I think of Susan daily.
And nightly. With every moon. Not only because she was an astrophysicist, but because the day she died, there was a glorious moon.
There will be many posts about Susan today. This one is less so about Susan herself, and more so about the impact Susan’s life — and death — had on me. Because I can say that both have changed the direction of my life forever. That is one thing we all strive for, isn’t it? To make an impact on someone’s life? I know Susan has impacted hundreds (more likely thousands) of lives, and I hope that she is smiling from above with that knowledge.
I carry with me the pain that I was never as good of a friend to Susan as I wanted to be, though Susan was always gracious to me, to the very, very end. In her final year, I was in a hellish stage of my marriage and my life, something I was not openly sharing with people at the time. I was stretched so thin emotionally that I was barely making it. So while I could text and email with Susan, I just couldn’t drive the distance to see her very often. I was barely able to pull it together to make sure there was a dinner plan for my own family, much less to get meals to Susan. When I could, I would send a contribution for take-out meals to the friends coordinating them. But attempting to provide comic relief through emails, texts and the occassional phone call was all I could manage in terms of “visiting,” and I always felt like that was far too little.
I also felt like I shouldn’t complain about my life to anyone, because what were my problems in comparison to Susan’s? Here she was dying, and yet she was still writing a book, being such a fabulous mother, attending conferences, and still found time to do things like send Christmas cards. Susan was simply awe-inspiring.
Part of my healing process in losing Susan, and in dealing with my guilt over not being able to do more for her, has been to honor Susan by attempting to be “more like Susan.” I have lived very intentionally over this past year, which is not to say that I have lived perfectly, but with more focus and purpose. Losing a friend (and I lost more than one last year) has a way of shaking you up and causing you to question your purpose on Earth, your priorities, and your very existence — all things I had discussed with Susan at various times. This year, all those things were at the very forefront of my mind.
I’d like to say that I was extremely organized about this process and wrote things out and was very Gretchen Rubin-esque in my process, but I wasn’t. It started out as a very reactionary part of the grieving process and then became a little more formal, but here are some of the elements of what my year of living intentionally and in honor of Susan included.
Recognize that Life Is Short
Life is finite. We don’t know how short, even those who have cancer and have been given a time frame don’t know for sure. Susan beat cancer many times. But life is a limited resource. Live life out loud, every day, and to the fullest. Today could be your last or it could be one of a million. Make it count. It’s a small thing, but I did one of my “bucket list” items — ride on a zipline — this year. Watch out world — shark cage diving is next…
But in all seriousness, that means that taking care that our words to each other are kind, and that we don’t squander our days doing things we don’t want to or need to do. Of course few of us want to do laundry, but we need to. But don’t do volunteer work you hate out of obligation. Don’t read books you don’t like unless you have to for homework! In other words, QUESTION EVERYTHING. Maybe you are doing something because you “have always done it this way,” but you don’t really need to? Or even need to do it at all? I became very sick with pneumonia this Christmas and it is amazing how many “traditions” got tossed out the window because I couldn’t sit upright — and how few of these the kids even noticed. Life is short. Do what is meaningful and important. Add in what is fun. Take away the rest.
Establish an “I Don’t Take Any Crap” Policy
Pardon the inelegant phrasing. I don’t know that Susan had such a policy, but I do know that she would establish boundaries when she needed to and I realized I did. This phrase comes from a friend tell me about how if a social or volunteer group gives her too much crap (grief) she quits participating because “it’s not my job so I’m not getting paid to put up with that!” I spent so much of my life being a peacemaker, I would make myself unhappy trying to make everyone else happy. I don’t do that any more. When people are unreasonable, I let them know that I have an “I Don’t Take Any Crap” policy and they basically have the opportunity to get on board or get left behind in the dust. I no longer twist myself in knots wondering why the people who are unkind to me don’t like me. I do a quick internal inventory to see if I’ve done anything to be unkind or inappropriate and unless I have (in which case I try to make amends), I move on. It’s amazing how much happier I am.
Open Up and Be Vulnerable
In this past year, I opened myself up to be a little more vulnerable and let more people in. Susan shared with the world her joys and her heartbreaks. Her hopes and her fears. Susan lived fiercely and out loud. After covering up for a quite some time that my husband and I were struggling in our marriage, I stunned everyone in October by posting a very forthright post on my personal Facebook page that we were going through a trial separation and asking for everyone’s prayers and support (for all four of us) during that time. I received an incredible amount (more than 100) of encouraging responses to that post, as well as private messages, emails and phone calls. I received only two negative responses and I’m sure there were some silent, non-responses that weren’t favorable, but overall the amount of support was frankly, overwhelming. I heard from people I never expected to hear from and couldn’t believe how supportive people were. It was terrifying to post, but it was the only way I knew to rip the Band-Aid off and not have to explain over and over again why I couldn’t do certain things (volunteer for a billion things, etc.) or why certain things were happening (i.e. why my husband’s car was going to be parked in front of a neighbor’s house). The unintended yet wonderful outcome was that it made some women who were going through similar experiences feel like it was okay to talk about it. Which has always been one of my guiding principles — to help people talk about things and feel safe about it. Susan made me feel like it was okay to be “real” online and in turn, I apparently helped a few others feel like they could talk about what was going on with their families. Thank you, Susan. I must say, there is nothing like baring your soul like that to find out who is really your friend and who is not. (And if you missed the previous post, JavaDad and I are back together, and yes, the Take No Crap policy helped with that!)
