I've been walking around with this "carpe diem," live for the moment attitude since January 2014. When I really stop to think about what it was that caused me to begin muttering "F this sh*t" under my breath and paying attention to the breeze and freshly cut grass and the way my baby sighs in her sleep and giggles while dreaming, the way my heart would beat when I would run into a certain someone during my day, I know that it started when the phone call came that my beloved colleague, Susan had passed away.
In about 2007, Susan, who was in her early 50's, was diagnosed with cancer. She assured us, she was going to be fine, would undergo chemotherapy, probably lose her hair, but she'd continue to work. After all, her clients needed her and the attorneys with whom she worked needed her, and what good was it to stay home? Sue took some time off and we missed her terribly, not just because she was a wonderful paralegal, but she was a lot of fun at work. And when she returned, she came back with a cool wig and the nickname "Veronica Bald-Eagle." Her attitude and spirit were amazing. She didn't miss a beat.
I assumed because of her near-miss with the Angel of Death her new spunky attitude had developed. Every Friday, Susan would ask about my weekend plans. I would share with her the things that were bugging me and like a crazy/cool aunt, her advice tended to sound like a Pinterest Meme - "Screw it, you've gotta go for it!" "You hug that baby tight every day. She'll be your every happiness." In response to complaints about a certain person in my life who did what she could for many years to drive me crazy, Susan would say things like, "Oh, what a loser. You don't need that. Who does she think she is? You should just go tell her to F off." Ok, maybe that one isn't going to be found on Pinterest.
I'd ask Sue what her weekend was going to entail and it was usually "beer and the dogs." She and her husband had recently become volunteers at a local animal shelter and fostered a number of dogs.
Susan was always at work. She rarely took a day off - not sick days, a few vacation days here and there in the summer. Every day at lunch, she took a walk outside - even in the freezing cold. She participated in our fitness challenges at work. It was not until maybe October of 2013 when Susan began complaining of pain in her lower back that suddenly she stopped taking her walks. She began to take some days off of work, but she would be back in the office as her normal cheerful self.
Then right around Thanksgiving, Susan stopped coming in. The speculation began about why. No one really knew, and it was so unlike Susan to be "sick." The weeks went on. I emailed her a number of times to check in and see if she was all right. She assured me that she was, that she had developed a kidney infection (or something), it was very "annoying" and she would be back very soon. She wanted to check in on her files and make sure I was ready to argue in front of the Appellate Division. She wanted to know how Anna was doing and whether we were planning to take her on vacation soon. She wanted to make sure everyone at the office was "ok." She wanted to know how my book signings were going for Trinity She wanted to know whether Tiffany and Will were ready to perform their skits for the holiday party and if I knew what they were going to do.
Susan missed the firm holiday party. She never returned to the office. And that January, we lost her.
What we learned after her passing from the few people at the office who knew was that Susan was told soon after her she ended her first round of chemotherapy, that it essentially didn't work. The cancer had spread all over her body and she had maybe 6-9 months to live, perhaps a year. That was in 2008.
She could undergo more radiation and other therapies that might prolong her life a little longer, but the sickness and side effects from these drugs would be miserable. Susan wasn't having it. And more importantly, she wasn't going to start the process of dying - she would start living.
I truly believe it was her positive attitude and refusal to acknowledge what was happening inside her body that gave her an additional 5 years. Until the end, she was free of pain and able to enjoy her life. She never gave the cancer any power over her. Susan didn't tell us because she didn't want to be treated differently and she didn't want anyone asking her about it. While many of us would share this sort of thing, perhaps looking for support and comfort, Susan was more concerned about upsetting us. She didn't want anyone to feel badly for her.
Her death hit me hard. Maybe it was because I didn't know anything until the end. I don't know if that made it better or worse, ultimately. But at this point in my life, I had come to a spot where I was feeling a little lost both personally and professionally. I was unhappy at home and at work with no definable reason why. So I may have thought more deeply about Susan. She wished me a "wonderful weekend" and reminded me to "hug that baby tight" and to tell her "how much she is loved" every Friday because she knew how precious time and life were. Where I lived my life with calendars and schedules and planning, Susan was just excited to open her eyes to the sun every morning. She had it right; I was living my life the wrong way.
So I told myself that I was going to live for the moment. I was going to say the things I needed to say. I wasn't going to be afraid. I wasn't going to hold back. I was going to pursue the things that fueled the fire inside of me. I was going to live the life I wanted to live and not the one that was thrust upon me.
Over the last few years, I have struggled mightily to "do the right thing" while still being true to myself. I haven't always made the best decisions or handled things well, but I found my voice, for certain. I discovered the life I want to live. I found the people I want in this life of mine and identified those people who no longer belong here.
I have a new appreciation for time. I am so grateful when someone chooses to spend their time with me. Time is all we have so we have to make the very best of it. I think that is the biggest lesson Susan taught me.
I still think about Sue often and the beautiful note she wrote to Anna on her first birthday: "Happy birthday Anna Ballerina. I hope you always dance, Love Sue Hughes." From Sue, Anna received her very first leotard, tutu and ballet slippers as well as a video of Swan Lake. I know Susan would have loved to watch Anna dance.
I keep that note in Anna's dresser drawer where we keep her tights and leotards. Every so often, I reach for it and read it for inspiration. To remind myself to be brave like Susan. To rise above the bullshit and live my life. To love every day and love every one (except legit assholes. As Sue would say, "they can go F themselves.") To say what I really mean to say. To live without regrets - to not look back and wish I had or wish I hadn't. To smile and keep going. To appreciate every moment.