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Goodbye Susan — For Now

The long strand of white Chinese freshwater pearls I wore to her memorial mass/celebration of life are still on the dresser in the front hallway where I tossed them the second I came home. The purple carnations I bought a week before her death because of their bright hue and their lunar name, “Howl at the Moon,” stand at attention in the crystal vase on the console table, cruelly taunting me with their chirpiness. The deep purple manicure I got three weeks ago along with the other TheDCMoms.com bloggers in her honor and in an attempt to brighten her days in bed, finally needed attention. I cried softly as the manicurist took it off, just as I did when she put it on. Three weeks ago, with every stroke of the lacquer on my nails, I knew this would probably be the first, last, and only time I would wear purple nail polish. I knew in my heart time was running out.

Susan is gone.

 

She fought a valiant fight against what I consider to be a particularly vicious form of cancer — inflammatory breast cancer (“the one without a lump”). So hard, so long, and so well that almost to the end many of us thought she was going to rebound and make it for a while longer. Or as she told me two weeks before the end, that she was just “regrouping.” But there comes a point when you know it is time to say goodbye.  I am eternally grateful to both Susan and her family for allowing me the time to do so while she was alive.

I must pause to say that I’ve been reminded that Susan did not “lose her battle with cancer.” Susan lived longer than expected, and she lived the heck out of every single day. She kicked cancer up and down and back again. It may have ultimately claimed her life, but cancer won nothing.

beautiful moon

This is the gorgeous moon that rose over the Metro DC area on the evening of Susan's passing, as captured by our mutual friend Robin (@noteverstill). Her blog is The Not-Ever-Still Life: http://noteverstill.blogspot.com/

Susan is gone. But she is not. She is here. I run into her almost everywhere I go. The evening of the day she passed, her many, many friends were amazed by the glorious moon that rose early and put on a brilliant show. Only to be followed by a gorgeous Snow Moon the night of the visitation. So many of us felt like it was a sign, like she was just smiling her very radiant smile from heaven via the moon, saying, “See, I told you, it’s going to be okay.”

I’ve written more than once about how much Susan inspired me (and continues to do so).  There are so many people who have written so beautifully about Susan that I am not even going to try to sum up her life any better than they have. (See JeanAmyRobin… )

I have written and deleted this post several times. Should it be a tribute? A summary of a friendship? An accounting of events? Finally, I’ve decided to simply share a story.

When the Junior League of Northern Virginia was holding a fundraiser to raise money for The Children’s Science Center and put out the call for a Celebrity Scientist, I turned to Susan. Would she be willing to share her story of how museums helped shape her career? Susan, being so Susan, answered that she would be delighted.

Sadly, it turned out to be a day when she was in pain.  The cancer had returned, she just didn’t know it yet. I had begged her not to come if she was in pain, telling her we’d make do, but she came anyway. Because that was Susan. She’d fight through pain to do a favor for a friend and to do something she thought was important.

March 6, 2010 Dr. Susan Niebur presenting at the Junior League of Northern Virginia's STEM Awareness Day

Dr. Susan Niebur speaking as a "Celebrity Scientist" at the Junior League of Northern Virginia's STEM Awareness Day, an event to raise awareness about the need and raise funds for a Children's Science Center in Northern Virginia. Susan's touching story about how a visit to a museum at the age of three touched the hearts of many people in the audience. (March 6, 2010, photo is my own.)

Without anyone else knowing the pain she was in, she stood behind that podium and shared a story that people still talk about today. Her parents had taken her to a museum in Galveston, TX when she was three years old. After looking at all the astronaut suits, she looked up at her mother and asked, “Mommy, why aren’t there any GIRL astronauts?” To which her mother replied, “I’m not sure.” At the end of the exhibit, you could write a question on a card and drop it into a box, and Susan decided to ask NASA why girls weren’t astronauts, too. And at the tender age of three, she decided that she was going to grow up and work for NASA. And she did.

It was this story I shared with her mother at the visitation, and her mother says she vividly remembered that day. I wanted to share it with her, mother to mother, to let her know just how much that moment in time meant to Susan. Sometimes, as mothers, we forget just how precious those trips to a museum, a library or a zoo can mean. They can literally change a child’s life. Somehow I just wanted to give her mother a piece of her daughter back with that story. A memory of Susan as a little girl. Her father told us, “We taught her how to read at three and then she didn’t need us again!” Oh how, that sounds like Susan. And frankly, like my JavaGirl.

I credit Susan’s story with the success of the fundraiser that night. But I also credit it with planting a seed in my mind that though my son is the one who exhibits the most interest in science, that I need to be sure that I take equal time to foster it in my daughter. It’s not that I didn’t know this was important, it’s just that in the hubbub of parenting, it is so easy to lose sight of things. JavaBoy already wants to be a chemist. JavaGirl currently wants to be a horseback rescue rider. JavaBoy sees everything through science-filtered eyes, whereas I have to work at it just a little more with JavaGirl. She enjoys science, it’s just I have to remember to include her because she doesn’t have a single-minded focus like her brother.

Mere days after Susan’s funeral, we were at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Dulles, where I was proud to see the Museum Without Walls partnership between the Junior League and the Children’s Science Center in action on a Super Science Saturday — kids were trying out mobile exhibits with a glee that I know would’ve brought out Susan’s brilliant smile. The Children’s Science Center is still raising money toward a goal of a future permanent building, but now has traveling exhibits it takes to schools and fairs. From there we walked over to the space exhibit, and I took JavaGirl by the hand to show her an astronaut suit in a glass case and explain to her “Miss Susan’s” story.