Make Time for “Soap Bubbles on a Summer Afternoon”
In the past year, as I have worked on establishing boundaries, I’ve kept this part of Pinterest’s interview with Susan in mind.
Finally, we talk a lot about inspirations on Pinterest and you’re a role model for finding beauty and joy in life no matter what happens – what are your top “little things that count”?
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.
Although Susan worked hard, she understood the importance of play, as well. Having had the pleasure of working with author and cultural anthropologist Dr. Cynthia J. Smith earlier in my career, I know that there are many, many benefits for ADULTS in “play.” I simply allowed myself to push it too low on my priority list for too long. I remember a day in February about a week after her memorial service when it was unusually warm and sunny and though the kids had a million commitments, I cancelled everything and said, “We’re going to play outside and enjoy this day.” That was in honor of Susan. Because typically I would’ve said, “Oh, what a shame it’s a gorgeous day and we have all these other things to do.”
Many times I’ve caught myself with hands stuck to a keyboard or touch device and realized I need to stop and reconnect with the kids. And I try to focus on the “really listening” to my children — because they have AWESOME answers. These have always been principles of mine, but Susan was always better about keeping these front and center than I was, so I try to channel my “inner Susan” to be a better mother. Susan always had cancer in the time I knew her and basically since her second was born (she was diagnosed not long afterward), so I never asked and I’m not sure if she’d know the answer, if her ability to focus on her kids had to do with knowing that she had cancer and that time was precious or not. But, as we know, none of us really know how much time we have on Earth, so I’m trying to live as if each day with my kids is precious. This year it has been amazing to me to see just how many “forces” I have to fight off that try to get me to change that priority.
Spend Time with Girlfriends
As Susan said in her quote above, we need to make time to see friends. I lost another friend shortly after Susan. My very first friend in Northern Virginia, Julie Ingram Tryon. Yet another friend with whom I traded far too many, “We need to get together soon”s with. Her birthday would’ve been this week. Julie was also an amazing woman and I’m sure she and Susan would’ve got along famously. She was gone mere weeks after I found out she had pancreatic cancer.
It is so easy for us to get “too busy” to see each other. Yes, men need to see their friends too. And we need friends of both genders. But I can tell you that there is something very special about the bond between girlfriends. I could not have gotten through this past year without girlfriends and I know that there are some girlfriends who needed me very much this year. Because I was able to (and more willing) to be more honest with them about what was going on in my life, I was able to (and more willing) to be there for them with what has been going on in their lives. Our friendships have been even deeper and more meaningful. I have been able to say to a friend, “It sounds like you need a friend, my house is a wreck, I have a deadline, but why don’t you come over at least for an hour?” When we are volunteering together for something and working hard, I’ve become the social coordinator, the one who says, “okay, who is up for drinks afterwards?” And at first everyone says, “Oh, I have to go to the grocery story” or “But it’s a school night” and similar things, but eventually, several of us gather and we discover we all really needed it. We needed to connect, to share our joys and concerns, to do more than the school-pick-up-smile-and-wave. Facebook is great, but real-life friendship is better.
I wish I could see Susan today. I miss her a lot. I want to go up to her and throw my arms around her (oh how many times I had to be careful not to squish her when she was feeling fragile) and say, “Susan, I am a stronger and a happier woman because of you. I am a better mother and wife because of all that you taught me. And because I’m willing to share honestly what’s going on in my life, I have the strength and energy to be a better friend.” I cannot ever presume to speak for her. Please don’t ever interpret anything I say as speaking for Susan. All I can do is to try to apply what I’ve learned from Susan and hope to be the kind of person she would have kept around as a friend had she remained walking around on Earth today. She was a friend, a mentor, and a role model. With a beautiful smile and a wonderful laugh!
I have a long way to go in measuring up to being anything close to Susan, but she’s on my mind and in my heart every day. I consider our friendship ongoing and my faith allows me to believe that one day I will see her again and perhaps she will know that where I fell short as a friend to her in life, I tried to make up for afterward. We shared a passion for STEM and getting kids excited about it, and I think of her every time I volunteer in that area. I try to promote her cause — bringing awareness to Inflammatory Breast Cancer — the breast cancer without a lump, whenever I can. If you loved Susan and all the good that she brought to this world, please consider helping spread the word about this disease and the work of the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation. If you are able to make a donation, that would be wonderful. Let’s try not to let another wonderful woman be stolen away by that terrible thief, cancer.
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