Tag Archives: poetry

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
1946-2014

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

Time to Write

7 Mar

lighthouseMy father died at age fifty-three, never realizing the dream of who he planned to be. He was a brilliant and articulate man; a gifted writer who had a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. But as many of us do, he smothered his initiative and creativity because he became too comfortable with that unyielding fear of not being good enough.

Maybe it was safer for him to hide behind his responsibilities and his resentments than to pursue his desire to become a writer. Perhaps the thick file of rejection letters hidden in the bedroom closet was just too much for him to bear. Sadly, he traded his beloved Smith-Corona typewriter for a bottle of gin and gave away his literary dream for a two pack-a-day nicotine habit and the television remote control. He died when he was only three years older than I am right now.

I’m grateful I didn’t inherit my father’s gene for alcoholism, but I did inherit the gene that’s even more intoxicating—the one that programmed both of us to believe: I’m just not good enough, so why bother trying?  As I’m sure my dad was, I have been embroiled in my own decades-long internal struggle about whether or not my abilities are good enough for me to realize the dream of who I want to be.

Lately, you may have noticed that I haven’t posted on my blog as regularly as I have in the past. Then again, you may not have noticed at all (See? There it is again–that annoying voice in my head telling me that nobody cares.)

The reason I haven’t posted much recently is because I’ve been working very diligently on writing a novel.  This is something I’ve fantasized about doing since forever, but that errant gene passed down from my dad discouraged me from really trying until recently. It doesn’t help that this whole crazy writing process, which includes opening oneself up to judgment and criticism is very scary at times. Wait—I take that back—it’s utterly terrifying! All the time!

But I’ve got a good story to tell, and I’ve been savvy enough to surround myself with a supportive writing group,  who along with my wonderful and encouraging family, read my words and tell me what’s not working—and more importantly—what is working. The very best part is that they also say they can’t wait to read more. So, whenever I can steal away a few quiet moments from my busy life, I write, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

When I write, I often think of my dad and how painful it must have been for him to let his dream slowly die away. It may be that I’ve carried his destructive gene around with me since birth, but I now realize I’m not destined to follow his path. I’m the one in charge of making my dream happen, and as much as I want to sometimes, I can no longer blame my lack of confidence on my heredity.

I’m a writer and it’s time to write.

The following is a poem written by my dad and published in 1954

Beacon

The lighthouse keeper told me once about loneliness;

About how, when he first took the job,

He was afraid the light might go out,

And then wished it would.

He told me about a sailor that explained to him

What it means to a shipload of staring eyes

To see his spinning human message

Punching hope through a wall of distant despair.

The keeper said his life got a little dull at times,

And his wife complained once in a while

About having to live always on the edge

Of extreme ways of life;

But, he said, he was the denial of death.

I read in his diary, after he died,

That he hated the coming of spring, because all night

He heard his steel and concrete index tick off sparrows,

With little thumping sounds,

And that his hired man complained about the mess.

He willed his telescope to his wife, that was all he had,

And she told me that day that reason

He took the job was

He loved the freedom of the sea.

–Joseph Winters

My dad, Joseph Winters in his senior photo in the 1954 Johns Hopkins yearbook

My dad, Joseph Winters in his senior photo in the 1954 Johns Hopkins yearbook