Monday, April 24, 2006

Tea and Oranges and Suzanne

An old friend, a very dear friend, 63 years old, died Saturday.

There was no warning. No chance to say goodbye. She collapsed from a heart attack, according to her only daughter Becca. They took her to the Oak Park, Illinois, hospital in a coma. And Saturday night, she slipped away.

I'm in shock today. Can't seem to get going although it's nearly noon. I've been up since 5 a.m. trying to sort my feelings, remembering our times together in Chicago in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When I moved back out east, our friendship continued. The last time I saw her was in early December when I was in Chicago. I stayed an extra day so that I could spend the night at her house on South Harvey not far from the El.

All morning Leonard Cohen's song, Suzanne, has been playing over and over in my head. "She feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China", Cohen tells us. It's one of my all time favorites, and although it's a love song, and some of the lyrics don't fit my friend Suzanne, the quirki-ness of Cohen's Suzanne--and the power--are true of my friend Suzanne.

We met at the Oak Park, Illinois League of Women Voters. Oak Park was a liberal suburb, by and large, and so many of the women who belonged to the organization were kindred souls. I believed passionately in the Equal Rights Amendment which was up before the Illinois legislature, and wanted to help get the word out to women--and so did Suzanne. So, I wrote a script for a slide show explaining ERA--and Suzanne and I took it on the road. We went to every gathering of women that would have us--from single mothers on welfare to affluent Junior League groups. We had a little time because that year both of us had temporarily interrupted our career paths to stay home with our young children. At the time I met her, Suzanne had just had her fourth child, Rebecca. All four were under five.

ERA didn't pass in Illinois despite our valliant attempts to influence the masses. But Suzanne became my best friend. She was smarter than me, smarter than almost anyone I've ever met. I watched her devour fiction and non-fiction alike at the rate of five books a week. She had boundless energy. One Christmas, she asked me to come up to her room for a little while and help her. She had easily a hundred small gifts for the kids. As we wrapped every single one of them, she would comment on why she'd gotten this or that and then would make a card with the family nick name of each child.

I was always glad when she asked for help because I felt like I was the one who generally was doing the asking. One very cold Chicago winter day, she called and said she couldn't get out of bed and Pat, her husband, had to go to DePaul University to teach his class. When I got there, she was so weak that she was literally crawling out of bed. The room was dark and close. She gave me a "don't-tell-me-how-bad-I-look-I-already-know-and-I-hate-needing-help" look. I put her in the other bedroom, aired out her room, changed the sheets, made some tea and called the doctor. She had strep throat. It's the only time I ever saw her so vulnerable and physically weak and, to be honest, it scared me a little. I realized then that my strong Suzanne was equally as fragile.

Suzanne's inner strength and sense of self was indomitable. In 1980, I called her at 6 a.m. one Fall day after being up most of the night, and asked her to meet me at a diner in Cicero, near Oak Park, for breakfast, that it was important. I had been doing a consulting job in D.C. and had been out of touch. She was there in 20 minutes. I told her that I was afraid if I stayed in my marriage any longer that I would lose my soul. She answered:"There are some things that you just can't give away." My consult had ended, and I had nowhere to go while I sorted out things with my husband. She took me in. When the boys and I got an apartment after Christmas of that year, Suzanne came over one night with a bright blue shower curtain and matching rug for the bath. Things were very tight for me then since I was without a job, but she and Pat had limited teaching salaries, so her gifts were generous, and one of many kindnesses she showed me during that time.

I left Chicago the following year. And while our relationship had stayed close, it was much more difficult. Suzanne hated phone conversations. She didn't suffer fools well, and she didn't do small talk. She would write me beautiful, newsy notes about the four children who she was totally devoted to and their lives as they evolved. If she called and didn't reach me, she would end the voicemail with her shorthand, "Love".

When I visited in December, I thought she looked tired and older than her years. Pat still smokes, so I chalked it up to winter and second hand smoke, and let it go. She seemed more detached somehow, less engaged. Now, I imagine that the congestive heart failure that was diagnosed after her death, had already begun to take its toll. ( She hated doctors, and really was very good at taking care of the rest of us, but no so good about herself often. ) I made a mental note to call her more frequently--and urge her to take the trip we had talked about to Oxford which she had always wanted to see. We were going to take a flat for a month in London and then do day trips.

She taught for years at DePaul's School of New Learning which is devoted to working people who want to get a B.A. I sat in on her classes a couple of times. They were energized by her command of the subject matter--humanities--and her obvious love for her students. I remember many times that she would take a phone call in the evening for 30 or 40 minutes to help a student.

When Suzanne was a little girl and watched the evening news, she would start crying because of all the horror that humans were doing to one another. Her mother, a pragmatist ( with 8 kids ), apparently was concerned then about her sensitivity and how she would manage to cushion the disappointments of life. I think Suzanne was too good for this world. She saw too much, and, I think, willed every day to keep hope alive. And her courage touched me deeply. I will never forget her. And Leonard Cohen's song has new meaning for me today...

She takes you down to her place near the river.
She shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers.
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning.
They are leaning out for love, and they will lean that way forever.

While Suzanne holds the mirror.

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind.
and you know you can trust her because she's touched you with her mind.
Leonard Cohen



ML in Texas said...

I am so sorry that you lost your best friend. Your thoughts reflect the love you had for her.
Your entry brought her to life for your readers. Now, I am thinking of my friends and how I would handle such a loss. There would certainly be a hole in my world and heart. May you find comfort remembering your friendship and the life experiences you shared.

Anonymous said...

Miss MCB,
I feel as if I know her now. I hope I have a friend who will one day write about me in this way. I hope our laugh yesterday helped in some small way to lift your burden.