It's the day before election day. This column should be about politics - about how we once again have a chance to elect a leadership of at least some real morality. How we can replace the president and his coterie who believe in indefinite imprisonment without trial, who believe in torture, whose only God is power and who are willing to do anything to attain it. How we, on that one day, can reverse our nation's course into disaster and evil.
But I'm not going to talk about that. At least, not any farther.
My Aunt Susan died last week.
It was a most unfair sort of death. She and my uncle had only just retired, had built their retirement home and moved back to California, and were ready for at least a decade - and probably several decades - of retired life, when out of the blue she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
She'd never smoked. She'd never done anything that was a risk factor for lung cancer. Sometimes, the fates just crap on you.
So the last couple of years had been depressing rounds of largely ineffective chemotherapy, while Susan grew weaker and more housebound. She never really got to enjoy her new garden. She never really got to get out and meet her new neighbors and join the community.
The simple act of breathing kept getting harder and harder to do.
So, finally, somewhere inside, she said "the heck with it", and last week she just stopped.
I didn't know Susan half as well as I would have liked. For most of my life I was in California while she and her family lived in Michigan. Susan and Gary's children are almost precisely the ages of me and my sister; when we were together for holidays and vacations, we invariably had a grand time. I remember sleeping in tents in my grandparents' yard, playing 'King's Corners' in the forestry camp on the Upper Peninsula. Going for ice cream at the creamery near their house in Ann Arbor.
Of course, I was a child, and I was much more focused on my playmates than on their parents. Susan was there, of course, but she was the grown-up figure. She was more of a disciplinarian than my mother; my cousins were made to eat all of their vegetables, whereas I only had to eat enough to be sure that I didn't like them and then my mother would not demand I eat more. Which method was better? Who can say - these days there is nothing that my cousins will not eat, whereas I am thirty-two and still eat an embarrassingly small group of vegetables. At the time, I thought I was getting off remarkably well. I doubt my mother knows the debt she owes to Susan for being the less lenient counter-example.
As I grew up, though, that same inflexibility became a source of real inspiration to me. Because Susan was one of those rare people who would brook no compromise with what was wrong. When confronted with wheedling or pressure to allow minor sins, to condone or turn a blind eye to sharp practice or injustice, most of us from time to time give in. Not Susan. If something was injust or unfair or unacceptable, she would not accept it. Would speak out against it, even under pressure. Not infrequently I have wished that I had her spine.
Which is not to imply in the slightest that she was harsh or unyielding. On the contrary, she was generous and giving and the sort of person you never wanted to argue with but always knew you could rely upon. She was the best sort of person.
Life is unfair. Gary and Susan moved to California almost precisely at the time I left; and although my wife and I from the moment we left have been hoping and scheming to return to the Golden State as soon as we can (and remain gainfully employed), our hopes to live closer to and spend more time with Aunt Susan are now empty. The book is closed and the intersection of my life with hers is wholly a story of vacations and holidays.
I should not complain. I was able to stay with Gary and Susan a few months ago. She made homemade boysenberry ice cream. We talked politics - if you thought I am outspoken in my condemnation of the unChristian men currently running the country, you never met Susan. I went fishing with Gary. We talked about plans for the holidays. We swapped book recommendations. She waved goodbye from the kitchen.
That was the last time I'll ever see her. It hurts, a lot - I'm writing through blurry eyes at the moment. I miss her, and I mourn the time we'll never spend together. She was a compass, and proof that a person can be both strong and good at the same time. She was the best sort of friend. And it's unfair that she's gone.
Thank you, Susan. Thank you for being who you were. Thank you for being there for me to know.
Thank you for the vacations and holidays.
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra