Along for the ride:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On-Ice in Arizona

I first met Sue and her big Old-English Battering-Ram, I mean Sheep-Dog, at the school athletics field where local dog owners congregate to chat and allow their (mostly) four-footed pack members some socialization with other canines. Fluffy always went everywhere at a lumbering run; his intentions were sometimes dubious and he scuffled with other dogs just because he could; he out-weighed them and even if they retaliated he had hairy-dog immunity to all but the most toothy opponents. Sue would yell at him and take him home if he was really bad but she was a little blind to his delinquent tendencies; he was, after all, her fur-child.
One day as she was dragging him off the field after a couple of skirmishes with other dogs. She apologized and said "I don't know what's got into him, he's not usually like this". "Umm? Yes he is" I said. "He does that every time you come out here." "Oh Damn!" she said"You're right. I have to stop making excuses". And so a friendship began.
Fluffy's manners never really improved but everyone was allowed to yell at him and set him straight, without ill will between humans. I hold him responsible for my torn meniscus; an injury shared equally between professional footballers and dog-park attendees who get hit sideways in the knees by something heavy with momentum behind it. I don't really blame him, he couldn't see where he was going and I should have been paying attention. The drugs they gave me during surgery and the handsome orthopedic surgeon almost compensated for the crutches, limping and months of pain that followed.
It turned out that Sue was married to a Frenchman, another common denominator for us. Her husband was a great cook and very attentive to their relationship. We had soirees together at each of our houses. At Sue's there were often guests introduced as distant cousins from New York, Poland, France and Belarus; Sue was an avid genealogist  with keys to the local Mormon research library where she spent many late nights. She collected cousins.
I learned that Sue had faced cancer; she blamed the onset of uterine cancer on the fertility treatments she had undergone in her desire to have children. (The spoiling of Fluffy became self-explanatory). Sue was still working in the marketing side of high tech, when we met. In between work and chemo treatments Sue lived her life to the max. She was always traveling somewhere; a trip to a small village in Europe where church records had survived conflict so that she could find out more about her family ties; a cruise through the Panama Canal with her husband or a trip to see the Fall foliage in the U.S. Sue's mantra was "Survive until they find a cure" but she hedged her bets and took her living into her own hands so as not to miss a thing.
Several years went by and we saw one another on and off, sometimes by design and sometimes by coincidence. Sue went to France for the summer; there was a wedding for a member of her husband's tribe and Sue wanted to be in the thick of it.
Sue woke one morning with a headache and was unable to speak or move. Her cancer had spread to her brain. She was shipped back to California and operated on at Stanford University Hospital. She bounced back. There was some tiredness; her hair was replaced by a wooly hat and she would sit on the grass whilst Fluffy played at the park. If he needed wrangling, we'd take care of him. Sue still had stories to share of travel plans and people she met or wanted to meet.
I learned that there is such a thing as a Concierge of Cancer Services; There are Patient Navigators and Patient Advocates; some paid employees, some volunteers. No one goes it alone in Cancer treatment at Stanford; There is a Body, Mind and Spirit approach with yoga, meditation, massage, art and writing therapies, as well as someone to coordinate treatments and social services.
From the outside, looking in, it seemed believable that Sue would vanquish her disease or at least outlast it until a cure was found that was right for her.
The one time that the thought "Terminal" crossed my mind was when Sue returned from England with tales of her attendance at the Queen's Jubilee party at Buckingham Palace. She was so resourceful that maybe she got tickets without the help of The Make-a-Wish Foundation but I preferred not to ask.
Sue's 40th birthday party was another huge event. We were invited to a party at a downtown restaurant, along with a couple of hundred other close friends. A few days later, Sue stopped coming out to the field with Fluffy; her husband came instead, taking a brief respite from his full time care of his now bedridden wife. I'd walk with him and our two dogs around the perimeter of the soccer field and ask what I could do to help. It got down to some very basic trips to the store to buy necessities as he could no longer leave Sue's side. There are items that are part of the downhill spiral of all humans that do not need to be gone into in intimate detail.
I took it upon myself to call the head of the Concierge department to ask for advice. Patient confidentiality prevented specific answers but she immediately knew who I was talking about, gave me some hypothetical instructions and set up an immediate visit from Hospice Care.
I learned a day or two later that the Hospice Nurse who came to spend the night was much appreciated and very timely. Sue died in the small hours of the morning.
I hadn't known that Sue's quest to wait for a cure would not stop at death's door. She had chosen to be frozen and stored as part of her belief in her own future revival.
To maintain her organs in the best possible condition, her husband and the hospice nurse took turns administering CPR for two hours until the Cryogenics team arrived to do what they do. They had been alerted to the pending need for their services and were waiting for the call. These teams are made up of specialists and local people who are signed up for the same services and who have undergone special training so that they can help one another at the end of life as we know it. I found out after that Sue had been on one of those on-call teams for others.
Sue is a big popsicle, in a storage facility in Arizona. She has been there for three years now. Her memorial service was held locally in a tranquil business meeting room with video-conferencing ability. There was a simulcast with the East Coast and France with multilingual tributes and translation services.
I am still impressed by Sue to this day. She lived and died as much on her own terms as any of us can master. Believing in anything takes work. She worked hard and who's to say she won't get the last word.


