Friday, February 10, 2012

Listen to Susan

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.

12 comments:

  1. KC, this is beautiful. The hug from within. I love that. Susan gave so much to everyone she knew. We are so lucky to have known her.

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  2. Beautiful, KC. One of my favorite things I've read about her.

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  3. Oh, my sweet friend. I love this--you have captured Susan from an angle that I have not yet read, and I sat here nodding my head in agreement with each line you wrote. I, too, will make a concerted effort to move forward with more faith and less doubt. Thank you. xoxoxo

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  4. Susan just converted to Catholicism. She was Presbyterian before that, and always had a strong faith. I was disappointed that the priest presented it the other way, because it just wasn't true. She wanted her boys to have the community in that particular church - but she has been a Christian with a strong faith for a very long time.

    Thank you for this, KC. It's beautiful.

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  5. What a lovely tribute to a wonderful woman. I love this line: Worrying is like praying for what you don't want.
    It's new to me and I don't want to forget it.
    Thank you.

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  6. Marty beat me to it. Susan wasn't new to faith, just the Catholic Church. I remember having discussions about faith with her years ago when I had [erroneously] assumed someone with so strong a scientific background wouldn't have such a strong belief in God. It's clear, though, that her recent conversion brought her enormous comfort.

    Thank you for your words
    Rebecca

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  7. Marty and Rebecca- thank you for clarifying. Her faith wasn't new. I'm so glad her recent conversion brought her comfort and that that part of our lives can always grow in new ways.

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  8. As Catholic inflammatory breast cancer researcher, as I work today I will certainly be thinking of this post and praying for Susan and all those who knew her. She sounds like a truly inspiring woman. :)

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  9. A wonderful, beautiful post for an extraordinary woman. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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  10. What a wonderful tribute to someone who was a wonderful person. I only know Susan through her blog. I've been reading that since she was diagnosed with IBC. I worried from the first I read she had IBC that she wouldn't be long for this world. She certainly lived longer than most with this horrific disease.

    Thank you.

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  11. This woman was clearly amazing and lived a life full of purpose. I have been reading her blog all day. Thank you KC for your beautiful post about her. A story in one of her blogs particularly struck me. I've posted it below. Even in her death, she continues to make a difference.

    THE STARFISH POEM
    Once upon a time there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work. One day he was walking along the shore. As he looked down the beach, he saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself to think of someone who would dance to the day. So he began to walk faster to catch up.

    As he got closer, he saw that it was a young man
    and the young man wasn’t dancing, but instead he was reaching down to the shore, picking up something and very gently throwing it into the ocean. As he got closer he called out, “Good morning! What are you doing?”

    The young man paused, looked up and replied, “Throwing starfish in the ocean.” The wise man then asked, “Why are you throwing starfish in the ocean?” ”The sun is up and the tide is going out. And if I don’t throw them in they’ll die.”

    “But, young man, don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it. You can’t possibly make a difference!”

    The young man listened politely. Then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves and said, ”It made a difference for that one.”

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  12. It was clear to me from the homily plus talking with Susan on a couple of occasions that she had always been a person of faith -- the priest said "She knew Jesus," or something similar. But I did take away from the mass that she may have gained a new sense of comfort in the sacraments, and as the child of a person who converted to Catholicism (raised in the church myself, no longer practice) I know what that can mean. It's just another, fairly deep experience, and it reminded me of what can be good in the church.

    I didn't know it had been such a recent change for her and it added another layer to my (of course fairly limited) understanding of what she has gone through the past few years. I think it was just remarkable in so many ways, and the vastness of everything I continue to read about her underscores what an equally remarkable person she was. The line "she contained multitudes" keeps popping into my head when it comes to her, because she so obviously did.

    I enjoyed meeting you at the service -- still surprised we have not crossed paths before. Thanks for writing this -- it was good to read today.

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