My mother-in-law died this morning of an aggressive breast cancer. She was 53 years old.
I was pretty intimidated when I first met Sue, mostly (I now realize) by awe. Everything in Sue's orbit worked like clockwork. Her garden fed tens of people all summer. Her house was always full of wayword kids, family, college pals of her offspring and random hitch hikers. She gave them lodging, food, shoes, and a healthy dose of chores to do.
Sue's illness inspired an outpouring of love and help from the Homer community - not only because that's exactly how Homer deals with times of need, but because Sue was so important to so many patients and families facing illness. At the time of her diagnosis, she was working toward a masters in nursing instruction - to enable her to get grant money to help more people. One of her dreams was to travel to Bhutan and work with the nuns there in public health.
Sue was a sort of a frontier Martha Stewart to me - she had a recipe or a home remedy for anything, could grow anything, can anything, never threw anything away, in fact would go to great lengths to find a use for things like coffee lids and other landfill fodder, sometimes to the point of total inefficiency. In spite of her propensity for constant cookie baking, she had a spine of steel. Her vision for her environment was thorough and determined, and as a result, her home was a refuge and a mecca for all sorts of people.
In spite of my fascination with Sue's world, I wasn't sure at first that I completely fit in there. It felt like I was lost in the crowd and didn't make an easy personal connection with Sue. Then in the summer of 2004, I flew to Homer to meet Sila and he got stuck on the tug boat, couldn't make it home. For a week I paced Sue's kitchen, barely leaving the house in case Sila would call and say he was on his way. Aasta and Stefan tried to distract me with jogging and movies but I grew more anxious. Finally Sue switched her work shifts around and forced me into a kayak. Half way across Kachemak Bay I thought I would probably drown in the dark but Sue slowed down to my sorry paddling speed and encouraged me along. We spent the night camped on the beach at Glacier spit. We made a little fire and ate chocolate and smoked salmon. Sue produced a little flask of liquor. We talked little - at least compared to my family, who chatter and argue constantly and verbalize everything. I realized that Sue knew what I needed better than I did to get through my impatience, and furthermore, that this understanding had not required a word to pass between us on the subject. We packed up in the morning and paddled twice around Gull Island. I relaxed. A bird crapped on Sue's arm. We laughed a lot. By the time we paddled back to Land's End I couldn't exactly lift the kayak onto the Subaru. But I was no longer scared of kayaking across the bay and I felt a deeper connection to Sue.
Later that summer, Sue led my mother on the hike of her life, nearly to the summit of Poot Peak. I think this resulted in my mom eating all Sue's arnica. Sue on the other hand, was not the least bit fazed by this and led me on the backwoods bushwack of my life the next day, 12 miles in 8 hours through thickets of devil's club and spruce deadfall. She seemed immune to thirst and fatigue. A year and a half later she was diagnosed with breast cancer. By the time it was detected, it had already metastasized.
During the early stages of Sue's treatments, I saw another side of her personality that I hadn't experienced before. She seemed to display a wry sense of humor, even flip at times, about what was happening to her body. Although some around her might have found this unsettling, I thought it displayed another dimension to Sue's strength of character. I don't know if she intended it, but it was an easier tone for Sila. It created a little common space where he could be more literal, talking with his mom about what was happening. Some of my best memories of Sue are from that time - the long drive down from Anchorage, meeting the FedEx man in the Fred Meyer parking lot to get her iPod, slow walks on the bike path, and just hanging out with Sue and Sila. It was a difficult but hopeful time, and we were all on a mission together to treat Sue's cancer. I was only there for a small portion of that time, but it was an exhausting routine. It left me deeply impressed and grateful to Aasta and Stefan and Chris and Wayne and the Holmans and everyone who was living that routine instead of just visiting as I was.
I've been staring at the photo (above) of Sue and I on my wedding day, July 10, 2006. In it, I am all bleary and teary eyed in her (borrowed and blue and new) scarf. Sue, in spite of having lost her hair to an intense first round of chemotherapy and radiation, looks like a pillar of strength. Maybe it's my imagination but she looks happy too, happy to have me joining her family. When we said goodbye to each other a month ago, in the same place in Sila's house where this picture was taken, was the first time I ever saw a tear in her eye. It was pretty clear it would be the last time we were together. I had a good cry afterwards even though I had been trying not to cry about it in front of Sila.
In retrospect I wondered if I shouldn't have held back the tears as Sue was leaving the house that day - I didn't want her not to know how I felt - neither did I want her to feel the burden of other peoples' sadness. But looking at this photo I think she knows that she is family to me - always will be - and any time in my life I am struggling, I can remember the experience of Sue paddling ahead, hiking ahead, but reaching back and pulling me forward.