Posted by: suekenney | July 1, 2011

Elegy for Susan

She was my second brother’s first wife.  For almost ten years, until my own marriage, she and I shared a name.  She gave birth to my oldest nephew and niece.  She taught me much of what I know about interrace relations.  And yesterday, June 30, 2011, she died, age 58.

She had multiple health issues, including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and other autoimmune conditions, and numberous bouts of pneumonia.  She had been at death’s door many times already, but each time had rallied and come back to the land of the living.  She had already been in and out of the hospital a number of times this year.  Her health had deteriorated to the point where she needed a walker, then a wheelchair, just to get around. 

And yet, to the very end, she refused to let all that do more than slow her down – a little.  She was the epitome, to me, of the indomitable spirit.  No matter what the adversity, she was always looking for the way to work around it, or through it.  Life had dealt her any number of lousy hands.  Yet she played her cards to the best of her abilities, and often managed the incredible finesse that left the rest of us gasping in awe.

I first met her the summer before my seventeenth birthday; she was a few months past her eighteenth birthday.  My brother brought her home from the religious camp where he had met her.  Poor woman!  She was one of only two children; my brother was one of EIGHT.  When their car pulled into our driveway, and all of us, including a visitor or two, came pouring out of our house to greet them, Susan thought she was about to be mobbed.  It took her a VERY long time to get used to all of us.  Of course, there was also the fact that she was very black, and we were very white.  Living in rural upstate New York, blacks were few and far between.  But living with Susan, we learned in a hurry – and my horizons expanded far beyond my rural upbringing.  I learned that I, too, had latent prejudices; Susan helped me begin to overcome them.  I will always be thankful for her part in that.

The years passed.  Her little boy Darius took his first steps on our kitchen table – through the butter dish!  He made me an aunt for the first time: another stellar experience.  Bahiyyih, her daughter, came a few years later, and she too was a joy and a blessing.  By this time Susan and my brother were living in downstate New York, so we saw them much more rarely.  Visits were few, for they were a young couple on a small income, and traveling was hard.  We treasured each visit.  The children grew.  Susan finished her GED; she went to Dutchess Community College, and later worked at Vassar; she became interested in any number of things, including politics.  Eventually she ended up working in Governor Pataki’s administration.

In the meantime her marriage to my brother failed, and she married a man from England.  It was hard for me to swallow what I initially saw as a betrayal of sorts – yet we remained in touch, though infrequently, and I learned to accept the new Susan who no longer shared my childhood name.  Even better was when we both joined Facebook – keeping in touch was even easier now.  We had a number of conversations through Facebook, and were able to reaffirm our friendship and respect for each other.

Thinking back to what I know of her past:  she was terribly abused as a child, in ways I can hardly fathom; her late teens and twenties, those early years of marriage, were rough, with money tight, and racial prejudices running high against an interracial marriage; she endured numerous disappointments in her schooling, her jobs, her expectations of people in general; her health was often a trial, especially in her later years.  Frankly, if there was anything that could go wrong with a life, I think it happened to her, at one time or another.  She became convinced that the universe was at best indifferent, and more often cruel, even malignant.

And yet she still had such a strong zest for life, and incredible determination to live it as best she could, and ultimately make a difference.  I remember one of her more recent posts on Facebook, where she wondered “out loud” if she had ever made a bit of difference.  I and several others assured her that she most certainly had.  Even when her hands were cramping and twisting with the rheumatoid arthritis, or when she was utterly exhausted with the lupus, she still did as much as she could.  She was a quilter par excellence; she tried to start her own consulting business; she wrote her own blog, in hopes of inspiring others to never give up.

We didn’t always agree on things.  For instance, she was a follower of Wicca; I’m a conservative Christian.  Yet we found the places where we could agree, or at least discuss rationally, and we were able to look beyond the differences.  I treasure the years I knew her; I treasure her friendship.  And I will miss her now, so very much.  May God bless you, and be merciful to you, Susan.

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