It’s been 59 days since my friend Susan died, seemingly out of the blue. She hadn’t felt well for months and believed she had Lupus. The late diagnosis of T-cell lymphoma was dire and shocking; her death three days later overwhelmingly sad, something I’m still trying to come to terms with.
I’d known Susan almost my whole life, but for most of that we were acquaintances, thrown together at times by circumstance as our parents were friends. Occasionally, amidst the hubbub of the large social circle gatherings, we’d chat, briefly, exchanging smiling, cordial niceties. It wasn’t until a few years ago, as women in our early 50’s, that we became real friends, forging a bond over hours-long discussions about life, love, loss and career. We’d tried new restaurants, savored older favorites, visited art galleries, attended local events of interest, emailed and texted often (she lived in CT, I in MA).
Susan had offered me the guest room in her home when she knew I was planning to spend more time in the area, my hometown. It didn’t take long to feel at home in her charming little French country-adorned cape, letting myself in and out, tending to and playing with her adorable, rambunctious Tibetan Terrier, Daisy, (“she’s so spoiled!” Susan would say, with a gleam in her eye), even bringing my teenage daughter for a couple of overnights.
A journalist by training and by nature, Susan was curious, questioning, adventurous. She’d traveled the world for years working for ABC’s Wide World of Sports, winning awards for her work there and beyond. Then, in mid-life, knowing she needed to up her professional competitive edge, she’d attended law school. She had a keen understanding of the need to broaden herself to stay competitive in a young man’s industry where she was an aging woman and she was unafraid to venture forward. Or rather, she plowed through any fears in her typical manner. “It was sink or swim, Susan,” she’d said to me, relating her story, “and I had to swim.” Indeed, that was her mantra and one I’d hear again when she studied for yet a third bar exam, many years after finishing law school and passing 2 others. She’d assessed her career situation, determined her needs and gotten to it. Exhausted by the frenetic pace of the studying, she’d looked at me at one point, exclaiming, “I gotta swim. Just gotta swim.” In the end, my friend swam, indeed, gloriously, passing the CT bar and landing, at age 55, a coveted spot in a local law firm more typically occupied by someone much younger.
Susan’s thoughtful self-examination was prominently featured in a 2005 Lisa Belkin piece in the New York Times. Her other trademark, self-confidence, an attribute she knew she possessed (“I’ve just always been self-confident,” she would say to me, matter-of-fact, no trace of arrogance), propelled her, be the circumstance professional or personal.
In this regard, she and I were polar opposites. I’d struggled with self-confidence my whole life. When I was getting ready to publish my children’s book we would talk, often, about the importance of self-assuredness. It had taken me several years to gather the confidence to move forward with the book and moving through the inertia was like trying to run with glue on my feet. Susan knew some of my childhood sexual assault story and was a huge supporter of my work educating adults in abuse prevention. She cheered me on, compassionately, through my stops and starts, encouraging my own strength.
One evening, during a conversation with a mutual friend, she stumbled upon a piece of my story I had not yet shared with her. Her ever-curious nature propelled her: “What’s the story with that?” she’d emailed me. I’d shared some of my story before, but this piece, a healing piece that had moved and inspired me, I kept very close, sharing with maybe a handful of people. I had to decide if I was ready to share with her.
On my next visit, out to dinner at a favorite restaurant, Susan asked me again, and I shared some. Back at her house I shared more and the conversation continued until late and at breakfast outside on her deck the next morning. She listened thoughtfully, providing feedback, sharing bits of her own relevant life experiences. A true give and take. Still, it was an emotional thing for me to share the story and at one point, as we were cleaning up, I told her just how vulnerable I felt. She stopped what she was doing and turned, dead serious, to me. “I want you to know you can trust me with this, Susan,” she said, “so I’m going to tell you something about myself that almost nobody knows.” She did, and in that moment, I knew I’d shared my soul with someone I could trust, who had compassion for my journey, and who cared that I felt safe. Trust has not come easily for me in my life. This friendship was rich. Truly a gift.
On the way home to MA from her funeral, I stopped with my daughter and mom in Mystic. Normally a quick run into Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts, I’d preferred this time to stop where we could sit by the water. While my mother and daughter chatted at the food bar, I sat looking out at the water, thinking about Susan - her suffering, her loss of life and my loss of my friend. My eyes filled with tears. Instantly, I could picture her and hear her saying, “Gotta swim, Susan…ya gotta swim.” I know, I heard myself say. I know. I might have to alternate strokes for a while, perhaps tread water or float for a bit, but I “gotta swim” - I know it…. and, with lessons and memories from a wonderful, meaningful friendship that will live as long as I do, I will.