JavaGirl contemplates an astronaut suit

JavaGirl at the National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center just a couple of years older than Susan was when she made that life-changing trip to a museum in Texas. (Photo is my own.)

“You see, when Miss Susan and I were little girls, there weren’t any women astronauts. But now there are. Miss Susan thought it was very important to have more women in science, so not only did she study very hard to be a scientist who worked at NASA, but she worked to make it better for other women to work in science, too. I want you to know that you can be anything you want to be, honey. And that includes being a scientist.”

We walked by an exhibit about exploration on Mars and I said that I knew that Susan was involved with that but that I didn’t know all the details — the kids were pounding me with questions. I was already regretting not having had enough time to ask Susan all the questions I would’ve liked to. When I spoke with Susan about science, it was usually more on the kid level, rather than delving into her career. It had always been my intention to get her together with my kids for a career discussion — she had met them once, but all our kids played while the adults talked — but the timing never worked out. I’m hoping some of Susan’s Women in Planetary Science friends will help me fill in some of the gaps.

At the end of a long day, after she was in her pajamas, JavaGirl came into my room and said, “Mommy, before I go to bed, I would like you to talk to me some more about Miss Susan and science.” I fought back my tears — mixed sadness over losing Susan and joy over a little girl’s interest — and we talked some more.

The next day, while working with JavaBoy on his science fair project for school, I turned to JavaGirl (kindergarten) and said, “Would you like to do a science fair project, too?” She practically leapt out of her chair with excitement. “Yes! I’m going to be like Miss Susan, except I’m going to be the first girl to do experiments!” (Okay, we still have some history work to do.)

We’ve spent the past several days working on the kids’ science fair projects, and I could swear I’ve heard Susan laughing from heaven a few times, like when I called the chemistry department at George Mason to ask a grad student to explain some unexpected results to JavaBoy, or when JavaGirl came up with zillions of questions of her own. I wore my IBC Research pin to the Discover Engineering Family Day both in the hopes it would open up a conversation with someone, and in a way, to “bring” Susan with me to a day I think she would’ve immensely enjoyed. Seeing so many kids enjoying STEM activities, such as building Lego structures and testing them out in a tsunami wave machine. No matter what the specific discipline, Susan encouraged intellectual curiosity in children (and people) of all ages. I just pictured her standing there, with that broad smile on her face, saying, “COOL!” And wouldn’t  you know it, the “prize” for completing your passport for visiting several booths was a chance to sit and talk to an astronaut.

Susan is gone. But she’s still here. Forever in my heart, my memory, and yes, I believe watching us from above. At times, giggling.

Susan, you are an inspiration always, in so many ways. There are many ways I could have been a better friend to you, but know that I could never have asked for a better friend than you. I miss you.

I have made a donation in her memory to the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Please consider doing the same or making a difference to the charity of your choice. Unless otherwise noted, all photos are my own.

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Comments

  1. Oh, J.J., that was lovely.

    • Thank you Robin. And thank you for the incredible moon photo. I was so distressed that my camera was in disrepair and that I wouldn’t be able to capture it that night, it somehow comforts me to look at the photo and remember just how glorious the moon looked both those nights.

  2. Beautiful thoughts… thank you for sharking. :)I donated to Relay For Life of Reston in her memory…her support of the event and her friendship meant nuch to me.

  3. A beautiful post for a wonderful woman, incredible scientist, and a very special friend to all of us! xo

    • You always took such good care of her, Leticia, and helped organize many of us who lived further away find a way to contribute to being helpful. You were a blessing in her life.

  4. Beautiful thoughts… thank you for sharing. :)I donated to Relay For Life of Reston in her memory…her support of the event and her friendship meant nuch to me.

    • Thank you Kristina, I know how much Relay for Life means to you and how much Susan speaking at the event meant to you. Another thing her father told us that made me smile was that when she was very little she used to grab ahold of a microphone that was attached to their stereo system. When Susan was in front of an audience, she was on fire! She was gifted in so many ways. One day, through the hard work of people like you who raise money for cancer research, maybe there really will be no more deaths to such a horrible disease.

  5. Beautiful, J.J.

    • This means a lot, coming from you. Big hugs, Sue. The two of you did amazing stuff (was it only two years ago?) with the lymphodema sleeves partnership.

  6. I had to read this in pieces because it kept bringing tears to my eyes. Beautifully written!

    I also didn’t go visit as often as I would have liked over the past year because I was trying to be respectful of her family time and energy levels. I’m comforted to know that she was well cared for by her church family and other friends with a closer geographic proximity. My regrets are selfish, yet I am so thankful she is no longer in pain.

    • Thank you, De. Though I hate to hear that you also felt conflicted, it is somewhat comforting to know I wasn’t the only one who sometimes hung back because I didn’t want to tire Susan out – I was always conscious of those “spoons.”

  7. A beautiful tribute. For an amazing person. Hope you get a chance to see the 3 planets visible in the sky tonight without a telescope. :-)

  8. JJ, this is beautiful.

  9. JJ, thank you for sharing your personal encounters with Susan. It is because of you that I found her. She has impacted me to be more proactive about breast cancer research. And I feel as though I have lost a friend.

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