Suzy Q

The other day at the gym I had a conversation with one of the instructors who commented about how much she hated her fifties; she was annoyed by her body which suddenly seemed out of control and the fact that her children were migrating away to college and their own lives. I was inclined to agree with her on the traitorous body but it’s still hard for me to hate my fifties.

Some people never get to have them.

Thirty one years ago today my mother died at the ridiculously young age of 49 from metastatic breast cancer a victim of her decision to forego mammograms, chemo and radiation. In spite of the fact that her father was a prominent local surgeon she eschewed medical intervention unless absolutely necessary and was terrified of infirmity which likely shortened her life but she never had misgivings about her decisions. At the time of her death her daily driver was a ten year old Datsun 280Z which she drove like a bat out of hell and I can remember being certain she was going to die from wrapping it around a tree. In retrospect it would have been infinitely kinder than watching her incredible sparkling energy slowly be dulled and dissipated by the insidious thing attacking one bodily function after another.

My mother was my best friend in the world and it was torture to watch her die before my very eyes; I was her primary caretaker and had a ringside seat for her horrific decline, the kind only cancer can provide. It saddened me to think that my four year old daughter would not get to grow up to know this woman who was the embodiment of love and it devastated me to think of having to live without someone who knew me better than anyone, believed in me and was my constant cheerleader.

It took a very long time to get over my mother’s demise and I still miss her every day but I learned a couple of very important things in my grief. I learned that the best way to honor a lost loved one and to keep their memory alive is to do your best to embody everything that is good about them so I work hard at being the kind compassionate woman she would want me to be. And I suddenly realized with stunning certainty that life is finite and wasting time on people or activities that are not positive and life affirming are a gigantic waste of precious moments. Her death was an important milestone to me in terms of reassessing where I was going and it encouraged me to start living in a more unapologetically honest way even if it means making changes that are unpopular to those around me. Death does not care if you have not taken that trip to Europe, failed to lose thirty pounds or the unfinished dissertation and I firmly believe the best defense against it is to live every day as if it is your last.

It’s what mom would want me to do.

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The Richter Scale

UNFAIR.

That’s the word that appears in giant pink neon letters every time I think about the way-too-soon death of my friend Allan Richter who died at the ridiculously young age of 48 when his training plane crashed into a rail car one sunny September afternoon. A student was at the helm and he was killed instantly but it doesn’t make me feel any better at all. It is never going to make me feel better.

Have you ever heard anyone use the expression “had life by the balls”? That described Allan perfectly and he was the kind of gregarious personality who made friends everywhere he went. No one was immune to his charms, his observations or his hugs and he was larger than life in the most wonderful sense of the word. He started out as a friend of my daughter’s who knew him through his lovely wife Tami, a former teacher of hers.  He admired my daughter’s “shoot from the hip” style and since the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree we somehow ended up becoming friends, too. I was a reliable post-work drinking buddy because I appreciated good beer as much as he did and could hold my alcohol; as a math major we had fun talking about the engineering problems he was working on and discussed them at length. Allan was visual, so this invariably resulted in something being drawn on the most available surface…a cocktail napkin, a receipt or a snippet of paper provided by an accommodating bartender. The last time we had gotten together I cadged a drawing that juxtaposes the words “suck” “squeeze” “bang” and “blow” next to an algebraic equation; only Allan could do that with any sort of alacrity and his little drawing lives on my refrigerator.

Solving the world's problems one drawing at a time.

Solving the world’s problems one drawing at a time.

One did not say no to Allan and he scoffed at excuses; everything was an adventure, a dare or a social experiment and I vividly remember my daughter’s 30th birthday at a local beer hall where we were hanging around clearly the oldest people at the party. Suddenly he brightened and said, “Let’s go upstairs and ride the mechanical bull!”  I laughed out loud at first and tried to play the “I’m not wearing the right bra” card, but he was undeterred. Before I knew it I was showing my ID to the nice man and getting ready to get my butt kicked by this unrelenting thing. We had an absolute blast and the takeaway was that the magical moments of life always seem to lie in moving outside of one’s comfort zone and no one embraced that concept more than Allan did.

He could turn up anywhere and I will never forget walking across the National Mall in DC the day after the Jon Stewart rally and heard someone bellow out my last name. I stopped in my tracks and seconds later heard it again which seemed impossible since I was 360 miles from home. It was Allan, who was in town to run the Marine Corps Marathon as he had done for years. He gave me one of his giant hugs and we chatted for a while before wishing him luck and moving on, still incredulous at bumping into him.

I have spent hours trying to make sense of the injustice of a world without Allan and come back over and over again to the statistical fact that people who truly live and grab life by the balls are bound to run up against the odds; it’s part of the dues paid for a life embraced fully and on the edge.  As a pilot, sailor and flight instructor his vulnerability surface was larger than most but I know in my heart that he would not have had it any other way. I will never stop aching for his wife and children, but will try to focus on what a wonderful legacy he left behind and stay true to his “can do” attitude; it is the best way I know of to honor such a wonderful spirit and I can pay homage to him by perpetuating the notion that life is for living viscerally and with passion.

Semper fi, my friend.