Susie’s courage

Courage. I’ve been thinking about this word, this concept, this idea, all weekend. Trying to figure out what to share for this inaugural Five for Ten post. Certainly I don’t feel I have much, so that was easy to dismiss. I kept coming back, over and over again, to Susie. Susie was like a mother to me, and I mean that literally. My sister and I grew up in the loose net of extended family known as the “Four Families,” something that to this day I am immensely grateful for. Susie was an integral part of this community, one of the four mothers who formed the corners of the tent under which we all sheltered.

Susie died at 49 of pancreatic cancer, and the way she faced her death is the most human and intimate experience of courage I’ve ever seen. I am still unfolding the immense wisdom she passed on to me – and everyone around her – in those last months. As her body withered, her face grew as luminous as it did bony. I see now that her physical body was just reflecting her passage towards the spiritual world.

I will never forget the months leading up to Susie’s death in the fall of 1997. 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 can express. 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. To look at our lives, baldly and without pretense, to see the beauty even in the barrenness: this is courage.

33 thoughts on “Susie’s courage”

  1. Beautiful and evocative and true. Nothing takes more courage in my estimation than knowing death is imminent and embracing it. Nothing takes more courage than looking back over the span of one’s life, unfairly truncated, and believing, truly believing, that it was a good and complete life. You are indeed blessed to have witnessed a graceful passing. I believe that nothing at all can prepare us for our own death, but witnessing that a departure can be devoid of fear and panic is so important.

    Wonderful ode to a seemingly wonderful woman who left you and all she loved too soon.

  2. This tribute, not only to courage but also to Susie, is beautiful and sad. You should, when her children can appreciate it – that may be now, it may be much later, it may be on her birthday some year – give a copy of it to her sons.

  3. Choosing that attitude, having that courage is such an act of grace. I can only hope if faced with the same situation every one of us could be in that place.
    {Courage was such a difficult topic for me to wrap my head around as well… so happy to move onto Happiness next 🙂 }

  4. This is what I think of when I think of true courage. Fortunately, I have not had to experience this with anyone I know well. I don’t know, especially, how a mother could find the courage to “leave” her children in a peaceful way. I am in awe of this. I am in awe of people who can “choose” (?) to let go peacefully, to accept that this is the path their lives took. It scares me even to discuss it.

  5. The ending of your post made me think of this quote “The world contains many paths, some exalted, some mundane. It is not our task to judge the worthiness of our path; it is our task to walk our path with worthiness” (anonymous)
    I held close to that quote when I left my medical career to become a stay-at-home mom. And it sounds like your friend Susie did that as well but in much more difficult circumstances. How encouraging.

  6. Susie is the very definition of true beauty and courage…and the women who surround her, the same. I love the quote by Elizabeth Berg. As I get older, I realize how really true this is.

  7. I totally understand what you mean about learning about life by experiencing death. My father-in-law passed away last October from cancer and my grandfather will passing away shortly from the same illness. By watching him not be afraid of death, but embracing his life’s final moments, I learned a lot about myself as well. Thank you for sharing; beautiful post.

  8. Love this: I believe all of our paths are perfect.

    I think I would have to believe that in order to make peace with death someday. People are not often afforded the opportunity to reflect upon their lives, and to believe that they lived as they should, so if I am, I will remember this. And I will be grateful.

    Thank you for sharing.

  9. This post really touched my heart. Thank you so much for sharing it. One of my biggest fears is dying while my children are still young. While it would never be easy, Susie’s courage shows us all that conquering fear–even in the worst circumstances–is possible.

  10. I needed to read this Lindsey. Because as you may know, I am fiercely afraid of death. To read about someone so courageous, so selfless, so full of LIFE in those months before dying amazes me and inspires me to not fear what is inevitable.

    A beautiful, touching tribute to who seemed to be an amazing part of your family. Thank you.

  11. It’s amazing to witness the kind of courage you’re speaking of, both in the one heading for death and the ones she leaves behind. My friend Mary Beth showed the same kind of strength, and I felt honored to have born witness,

  12. Beautiful. SO eloquent. We can’t have life without death and neither death without life. It is remembering the life part in the face of death that can be difficult. Suzie was a courageous and strong woman, I feel privileged to have heard her story through you. Thank you!

  13. What an incredible legacy for her to give to you and your family. A beautiful tribute that I’m sure will leave all readers wishing they, too, had the chance to know Susie. Thank you.

  14. This is beautiful. What a powerful example of courage, of living! My Five-for-Ten is about my mother-in-law and her years-long battle with breast cancer. It’s amazing how we are all touched by cancer… and how deeply we are moved by those brave souls we have faced it.

