Three Years

Susan and I met for the first time when I was 16 years old, a bookish tomboy from Joby’s high school xc team and his date to the prom. She would have never said so, but I was an unlikely candidate for Susan’s daughter-in-law: while the Thorns, Campbells, and Higinbothams spent summers at Figure 8 Island, I grew up camping through the national parks in our VW bus while my dad read Lord of the Rings out loud. I was a little too reckless and a little too fanatical.

Perhaps most worrisome to Susan was that I was a lukewarm football fan at best, and usually chose to read books in the living room during bowl games.

Back in those early days, neither Susan nor I could envision that for the next three decades we would spend almost all our Christmases and Thanksgivings together, that we would travel together through Hawaii, Jackson Hole, Banff, Santa Fe, the FL Keys, and other beautiful places, or that my beloved children would be her beloved grandchildren. Or that we would nurture and love those children together with immense joy.

We certainly couldn’t have imagined that three years ago this week, in an evacuation hospital south of Charlotte, we would both stay awake for the entire night as she struggled against fever and pain. Or that I would sleep in a plastic chair next to her hospice bed for a week. Or that I’d pull another all nighter on September 16, this time as I struggled to encapsulate her beautiful, full life into a meaningful obituary.

I will always remember helping care for her in her final two years as one of my life’s most sacred acts, but they aren’t my enduring memories of Susan. Those memories will be her magnificent holiday dinners, her handmade pottery gifts, riding bikes and walking on the beach, playing Uno, sending Bob to the grocery store, laughing over how much butter we had cooked with in a week, going to Greg Russell concerts in Harbor Town, and a thousand other moments of laughter and sweetness.

In tribute to Susan, I want to share one last memory on the anniversary of her loss. Her last Christmas was a hard stage in her COPD and when we arrived at her house, I was alarmed to see how much she was struggling to cope with everyday tasks. She was on oxygen around the clock but could still hardly walk across the living room without sitting down. Joby, the children, and I only planned to stay three days, but I extended my visit for ten days to help her. On New Year’s Eve, WVU was playing Miami in a bowl game and it was just Susan and me at her house. We ordered in an extravagant dinner and sat next to each other throughout the bowl game, me commenting as intelligently as I could on the game. Near the end of the third quarter, she turned to me and said, with a smile and a touch of warm derision,  “you’re not reading.”

I burst into laughter: she was reminding me that for the last 30 years, I had not shared her loyalty to and enthusiasm for the WVU Mountaineers and rarely watched more than a few minutes before picking up a book.

I see now how that moment — shared laughter at our differences, and our love for each other in spite of them — encapsulates how families love each other. I am thankful that Susan welcomed me as a daughter and for the beauty and strength she radiated throughout her life.