Loving, Holding, and Letting Go

I haven't been in South Carolina for many years, but am here now for a dear friend and colleague's memorial. She didn't live here herself, but her parents moved to Hilton Head in 2000. The place became home for her family, and served as a delightful setting for many joyful reunions. 

So it's no wonder her memorial would be held here -- amidst palmettos, salt marsh, and constantly changing skies. I took a sweet walk at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge [pictured] yesterday, just to savor the place.  

It has been a time of fullness, connection, weeping, laughter, remembering, and dwelling at the confluence of spirit and flesh. Since it's January, the skies wept along with the humans. There have also been multiple uncanny events which I will not describe right now, because I do not yet understand them. Later, for that. 

Sue and I met when she decided to change her specialty from Ob-Gyn to Psychiatry. I felt so fortunate to participate in her training, because she was bright, funny, and open-hearted. Psychiatry was evolving from psychotherapy-based to domination by pharmacotherapy and managed-care, but in those days we still had time to get to know our patients. Our usual length of inpatient stay, in fact, was around 3 weeks. I know she went through some times of burnout as we all did, but she was deeply committed to learning a new specialty. Through her astute and probing questions, she helped me grow too. We became comrades, observing healthcare systems and departments with curiosity -- often wondering aloud in "Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot" terms at what we saw.

After she graduated, we stayed in contact and became trusted friends. She was kind and supportive as I went through an extremely difficult divorce. I listened to her dilemmas also -- not as a therapist, but as a friend. I don't think I've ever felt so heard and cared for as a person, or had my seemingly "weird" ideas held with such kindness as she offered.  

She also had a gift for writing, and a heart for wandering in beautiful places. We were both drawn to the Southwest, and had many a hike in Arizona where I eventually moved and she also worked for a time. She and her lovely RN wife Michele were often guests in my home, and we were a lively trio. All of us had a fondness for Native Americans and their culture, so was it any wonder that Sue would eventually land a job on the Navajo reservation? Gosh, she was ever-learning and growing -- and not afraid to traverse the nation back and forth as she explored and worked in new places. I so admired her courage to pick up and GO, when she felt it was time. I had done a good bit of that, myself.

When this vibrantly healthy, organic-foodie, humor-loving, and self-care embracing woman showed up with metastatic bladder cancer, we all were shocked. At the time she was diagnosed, she'd been planning to join me at one of my physician burnout workshops not far from where she lived. The biopsy news made it clear what was coming though, and she needed to cancel the conference and attend to her health. By then she was medical director of an integrated primary care/mental health system in Washington state, and also had to plan for transitions in her work capacity. None of that did she love. She kept saying, "I'm just not ready to be a cancer patient." She hated that part, and devoted all kinds of energy to being more in her life than in her illness.

Yet in typical Sue style, she also pursued consultations and participated in multiple treatment trials all over the nation. We talked about pros and cons, and the great trepidation and sadness she felt over selling the beautiful property she and Michele had bought on the water. It had been their dream, but was more than one person could comfortably manage. Its locale was a blessed solace for 2, but potentially isolating for someone living alone. She didn't want to imagine dying -- but had to plan for "just in case." Knowing that I had been close to death just a couple years before, she wanted to hear about what I'd learned. We talked as much about that as she would ask for and/or tolerate.

Today there was a wealth of family and friends who loved her, and who especially enjoyed her laughter and zany stories. When she listened to you, you felt like the only person in the room. And, her warm laughter opened hearts. I don't know "why" these illnesses show up in people who are so loving and connected, but they do. I wish they didn't. She was part of so many lives, and we all miss her profoundly. Our time with her though, has brought healing to all of us in one way or another. We are better human beings because Sue has been in our lives. 

As Mary Oliver wrote in her poem, "In Blackwater Woods":

"To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go."

I can't help but wonder, what's she seeing now? Thinking of her in my heart, and breathing a "thank you."

With Aloha always,




Michele Rabey said…
Pam, you captured the essence of both Sue and the time of “letting go” in your lovingly written tribute. It’s so fitting I came across this post while spending time with my memories of her, something I do nightly. Reading this, I find myself filled with gratitude for our many shared experiences across the years. Despite great physical distance and erratically spaced visits, the connection between the three of us has held strong and steady, allowing space for whatever each of us was going through at the time. Truly mana for the soul!

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