  15. Lindsey, To share an experience as personal as witnessing a loved one’s death evokes emotions as raw as any other. I love Berg’s quote. She is such a strong women who apologizes for nothing, and I admire that. Her quote along shows undeniable courage. As always, your writing is beautiful and strikes a chord with me. I know I will be thinking about this post again and again.

  16. Watching someone die… I imagine being that person… takes courage, yes. I went through the same experience when my father died from cancer. It was not fast. It was not graceful. It was full of fear and pain. I don’t want to diminish the joy of life by denying that pain either. To go through that experience without fear is not something I could imagine.

  17. To be at peace with death is truly an enlightened state. I do not know it. But you touch on some very beautiful, thought-provoking ideas in your post that make me reconsider. I know they won’t be enough, not yet, but I’m grateful to have read this today. Thank you for sharing this sad and yet hopeful story.

  18. I’m grateful to have stopped and read this today. My aunt Cindy, my mother’s sister and best friend, showed the same kind of courage as she confronted a vicious cycle – cancer, remission, cancer, remission, cancer – that ended with her death. For us, for her partner, and for her young daughter, confronting the loss was tragic, mysterious, almost impossible. But she did her utmost to make us laugh, to bring us peace. And I agree with you: that grace and generosity is courage. Thank you for sharing your experience with Susie.

  19. Lindsay,

    Your tribute to Susie is beautiful. Elegant language infused with what you learned from her path. I lost my father to cancer a year ago and can definitely sympathize with Susie’s courage. There were times I know my father wanted to give up, but he didn’t. He charged on, often saying he would beat his cancer. I love that you were able to learn about life through Susie’s death. I am trying to learn that too with my father’s passing, but haven’t gotten there yet. Thanks for these words.

  20. This is truly courage. I am right now struggling with my aunt’s cancer and watching her move with grace and couracge through what her doctor’s expect is the last year of her life. I don’t know how but she remains committed to as many of the things she did before the cancer. NOw, she is 3 weeks into a chemotherapy treastment that is tearing her apart, and still she has smiles and encouragement for those around her. Susie, my aunt and many others who have struggled with this same grace and courage and kept a passion for life, can teach us all valuable lessons.

    What a wonderful post. I am her for Five for 10. So great to get to know you. My courage post is coming tomorrow!

  21. I remember this time in your life. Your ability to write about it so movingly now is wonderful. The only way I can deal with death is to take a very Buddhist approach (it is what it is, etc.) — I hope I can begin to also embrace some of Susie’s grace. xox

  22. This is a beautiful post, and I especially like the closing line from the prayer. I think that we all learn what our own meaning of perfect is from those around us, just as you did with Susie. Her courage helps to define your own.

  23. This post reminds me of Anne Lamott’s reflection on many of her friends’ struggles with cancer. I can’t pinpoint the exact phrasing (as I don’t have the book), I can only relate the feelings her words evoked. The same feelings that you have evoked. The raw and intense feelings of being close to death yet feeling at peace.

  24. Great, moving post. Your quote is so perfect: Women do not leave situations like this; we push up our sleeves, lean in closer, and say, “What do you need?” I agree and have been there.

  25. Living “baldly” is something nature is making me just a little better at with each passing year, but having been around death a bit (particularly in watching my best friend’s parents, themselves holocaust survivors, deal with the death of their child) I think that in the way in which Susie engaged death she leaves a legacy of how to truly live.

    In a sense I truly feel that the living and the dead co-mingle in some sort of shared space separated by the limits of consciousness; perhaps, like with growth, development and parenting, it’s mostly the transitions that tend to kick our asses.

  26. “To look at our lives, baldly and without pretense, to see the beauty even in the barrenness: this is courage.” — Lindsey Mead

    I would like that on a coffee mug, please.

    Such beautiful words, L. And I, of course, completely agree with the notion that “all paths are perfect.” That is, I think, the heart of what it means to embrace a detour. To live courageously in every moment. To not let your circumstance define you. Susie obviously did just that.

    Thank you for sharing this, and I’m so sorry I am a day late to the party. 🙂

  27. Beautiful. I also was on the inside circle of death with a friend with cancer. It was an honor to be a part of such a courageous woman’s journey Thanks for sharing…you brought back some powerful memories, both sad and beautiful. Your friend taught you courage and beautiful in the rawest form possible, experience and human emotion.

  28. I was thinking out loud and making little sense in my courage post. But what you shared here is what I was saying. What you’ve described, what susie had, it IS courage. To be content wherever we are, exactly where we are and to consider it perfect. Wow.

  29. What a lasting gift Susie was for you and your family. Having grown up part of an extended network of families with terminally ill children, I know that most of my personal beliefs were formed by watching people face death with courage and grace. They, like Susie, are touchstones that I return to in times of adversity. I am a stronger person for having them in my life. You are a stronger person for having Susie. These are the things we don’t expect, but that become part of our core — and that is beautiful.

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