When my good friend Susan died in late December, I was shocked. After her death, I went back to read all the messages she wrote me over the last five years.
I attended a memorial for her this past week at the UC Berkeley campus where she worked as a journalism professor. I stayed with a family friend for two nights and also spent some time with Susan’s surviving brother and mother.
Susan was 61 years old; her surviving mother is 96 years old.
It turns out that Susan mentioned breast cancer to me when I first was getting to know her five years ago. I felt horrible that I forgot completely about it and never asked Susan how she was years later. It was easy to assume that she was cancer-free because she never mentioned it. But the truth was that she was never actually in remission.
Her message in 2009 was:
It is not a lump; it’s an “array” of lesions – but they are malignant and it’s invasive breast cancer. I’m starting chemo within the next two weeks and then I’ll probably have to have a mastectomy. The good news is that the cancer doesn’t seem to be in my other breast, brain, lungs, ovaries or pancreas, and that I don’t have either the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 genes. It is in the lymph node under my right arm, which is why it is especially worrisome.
I think my Mom copes by not paying full attention, but I believe she knows how serious it is. She’s been great. I’m in good spirits, and I’ll get through this. Thanks for asking. Take care of you. Susan
Oh my god, Susan, I am so sorry for your trials. I do appreciate the info, and my thoughts and prayers are with you. I can only imagine what a curve this has thrown you. I especially hope the chemo doesn’t make you feel too ill to function at full force. You are so vibrant and active, and hopefully, this will all be behind you soon.
Her brother shared with me his frustration that Susan did not seek treatment toward the end. She suffered with tremendous pain and the ordeal of getting her to a hospital was very traumatic. Susan believed she would survive through her sheer determination. She took off from teaching shortly before she died – everyone expected she would be back.
I will be writing about her memorial, but first I want to share more about our friendship.
When I first met Susan, her mother lived an hour from me in Los Angeles, while Susan was 400 miles away in Northern California. Our parents were very good friends and I have many pictures of them on wonderful vacations together.
Hi Judy, I’m gearing myself up for school, working on my taxes, worrying about my mom. I’m not (or she’s not) where you and your mom are, but I feel it coming, and I dread it. I know how you must miss the way your parents were when they were well. I think it will drive you mad to keep comparing them to that. Both my brother and I have nothing to deal with compared to your situation. She’s staying with me for a week and is driving me mad right now, and I try to remind myself that one day I will miss even that. She is a bundle of nerves and so over-anxious that it gets harder and harder to reason with her. Hoping to make it to LA for a few days before semester begins, and if I do, I’ll call you so we can aim for visit. Offer to escape all at my house for a weekend still holds.
Susan tried to arrange for her mother’s care, but her mom was stubborn and did not want to discuss options.
It’s clear she can’t be alone anymore; even she knows that. I flew down last week on rescue mission. She fell last week (no injuries, so we were very lucky) and gave herself a good scare. Now my life is totally absorbed by her. I always knew I would have the stomach for this, but I kept praying I would have enough time and money to have my own life stable so I could more easily take her on. I guess you’re never really ready.
My mother is prone to crumbling at the slightest stress and deeply anxious about things she doesn’t really need to worry about. I can only imagine how much harder it is for you dealing with your mom’s dementia.
Susan occasionally mentioned Liz. I stayed with Liz when I attended Susan’s memorial service this past week. I had never met Liz before, but knew her mother well.
I am making a mental note to phone Liz today. Her mom is in a board and care, fairly advanced in dementia, and she is all alone in having to deal with her up here. My mom is so depressed at all of it. Every time I think I’m just going to scream in frustration at some nonsense my mom is babbling, I think about what it must be like to see all your dear friends in one state of decline or another, and my heart breaks for her.
They say this generation of kids will live well past 100. Given what we’re seeing of our parents old age, that doesn’t seem like any kind of blessing! Sorry to be a downer here. Promise to buck up and perk up before we talk.
Eventually, Susan brought her mother up north to live with her. It was a very big step.
We are good up here. Cramped, but sane, and I’m determined to spend as much quality time with my mom as I can. It’s hard to get her out of the house – she tires easily – but she is still very sharp and fit enough to do at least some walking outside each day. I’m a terrible correspondent, but I do appreciate hearing about what’s going on with you.
Live in the moment. Make memories of them with your kids. I’m slowly beginning to understand that I don’t have to feel guilty or even respond every time my mom complains about something. I’m learning to just say, “I’m so sorry mom, that must be hard for you. It will be alright.”
Eventually my messages from Susan began to dwindle. But her caring always shining through and she always diminished her own problems by saying they were far less than my own.