  1. "Sue is a big popsicle."

    You sure have a way with words, ma chère.

    It is touching that three years later you can memorialize your friend once again with such a loving and admiring tribute. Beautiful and thought provoking post.

  2. Truly sorry for the loss of your friend. She was obviously an amazing woman.

  3. Just knowing Sue must have been inspiring. This post is a beautiful post to a beautiful woman. I wish I had known her in person, but I am happy to have met her here.

  4. This is a really special post.
    I love your matter-of-fact description of life even at the sharp end. I have enormous sympathy for any and all cancer sufferers (I am one of the lucky long-term survivors) but when it came to the bit where a warm human being became a popsicle (brilliant) my path and understanding veered off. Perhaps your friend is right, and she'll be resurrected one day; having been close to extinction twice myself, life is very sweet (most of the time) and I would hate to give it up; but give it up i must one day.

    I know all about being knocked in the shin or knee area by a large dog. Benno and his labrador mates weigh a few pounds between them and as he thinks he needs to get between me and any other dog, I usually get the full-bodied protective treatment.

  5. Friko, Sue's choice and beliefs are not my own but I am always supportive of, and often impressed by, someone who can find something in which to believe, which gives them strength through dark times. If she told me that she was confident that she would turn into a butterfly and fly above us all I would no more of contradicted her than with this. She followed her own path without harm to anyone else. It was a surprise to me and made me think about a subject that had not previously touched anyone I knew. It is slightly different to have a friend in frozen limbo. There will always be that "What if?" query hanging in the air when I think of her.
    I'm glad you came through your cancer fights. None of us know what tomorrow brings.
    The argy-bargy dog thing is breed specific. Usually herders are more visual and spatially aware. Collies don't run into people but Labs are a contact sport. Fluffy was a pain in the neck and a bit of a breed aberration. No surprises there!

  6. TechnoBabe and Steve, people like Sue don't ever really leave us. She made her mark.

  7. Ms. Pliers, I never forget a friend.

  8. Hoping to become a long term cancer survivor myself, I am moved by your loving description of Sue. What an amazing woman she was. I guess she'd have to be to own dog like that. He certainly reflected her buoyant personality. *G* Lovely post.

  9. Jean, I also hope you stick around. Something is going to get us all "in the end", but I'd rather wait until the very end, if I get a choice. Wouldn't you? :)

  10. It always seems so desperately unfair that avid life-lovers and people with such talent for living should die young .
    But maybe they are programmed to pack as much in as possible , even before they know how little time they may have .
    Anyway , she sounds marvellous and you remember her with such affection , she definitely made her mark .

    As for the being frozen thing ? Rather not .....

  11. A beautiful and moving story... made all the more so by your writing.

  12. S&S as the song says "Live every day like you're dying". I still get stuck on what a nightmare it must have been for her husband to start with CPR, knowing she was dead and it was not going to bring her back.

    Owen, kind words, thank you.