Losing Susan

18 Jan

yellow, orange rosesHer favorite colors were orange and yellow. I didn’t know this about her until after she died—when I had to ask her family what color flowers were going to be ordered for her memorial service which I was helping to facilitate. All these years she’s been my friend and I never knew that she loved orange and yellow the best. How did I not know that about her?

For over twenty years, Susan Samuel and I have seen each other at least once a month at our music teacher meetings, recitals and musical events. Although she often talked about her family, I had never once met her two grown sons or said more than a quick “hello” to her husband on the phone. I knew that she was originally from Montana; that she was a micro-biologist before becoming a piano teacher and that she loved music. I knew that she was a brilliant, funny and kind person and that I always felt completely comfortable being around her. I knew that I loved her even though I never once took the time to tell her that. Now I wish that I had told her how much she meant to me.

Two weeks ago, Susan suffered a massive stroke. She was only sixty-seven and in excellent health. She went to her yoga class, came home at noon and was discovered unconscious by her husband later on that afternoon. That night, after emergency brain surgery, she was placed in drug-induced coma until a week later when the difficult decision was made to take her off life support. She died peacefully with her family at her side.

Susan’s memorial was held at the small church where I’m the pianist; Susan also held her piano recitals there, so her husband thought it would be appropriate to honor her in a place where she had a connection. The church was standing room only—people stood against the walls and packed the foyer to listen to the musical offerings and spoken tributes in honor of Susan. It was a meaningful and emotional service.

I had the honor of speaking at Susan’s memorial and this is a part of what I shared:

You may not know this, but we music teachers are a nutty bunch. We’re highly emotional, often insecure and have a habit of taking things personally. We can also get quite hot-headed if things don’t go our way.

It’s not our fault—we can’t help it. After all, we’re artists, and as artists our greatest desire is to bring as much beautiful music into this world as possible. Who has time for organization, protocol and good sense? Who has the skill and ability to handle all those annoying details so that recitals and events run smoothly and easily?

Well, once in a great while, along comes an artist who has all of aforementioned attributes—someone who was passionate about music AND was able to keep a level head and civil tongue, as well as a smile on her face. That artist was Susan Samuel. And to be honest, I don’t know how anything ever got done in our music teachers’ organization before she came along.

When I was nominated as president of our branch, I took Susan aside and told her I didn’t want the job. She looked me right in the eyes and said, “Yes, Jessica—you do want the job,” in that reasonable, no nonsense tone of voice which meant, you’re doing it whether you want to or not. Well, okay then. Then she invited me out to lunch to talk about the job responsibilities, and I thought, “Good. Here’s my chance to pick her brain about how she does everything so effortlessly.”

But that didn’t happen when we went to lunch. In fact, we never even discussed it. Instead, she asked me about my other life—my husband, my children; my gardening and my writing. It was the start of many meaningful conversations over the years where she would tell me about her life—that how before she was a piano teacher, she was a micro-biologist; what Montana was like during the summer; about her two brothers and their struggles; about her father’s antique car collection; about how she loved to play the piano. She especially liked to talk about her husband, Chuck and how proud she was of her two boys, Jon and Dave—and how Jon’s wife, Emilia was a keeper. Oh, yeah—and the grandson on the way. She really liked to talk about that—a lot.

Susan was always our go-to person. At one time or another, most of us in our branch have relied on Susan to give us the correct answer or word the sentence in exactly the right way. I know I’ve never once made an important decision without calling her first to ask her opinion. Last week, when I found out that Susan had suffered a stroke, I wondered when it would be appropriate for me to send out an email to the membership to let them know what happened and my first thought was: I need to call Susan and ask her what I should do.

The fact that none of us call Susan any longer is beyond my comprehension. That we won’t see her smiling face at our monthly meetings and listen to her laugh or watch her roll her eyes over something ridiculous. That she is gone leaves a huge space in our lives and I can say with certainty that our branch will never be the same again.

Susan touched us all with her warmth, her kindness, her graciousness and her humble nature. We will miss her intelligence, her wit, her funny, yet gentle sarcasm, and especially how easy it was to spend time with her. We will miss how she kept us grounded.

Yes, it’s true that we musicians are artists, and we often walk around with our heads in the clouds. Sometimes we ignore the details; sometimes we forget to be diplomatic; and sometimes we fly off the handle. But Susan set the bar for us—she showed us how to do it right; and how to do it well, and for that we will be forever grateful.

We will always love you, Susan. Rest in peace, our dear friend.

Since Susan died I have been walking around with a lump in my throat and a burning sensation behind my eyes. I realize it’s because Susan is the first close friend I’ve lost.  I know there are many profound lessons to learn from her death,  but as I’m in the midst of grieving it’s difficult to figure out what those lessons are right now. Perhaps it’s that I need to learn to live each day as my last, because it may very well be. Or that I should not be afraid to say aloud to those people I care most about the words I should have expressed to Susan: Thank you for being so wonderful. I love you. 

