I only learned how gravely ill Sue was on Sunday night, admitted to the ICU at a medical center where I used to work, where I trained Sue as a student dietitian 30 years ago, and where she worked for her entire career as an exemplary trauma/burn/critical care dietitian, including for as much as possible and as long as possible even after her cancer had returned. When I called the ICU on Monday morning, I learned from her nurse that Sue's out of town family had arrived the day before, death was expected that day, and her family was requesting no visitors. Respecting their wishes for privacy, I asked the nurse to tell Sue I loved her, cried most of the day, and did not make the drive down to the medical center where I had sat alone in the waiting room twice during Sue's surgeries. Later in the afternoon, I made some calls for an update and left my name and phone number to be called with further updates.
I drove to my community garden early this morning having not yet heard any news. As I picked the last of our tomatoes and some baby kale, I kept thinking about how much Sue loved her home and her gardens, remembering how much time the two of us spent in her yard and looking at gardening magazines for ideas of what else to plant or rearrange.
Sue and I also birded together and shared as many happy birding experiences as we did with gardening. Therefore, when I saw the following two birding sights while driving home after leaving my garden, I knew in my heart that my friend had passed away during the night, that she was safe, and that she was now truly on her way home.
First, while crossing the river that runs through Ann Arbor, I saw a very large group of turkey vultures circling higher and higher right next to the road I use to drive home. Vultures gather into large groups in the fall before migrating south for the winter where finding food will be easier for them during the colder months of the year. As a group, they circle on warm air thermals referred to as "kettles" because, when in this formation, the vultures give the appearance of rising bubbles in a boiling kettle of water. When seeing this kettle, I immediately wondered if Sue had died during the night and was now with a group of friends, relatives, and even former patients who were all supporting her and showing her the way to a land where she would be cancer-free, pain-free, and worry-free.
In addition, as I glanced at the vulture at the top of the kettle, I was thinking of the image of bubbles rising to the top of a boiling pot and breaking free. The turkey vulture’s scientific name is Cathartes aura, which is Latin for "cleansing breeze". I can think of no better image for a person finally breaking free of "the stink of cancer".
Suddenly, while contemplating this image of breaking free of cancer plus being supported on the next part of the journey by others who have gone before, I noticed one lone swan flying over the road just ahead of my car. As I drove closer to the swan, I had time to identify it as a trumpeter swan, watch it do an u-turn right in front of me, tilt its body toward me like an acknowledgment, and then fly back in the direction from where it had come. Back to the journey home..................
Sue knew of my love of swans and my attachment to them for both good luck and healing. The last time we went birding together at Crane Creek and Magee Marsh during the spring 2008 migration, warblers were all around us at these two famous birding "hot spots", but we stopped to soak in the magnificent view of a flock of trumpeter swans, knowing we were seeing a special sight.
So when I arrived home to have my husband tell me that I had received two phone calls with the news of Sue's passing last night, I was not surprised. I was not able to personally tell Sue "good-bye, good luck, you're free", but I know that lone swan came to tell me that my friend was now free and on her way home.
I loved to introduce Sue to both friends and colleagues as the best student I ever had, which embarrassed her no end. It is the truth, and it was an honor to have had a student who helped her teacher (me) grow professionally, and best yet, then became a life-long friend. We shared so many interests, so many thoughts, did so many things together these past 30 years. It is painful to think of not continuing to grow old together as friends.
Yes, cancer stinks, it really stinks, and I could use many more less polite words. God speed my friend. Ride those thermals high and wide with ease, in the support of those whose lives have also been cut short. Fly on to warmth, great food and wine, beauty, and true freedom. We'll meet again when it's my turn to fly home, and I know you'll be there to be one of my guides.
With friendship and much love,
(Photo: After decades of knowing that winter was finally ending by enjoying the search for migrating swans every spring resting in farmers' wet fields, one year a small flock of trumpeter swans came to me at our small neighborhood nature center in Ann Arbor, MI. I was lucky enough to get this photo of 5 out of the 6 swans in the small flock swimming toward me. The idea for the image on the cover of my book was developed from this photograph.)