for a night out with friends — even when there is other work to be done. Stargazing or watching the clouds pass by. Asking a child a question, and listening — really listening — to her answer.
We said goodbye to Susan this week but her inspiration lives on inside us all.