by cheri sabraw
In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Huck says of Mary Jane Wilks, a 19-year-old girl he meets and admires and who, along with her sisters, is the object of a failed scam by the Duke and the Dauphin, …She has the most sand of any girl I know…
My first question to my students after finishing that chapter was “What did Huck mean when he described Mary Jane as having sand?
Eventually, amid answers that ranged from the granular to the universal, someone would observe that Mary Jane had courage.
Ahhhh… I would nod, You must mean ‘grit’, don’t you? and then I would insist they look up the word grit in the dictionary.
Most of us hope we have such strength of character, courage, pluck, or grit when faced with life’s greatest challenge: that moment when we face our mortality.
I first met Susie in 1972.
I was a first-year teacher at the tender age of 21, hired as a Learning Consultant and English teacher by Joe, my former teacher and principal.
Susie, then 26, was a bouncy confident vivacious blond (those were the days when you could refer to a woman as a blond instead of a guidance counselor.)
We clicked like Dorothy’s shoes in The Wizard of Oz.
I found Susie–a native Arizonan married to Aldo, the basketball coach and business teacher at the high school I attended, to be energetic, fun, and full of life.
Before long, Susie and I were both pregnant and informed Joe, our Italian principal, that we would be taking a leave of absence.
Joe did not take this news well as two of his most popular blonds and brunettes had been compromised and he would need to replace us.
Damn it he said in his office when I told him the news before I almost threw up from morning sickness. Good God! What? First Susie and then you? What’s in the water here at this high school?”
Years passed. Susie and I had two kids each and became best friends. I say Best Friends but the truth is, Susie was my best friend but she was a best friend to at least 50 other women. I accepted that fact, pleased to have a best friend from my standpoint.
Our families met many Friday nights to celebrate “Friday Night in America.” We would party, drink, watch TV, and entertain the neighbors, who eventually would stream into Susie and Aldo’s home.
If I had a secret that needed working out, I called Susie. Her common sense, willing ear, and sense of play made my secrets dissolve.
As life does, it moved on. Susie’s husband Aldo died too young. Susie soldiered on, eventually moving from counseling to the District Office at our local school district, in charge of the Gifted and Talented Education Department.
Our kids married and had their own kids. We were there together for all of those occasions.
Then, to my disappointment, Susie moved out of California and back to Arizona 14 years ago. Of course, I handled this with maturity. I only cried a bucket of tears.
Last April, a text arrived with an Emoji wearing a stern facial expression. Call me when you have a moment the text said. This cannot be good news, I thought.
And it wasn’t.
Susie told me that she had early stage stomach cancer and was headed to MD Anderson in Houston, Texas, for chemotherapy, radiation, more chemotherapy, and then, six months later, the removal of her stomach. In one of my more shallow moments, I asked her if we could still have a glass of wine together. She laughed and said, “maybe.”
In September, I visited Susie six weeks before her scheduled stomach removal. We ate out, drank some wine, laughed about old times, took some photos, watched British television, and talked about life, religion, and philosophy. When I got into my bed each night of my visit, I marveled at Susie’s strength and grit, her resolve and bravery.
Of all of the people I have met in my lifetime, with whom I have some intimacy, Susie is the person who has mastered the practice of staying in the present moment.
A human stomach holds between 4-6 cups of food.
Susie has a newly fashioned pouch made from her small intestine and attached to her esophagus, which will hold 1 cup of food at a time. She must eat every two hours to maintain weight. The miracles of modern medicine!
Ron and I drove up to see Susie on Friday.
There she was! Beautiful, smiling, laughing, greeting us at the door.
It would have been easy to pretend that nothing had changed.
When someone we love has survived an illness, a disease, or an accident, their essence seems palpable and intense.
Their eyes seem wiser, deeper, and instinctive.
Susie radiates with purpose and grit.
Long live Susie, my dear friend.