My head is spinning just trying to keep up with all you manage to do in a day. It is so sad to hear about your Mom and Dad – and so amazing to hear how you have come through it. I’m glad you have your music, your soon to be book and always your huge, generous spirit and sense of humor. Hope you are as proud of yourself as I am of you. From what you’ve described, it sounds like there are moments of extraordinary beauty and sweetness amid all the misery, and thank God you have the heart to appreciate them. I’ve been preparing my mom for losing her dear friends but sparing her the details.
Susan’s brother moved in with her. He was out of work and down; Susan mentioned how worried she was about him. It turned out that he became the caregiver for their mother – something she never mentioned to me.
Hi Judy! I haven’t had much time to write. It is hard, hard, hard having mom and brother in this tiny house. We are fine, we are managing, but it takes all my emotional strength. I’m so sad to read your email. I now know much more intimately what you must be going through, and based on my experiences with my Mom.
Although I often didn’t hear from Susan for months at a time, she was very comforting to me when my parents were dying.
I hope your Dad’s suffering is over soon so that you can give some needed time to taking care of you. Dare I ask how your husband and the kids are coping? Please tell me they are supporting you and making your burden a little lighter.
I’m glad you and your dad have your music as comfort, but I hope you are not keeping this vigil all by yourself. I’m thinking about you both and sending love. Love, Susan
Gradually, I lost touch with Susan. I was caught up in my separation and divorce, as well as my cataract and subsequent eye problems. I always sent her general updates and shared other parts of my life with her. Susan occasionally wrote a brief message and still extended her offer for me to visit. How I wish I had!
Hi there. Sorry to be away from email for so long – managing mom is becoming a full-time job. (You’ve been there, and then some, so I won’t elaborate). Hope you will be able to go away for at least a few days this summer, perhaps on your own. Sending you big hug, happy energy, and wishes for better times to come. You deserve them. Much love, Susan
Susan might have called me her “canary in a coalmine.” It eventually became true when she entered her own dark tunnel as she dealt with her mother’s care.
Judy, you have been on my mind for weeks. So sorry not to have written for eyes, birthday, and of course your move today, which I hope went well. Things have been awful up here – mom was rushed to emergency room two weeks ago with what turned out to be a bad case of pneumonia. She was intubated for about a week, then extubated, then moved to a great rehab facility. She has recovered from the pneumonia, but seems to have lost her mind in the process. It’s a very tough time, and the doctors want to send her home since she refuses to cooperate with any of the therapists. She won’t talk, thinks the docs are trying to kill her and is refusing food. We need a Miriam. Both my brother and I are exhausted, and life goes on.
Only a few months later, Susan wrote:
Oh, Judy. I think of you all the time, feel horribly guilty for being so out of touch, and truthfully, have just been too busy coping with my own situation to make room for my friends who obviously have situations of their own. Please do follow Sam’s advice on the eyes. You can’t afford to have them operating sub-par.
Things here have been very difficult. Mom has fully recovered from the pneumonia of a few months ago, but now has cognitive deficiencies. She is still very much a presence in our lives. My own health is a worry – I’ve done something to my back. As I say, it’s been a challenging time. We are strong. We will get through this, too. Please take care. I love you and send a big, electronic hug. This too shall pass, right? Love, Susan
Dear Judy – I’ve got five minutes before I go back to mom-care and student edits to say hello, hope eyes finally improving (can’t believe what you’ve been through for what is supposed to be simple operation!) and that I’m crossing fingers on peaceful, financially viable finalization of the divorce. WHAT A YEAR FOR YOU! As always I marvel at your strength and good humor, and it is so good to hear how well the kids are doing. You should be very proud, and if your mom could understand, she would be very proud of you.
My mom is in and out of dementia (actually, I guess that’s the definition of dementia) We are dealing with her delusions and hallucinations, which is very hard, especially at night when she wakes us up with them. Some moments are still very good and clear, and I try to treasure those.
Things will be a little calmer when semester ends, though more time at home with Mom will probably dement me. We’ve got some good hourly helpers, but it’s very expensive. At any rate, I’ll try to be a better correspondent. I promise! Please take care of yourself. Much love, Susan
Before Susan died, I had two last messages from her. One alluded to her being ill, but I thought she had the flu. Her last message was to offer condolences to me after my mother died.
Even if Susan didn’t write to me, I continued to send her shared messages and updates about my life. The day before I saw her obituary, I had sent her a message. It never entered my mind that she was dying. I thought she was busy teaching and dealing with her mother’s care.
Hi Jude – I’m here watching with you. Been very ill myself – details when I’m stronger. My mom is as healthy as a horse, but dementing rapidly, though some days she’s incredibly clear.
Sending love and peaceful thoughts to you and your brothers. Your mom couldn’t have asked for a more faithful guardian of her wishes. Jude, my brother, mom and I send our love and tears and look forward to a time when we can share some wonderful memories of both your mom and dad. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Love, Susan
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