Today marks the one year anniversary of the death of someone very dear to me.
Until she passed, I hadn’t lost anyone close to me in quite a while, thank God. My grandmothers died within a year of one another when I was a kid, + while I was certainly sad, childhood provided some sort of aloof protection. I cared, of course, but I think I mostly cried for my parents’ losses. Susan’s passing was different. She was a guiding figure in the truest sense, finding her way into my life at the most pivotal points. She was around when I was a child, dropping into town every month or so to see her mother, who lived a few towns away from us. Back then, I loved her stories, her style, her warm eyes + the excitement of having someone around who seemed new—part of the family, but with her own separate world. She was my mom’s cousin—sort of. When you’re Italian, you practically consider everyone + anyone your cousin or family. Her mom’s sister was married to my mom’s mother’s brother. I think that’s how it went. Anyway, she was family, but she lived in San Francisco with her partner, who later became her wife, + they maintained their own lovely life together, traveling a lot + making home in the city where I now live.
Susan seemed magical to me. She was magical. I don’t even know how or where to start describing her. I could give so many adjective to describe her—intelligent, assertive, fierce, caring, independent, strong, creative—but no words can really give an accurate picture of her essence. She had a strength + confidence about her that radiated from within; a cool ease with herself. She was something else. She retired pretty early + traveled the world. She had a sophisticated sense of style + a thing for shoes. I think she + her partner even flew to Italy in the spring yearly so they could shop the sales; they’d come home with a suitcase filled with new shoes; a suitcase they brought with them just for the shoes. She wore a necklace with an abacus charm on it that fascinated me as a kid. Her humor was charming + her laugh was truly contagious. She was a listener + an adviser. I remember her sitting with me, just the two of us, at a table by the pool at my aunt’s house, back when I moved in with them because we lost our house— about twelve days before the start of my junior year of high school. Anxious, under-confident, displaced, troubled-but-holding-it-together teen that I was, she sat with me, advising me that I had to pull strength from within + make it over this hurdle. She told me that I had a bright future, that I wasn’t going to make my parents’ mistakes. She didn’t merely tell me I’d be okay— the advice everyone casually dispenses during hard times to maintain some positivity. She told me how. She talked to me about being my own person, about being self-focused, not selfish, + cultivating my own sense of self + strength. She directed me on how to get to a better place, something she did many more times throughout our time together. "You have to put your own life vest on first."
I only saw her a few more times throughout my high school years. Throughout all of college, we had no direct contact. I think about five or six years went by before our paths crossed again. The spring after my college graduation, she came into town to visit her mother’s sister, who my mother used to visit + take care of in her nursing home. Susan, her aunt Gladys, Gladys’ caretakers, my mother + I all sat down to lunch. When I saw Susan, it was like we never skipped a beat, + it was just like seeing that mystical childhood figure. We caught up + I mentioned to her that I was moving to New York State. “I’m actually leaving for New York State soon,” I told her. My mother + I filled her in. I remember I said, “It’s just an internship at Cornell,” to which she replied with a laugh, “It’s not just an internship at Cornell!” Whatever apprehension I had, she cheered me through it with encouragement. We finished lunch + a few weeks later, I headed east.
That summer, I visited her + Linda’s home on Lake Keuka many times. They owned a few kayaks + Susan took me out on the lake. I huffed + puffed, but this woman in her sixties was no novice. She was strong + fit, taking up stand-up paddle boarding + kayaking (among other things) to stay active. She used to be a solid swimmer in her earlier years too. She showed me her canoe, which I believe was a childhood heirloom from the lake on which she + my mother spent their summers as kids; she had it refinished + polished. She showed me her shed where she’d do little projects + crafts. Susan was a crafty, creative person with a hand in everything. She once told me that she thought the standard cocktail party question, “What do you do?” was so silly, + that she’d respond by saying, “I do a lot of things.” She did indeed do a lot of things. She dabbled in different hobbies, took fitness + art + cooking classes, + she prided herself on being a lifelong learner.
I spent many weekends there that, sitting on their dock, watching the sunset over the bluff (it was the “movie you never get tired of watching,” as she put it), drinking mojitos with fresh mint we picked right out of their little herb garden, drinking good wine, eating Gianelli’s sausages, talking into the evenings, laying on their double wide lounge chair looking up at the stars + searching for satellites. It sounds so dreamy because it was. It truly was. We rekindled a wonderful relationship that summer. At the end of it, the equally amazing Linda helped me land my first real job in San Francisco. I left New York on the last day of August + by mid-October, I boarded a plane with a one-way ticket to California.
She + Linda guided me the whole way. Those were special years but tough years that I couldn’t have done alone. I saw a lot of them, + it would be a lie to say it was always smooth between us. Susan had a stubborn steak, just like me, + we butted heads often. She was a sort of surrogate mother to me, only cooler. We butted heads, no doubt. But we loved each other. I knew she loved me. It was something I just felt, + I loved her too. We always came back to that + she always wanted the best for me. I knew it even in our times of strife.
Then, a little over a year into me living here, my mom called me + delivered some crushing news: “Your cousin Susan has cancer.” I wept. It was literally crushing + I felt physically weak. I pulled myself together, left my office, then spent the rest of the night drinking + half-heartedly trying to enjoy the company of one of the casual boys of my twenty four year old single days. I saw her for the first time shortly after being told of the diagnosis. What do you even say? I had no words, especially because, to me, she wasn’t sick. It was early + she looked + talked + acted like herself. Plus, she was Susan. Nothing could claim this woman. She was a warrior even in her gentleness. She was unshakable. But it was serious. She fought hard over the next two years, outliving the prognosis of most with this type of illness. She kept herself as healthy as she could, she still visited with friends + family, she still traveled, she exercised + got massages, she cooked. She even showed up to see me in the hospital after I’d been hit by a car. She still imparted her trademark wisdom + she still laughed. She kept living. She is a true Italian in spirit: life, in any state, is to be celebrated.