Susan Samuel 1946-2014

Susan Samuel

I’ll leave you with two poems—the first on was written in honor of Susan by a member of our music teachers’ group and the second was read at Susan’s memorial by her close friend. I believe that both capture the essence of Susan’s spirit.

What I knew of you

was warmth,

humble rays of winter sun

and solidity,

like the piano’s ivory keys.

Your music is a hand

now secured

between our shoulder blades,

your steadfast kindness

a melody

humming within our ribs.

–Linda Holland

Let Evening Come  

Let the light of late afternoon

shine through chinks in the barn, moving

up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing

as a woman takes up her needles

and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned

in long grass. Let the stars appear

and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.

Let the wind die down. Let the shed

go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop

in the oats, to air in the lung

let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t

be afraid. God does not leave us

comfortless, so let evening come.

–Jane Kenyon

20 Responses to “Losing Susan”

  1. Mary Darragh January 18, 2014 at 8:27 am #

    So sorry for the loss of your special friend Jess. Beautiful tribute..

    • Allegro non tanto January 19, 2014 at 1:38 pm #

      Thank you, Mary. I’m still in shock. She was such a lovely person.

  2. Michele Abbott January 18, 2014 at 9:09 am #


  3. Britton Swingler January 18, 2014 at 9:30 am #

    Jessica…I am so sorry for your loss. Death does have a way of teaching us valuable lessons, and yet the comfort comes not so much from those, but from the warm and beautiful memories we re-live while we grieve, and later while we celebrate, notice and nurture the ways, through our interactions with others, that this special person helped us grow into better people. It becomes our honor to carry the torch…to let their influence on us shine brightly. May you find peace and solace in the coming days.

    • Allegro non tanto January 19, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

      You know all about this, Britton after having lost your mom. It’s so hard, but there is so much beauty in the way people come together during such a tragedy.

      • Britton Swingler January 19, 2014 at 5:10 pm #

        Death has always been at and around my doorstep–it’s been part of my life since I was very young; partly the result of coming into a family that was nearly grown when I arrived. It never gets easier…but it does make me stop and appreciate the beautiful bits of life and the uniqueness of those around me. A warm hug for the journey, Jessica.

      • injaynesworld January 31, 2014 at 8:48 am #

        Britton has eloquently said it all, and you have written a beautiful tribute to your friend. I’m so sorry for your loss, Jessica. Big hugs, my friend.

  4. Charla Bregante January 19, 2014 at 7:38 am #

    What I beautiful tribute, Jessica. I just heard about this amazing woman yesterday from two of her friends. I’m sorry for your loss. She sounds amazing.

    Love, Charla

    Sent from my iPad


    • Allegro non tanto January 19, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

      She was truly amazing and I will miss her terribly. I’m sure everyone who knew and loved her will miss her, too.

  5. debatterman January 19, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

    What a beautiful tribute. How did you get through reading at her memorial service without weeping?

  6. Kristin January 19, 2014 at 9:21 pm #

    I’m sorry for the loss of your good friend, Jessie. That’s always so hard. Hopefully you’ll start to feel less sad soon. One thing left to say: Thank you for being so wonderful! I love you. K xo

    • Allegro non tanto January 19, 2014 at 9:24 pm #

      I love you, too, Kristin. It’s been such a rough couple of weeks and so hard to shake off the sadness! Life is so strange sometimes.

  7. elizabeth January 20, 2014 at 3:53 am #

    Jessica- what a stunning tribute to your friend, Susan. I am so sorry for your loss, but one thing I learned when someone i love passes is that it was such an honor to have them in my life. Not everyone can say that about Susan, but you can. Sending you a hug. elizabeth

    • Allegro non tanto January 20, 2014 at 9:41 pm #

      Thank you, Elizabeth. And you’re right–it was a complete honor to have Susan in my life.

  8. kgwaite January 20, 2014 at 7:02 am #

    Beautiful post and a lovely, lovely tribute.

    • Allegro non tanto January 20, 2014 at 9:42 pm #

      Thank you, Kelly. Susan was very special to so many people.

  9. Becky Green Aaronson January 20, 2014 at 7:13 am #


    I’m so sorry you lost your dear friend. Your beautiful words make such a moving tribute. I can’t even imagine how you got through this without choking up. What an honor to be able to share your special relationship and put all those memories into words so you can hold onto them forever. Sending you a big hug Jessica.

    • Allegro non tanto January 20, 2014 at 9:43 pm #

      Thanks, Becky for the virtual hug–I need them lately! I’m just so heartbroken to have lost such a wonderful friend.

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