I read a chapter of Raising Cain last night that is about Susie’s death. Susie was my mother’s best friend, and a second mother of sorts to me. My sister and I grew up very close with three other families, of whom Susie’s family was one. Her sons Tyler and, in particular, Ethan are as close to brothers to me. I knew from Mum that Michael Thompson had worked with Susie and the boys, but I did not realize he had been a part of their lives when she was dying.

The chapter stunned me, bringing me instantly back to those intense days in 1997. Susie died in the fall of 1997 and I will never forget the months leading up to that. For one thing, my grandmother died of the same kind of cancer in June. Pancreatic cancer suffused those months. My mother, even more surrounded by illness and death than I was, was intimately involved in Susie’s caretaking. There were a group of women who circled around her, supporting both her and her sons, in a way that I think of often now.

“Women do not leave situations like this; we push up our sleeves, lean in closer, and say, “What do you need? Tell me what you need and by God I will do it.” I believe that the souls of women flatten and anchor themselves in times of adversity, lay in for the stay.” – Elizabeth Berg

This quotation, which I invoked recently to friends involved in similar caretaking, really captures what those months were like. I was nowhere near as intensely involved as my mother was, but I was still a part of the experience. Ethan, Susie, Mum and I had countless dinners on Susie’s sun porch. We sewed square for quilts. We attended caretakers meetings.

Experiencing Susie’s death was an exquisite, once-in a lifetime privilege. I learned more about death and, perhaps paradoxically (but maybe not), about life from her in those months than I think I have since. Susie faced death with extraordinary grace. Somehow she was able to say to those of us near to her: Yes, I am dying. But see, I am not afraid. And so we were not afraid. And though the crushing sadness remained, without fear, it was more manageable.

Susie was able to rise above her own emotions to provide solace and strength to those around her. She spoke honestly about her fears, her experience, her pain. But she also honored the great good fortune of her life and was able, somehow, to put her own need away so that she could reassure those close to her, take care of her boys, until the end. I can neither imagine nor fathom the strength it took for her to do that, to put her own need for reassurance behind her desire to comfort those around her. We were supposed to be taking care of her, but in fact it was the other way around. Hers was an amazing act of generosity; to this day I am humbled when I remember it.

Hilary shared with me a prayer that was said at one caretaker meeting that I did not attend. The closing line was: I believe all of our paths are perfect. I think of this often. If a woman who died before 50, leaving two young sons with everything in front of them, can find a way to feel at peace with that, I owe it to her memory to recognize the perfection – or at least the beauty in the imperfection – of my own path.

Susie, you will never be forgotten. And Ethan, I love you.