Now, it’s hard to say that because illness fucking sucks. There’s no way around that. It isn’t easy + being joyful even as you’re disintegrating is basically impossible. She did it though. Not all the time, but God, what an effort. Even when it got to the end. Eventually, she couldn’t come to my house for dinner anymore + our visits became less + less. I was sad, but I understood. I wanted to give her the same respect + understanding she’d always given me: I’m here when you’re ready, + in the meantime, I love you. The day finally came where she couldn’t get out of bed + she needed full-time care. She'd stopped responding to treatment. Options were exhausted. I think at that time, the heaviness of how real the situation was hadn’t hit me. I hadn’t seen her in months as she declined +, while she was on my mind, there was distance between us. I hadn’t seen how bad it had gotten or what state she was in. It was like we hit the pause button for a while, but when we pressed play again, what started playing was entirely different from what was there before.
My mother came to town to see her one last time. We went to the house + I saw her for the first time in months, maybe as many as six. I can’t even remember anymore. I sat by her + held her hand. Her voice was much weaker than I ever thought it could be, but she was still herself despite all of what cancer had done to her. We teared up as we looked at each other for the first time in a while, but we didn’t cry. We enjoyed our time. We, meaning me + Susan + Linda + my mother + neighbors + friends + in-laws + cousins + her nurses + all sorts of people dropping in. It wasn’t like we were waxing nostalgic or anything too sentimental. It was like a dinner party, only instead of being in a kitchen or a restaurant, we sat in chairs around her in-home hospital bed. Conversation was, dare I say, nearly normal. Memories were shared, stories, current events. Susan gave me one of her last pieces of relationship advice, knowing my apprehension about love: “There’s always doubt, but you have to show up. You should take a chance.” We made a buffet of salad + homemade marinara sauce + pasta, which we ate + drank around her. To say it was terribly sad is a gross understatement, yet there was a powerful current of joy, of celebrating life even as it was.
She held on for two more weeks after all of this commotion of visitors, but mid-morning on the first of June, she passed. I felt a sense of peace more than anything when I found out. Since then I’ve cried, of course, but grief is a funny thing. You can feel numb for a while + then, all of the sudden, with seemingly no warning or no blatant trigger whatsoever, you succumb to it. It takes you into an undertow with it, + you’re down for a while. It took a while for that numbness to wear off for me, honestly. In the last few months though, I’ve had those sporadic spells of tears.
I try to distract myself when they come, + they hadn’t come for a while until this last bout. Then, last weekend, as I was planning out my lazy Sunday errands + to-dos, I was stopped in my tracks by sadness. If I’m being honest with myself, I felt it bubbling up for days, but it actually overflowed after breakfast as I was standing over my sink getting ready to go out for a few hours. As I rubbed soap over my skin, something in me snapped. I just kept smearing soap + tears all over my face, trying to get washed up + ready + out the door, but it wasn’t working. I tried to stop it + put clothes on, only to weep again. I tried putting eye makeup on, obviously a futile effort. But I couldn’t fight it. So I sat down + cried. I cried the way I did on the day she passed away as I stood next to her body by myself to say a final goodbye. It was a convulsing cry where your body twitches with grief, where you aren’t sure where your consciousness has gone, where you make sounds—everything from gurgling to high-pitched winces to something that sounds almost like a laugh. Where your face scrunches + contorts + your sinuses swell with pressure. I cried. And I’m still not entirely sure why. Of course, I cry because she’s gone. I also cry in gratitude to have known + been touched by someone so special. I cry in some kind of blended sadness-gratitude, for how serendipitous our rekindling was that record-hot New York summer. I cry for the love of her life she left behind for now, + I cry because I'm proud + in awe at how she’s moving on with her life like a warrior. I cry thinking about how beautiful our time was, even at the end. It’s a strangely beautiful thing to sit with someone as they finish out their last moments on earth, as they pass into the next world. I cry hopefully too, because I believe I’ll see her again. I don’t think that it’s crazy to think we move on to another world, to heaven or to someplace else. There’s so much we don’t understand, so much we can’t solve or explain, like cancer. So, to reject any idea that there might be something that comes after this that we just can’t see, that’s still uncharted, that can’t be qualified by scientific explanations doesn’t make sense to me.
Even if I'm wrong, I know love is boundless. It’s real + nothing real can be erased. Love like the love I had for Susan + love like the love Susan had for life + for Linda is the kind of thing that leaves a mark. It has a legacy that can’t be seen, but can definitely be felt in sparks + surges, mellow + intense. It’s like a light that dims but never goes out. Love like that is sacred, gritty, trying, beautiful + real. And it should be celebrated.
So I made this cake last weekend in her honor, which she probably wouldn’t have taken more than one small bite of because she was a health nut, which I photographed on the rustic wood dining table that she gifted to me, which I made with a heavy heart but also with a hopeful one. I made this cake in celebration: of who she was, of how blessed I am to have known such a force of a woman, of how inspiring it is to still be moved by the spirit of someone who is no longer with me + yet is here somehow. I made this in celebration of life even though I’m sad + even though life can be a total drag sometimes. I know it can be so beautiful too, + I seem even more aware of just how precious it is with age.
We're lucky to be here. And while we're here, we should celebrate. Always.