Last weekend I traveled to North Newton, Kansas to attend a memorial service for my friend, Dr Suzanne Wedel, who died seven months ago from ovarian cancer. Her Kansas family and their mennonite kindness was astonishing; everyone hugged me, everyone I met — and there were so many! — was a cousin, schoolmate, teacher, or friend of Suzanne. I ate my weight in family Swiss chocolates, Zwieback rolls slathered in jam and cream cheese, sweet, swirly poppy seed cakes, dense orange and white cheese curds, drank gallons of iced tea. And the endless beauty of Kansas; black birds diving through indigenous grasses, soybean planted as far as my eyes could squint, traces of the ancient indian tribes in art and markers and the clouds.
I had anticipated this rich historic land. I had not anticipated that I would feel her standing next to me. In North Newton, Kansas, I had found the heart of her heart.
I saw her in her father’s smile, her brother’s laugh, her sister’s voice, her mother’s eyes. I cried and laughed as friends and family reminisced about her antics from four-years old and beyond. They embodied her and she embodied them in every story. I see you, my friend.
I had goosebumps when I walked into her childhood home. After climbing the narrow staircase and ducking my head into her bedroom I swear she tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, let’s go rake those leaves!”I could hear her scamper out the house full of purpose. We know what she went on to do with that purpose — that little Kansas girl grew up to make a monumental impact on emergency medicine around the world. Just a year ago, she launched a fund to support research for ovarian cancer early detection , initiating steps to prevent ovarian cancer in her daughter, grandchildren and generations of women to come. She was beloved and respected from coast to coast. Her dedication to family, work and friends was tireless.
Suzanne raised the bar on living life from early on but especially during her illness. She demonstrated that every, single second we breathe we need to love and love and love. Each other and ourselves. And her essence, her care, her calm focused center formed right here under the eaves of this solid little white house. I saw her in the big sky, the massive oak trees, the sheltered porch, the family who loved her so. I missed her all over again in North Newton, Kansas. Hard.
When Suzanne was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she called me and said, “You know. I don’t even have to tell you.” And I did know. The thirty-five years between her call and my mother’s same call had not changed the statistics for ovarian cancer survival, or even the drugs all that much. Our friendship was intense, loving and too short.
Grief is a strange and wondrous emotion that takes possession of us in so many different ways. Do not believe anyone who says there are time limits or any sort of statue of limitations on sadness after the loss of someone or something you hold dear. I will never forget her and know that sharp moments of grief will overwhelm me for years to come — seeing her children grow to adulthood, walk down the aisle, have their own babies, when our friends gather for chili during the holidays, when her teams win, when we sing Christmas carols.
There is a childhood story that circulates about Suzanne. Once when she was very young she announced that she would go to heaven first, then come back down and tell everyone how to get there. As I sat under the sparkling stained glass and soaring wood ceiling of the Bethel College chapel I knew one thing for certain: Every day of her life she had shown us how to get there.
This lesson from my friend will shape me forever.
Now I know where she is, here in the heartland of Kansas, skipping stones and running along the wide, warm sidewalk. And someday I will return to North Newton and tell her what’s happening, pat her favorite tree and thank her for reminding me what I do counts, each and every day.