Sunday, February 16, 2014

Jewish Guilt is bad enough... but Jewish Survivor's Guilt? Fuggadaboudit

Imagine you're in a car. Someone else is driving. You and your friends are all in backseats. There is absolutely no difference between how you are sitting or they are. You all have your seatbelts on. You're all doing what you're supposed to do. Hell, we'll even throw on helmets, knee pads and shoulder pads for extra protection. And the driver suits you all up with bubblewrap suits. You're all equally taking the same exact precautions.

Now, cars hit your car simultaneously - you and your friends are struck with the same amount of force, and the car rolls. By the time it is all over, the car settles. You open your eyes, and no one else but you and the driver make it out alive.


And, just to make it worse, as you sit in your hospital bed for mere observation while your friends funerals are being planned, you see on your social media feed that several other friends, who were also in cars, with the same gear you had on, and the same impact, didn't survive. And your friend's wife. And another friend's wife. All of whom you've spoken to about all the precautions you were taking in the car.


That's pretty much how this week has been. Past month. Past year. Cancer fighters in my life, LIVESTRONG related and not, that I was surrounded by in one way or another, that shared breast cancer specifically, have been dropping like flies. And I'm starting to feel like last man standing. And I don't like it.

My friend, and fellow LIVESTRONG Leader's wife, Judy, broke my heart. Scott is a cancer survivor himself, and his wife was diagnosed and taken within what seemed to be a breath. Ashleigh Moore, an amazing man, cancer survivor, and fighter, and an International LIVESTRONG Leader who accomplished more than any leader I know has for the cause, was taken from us last week.

Those losses are difficult to bear, as it just seemed some of the most amazing people run out of time. And seeing your friend is pain, losing a colleague, sucks. But their cancer was very different from mine.

But Suzy's loss...

Suzy Zeffren Rauch was a firecracker. She was full of life and ruach (spirit) going back to when I first got to know her in Young Judaea. I admired her from afar, as to me, she was like the sun - as much as I wanted to be her, not like her, but be her, I feared that if I got close, I couldn't withstand the amazingness of Suzy. She was popular (far more than I), she was talented in voice and ability, she was charismatic, she had a way of capturing attention from everyone in a room and making them smile and feel good about themselves. She was a leader. She was an example. She was clearly an amazing friend to everyone around her. She intimidated the bejeezus out of me because I so wanted to be like Suzy when I grew up within the movement. She was the embodiment of what I thought female Judaeans should be.

Fast forward several years, and I have just gone through diagnosis and my double mastectomy. I get an encouraging post from... SUZY ZEFFREN RAUCH! I had friended her, because I loved her so much back in the day, and I was sure she'd accepted my friend request on Facebook out of courtesy. But she was posting to me. And then I got a private message from her (I have to paraphrase, as Facebook seems to have obliterated some of my conversation history, but... ):
Rica, I was wondering if I could ask you a question?
Of course, Suzy, what is it?
I've been following your journey on Facebook and your blog. I just found out that I also have breast cancer. What do I do?
After the initial shock of seeing that Suzy Zeffren Rauch followed my story and my blog - she liked me! She really liked me! - the fury of knowing that someone as amazing as Suzy was being touched by this evil disease made my blood boil. And then, I knew I could finally do something that I'd wanted to do years ago - be Suzy's friend.

From that point on, we weren't Judaeans anymore. We weren't just people with lots of mutual friends. We became members of a secret sisterhood. We shared anxiety and tips and support when hair was lost and came back. Ironically, my hair has grown in just like Suzy's - from very loose waves and/or pin straight to dark blonde, rich ringlets.

We seemed on parallel paths at one point in our chats, and then the chats stopped. I wasn't seeing her in my newsfeed as often. Correspondence came to a trickle.

I, honestly, had assumed that she'd fallen into the same communication rut that I had post-treatment - when you come out the other end, you have to suddenly play catch up with reality.

Then, on 2/5/14, I saw an earth-shattering post from my friend pop up that Suzy was going into hospice. (Any children reading this, cover your ears.) What the fuck?! Hospice?!? It has to be for a longer-term recovery from a procedure - they almost put me into hospice after I'd been in the hospital for 4 weeks with the infection because I was taking up a bed in the hospital and required longer-term care vs. hospital care, but once my condition turned around, I was able to just go home.

I messaged our mutual friend, Benji Lovitt, to find out what was happening. He responded very simply, "She just went on hospice care. I think people are now fearing the worst. Hope you're well." (Kids, you'd better still be covering your ears.) Holy shit! Yes, Benji, I'm fine, thanks for asking, but HOLY SHIT! What in the hell?!?

I went to her page to make sure I was reading Benji's message right, and sure enough, we were being asked to post photos and stories about Suzy for her. Her timeline, and her husband's, was ticking nearly every other second with a new photo, and a new story being posted as I was reading. Dozens, and dozens, and dozens were coming out of nowhere with an outpouring of memories and encouragement.

I messaged her, simply, "Sending you LOVE!" praying to get a response. But none came.

Just a week after I sent her that message, on February 12, Suzy was gone.

I haven't been the same since. I'm going to address her loss momentarily, but allow me to reflect here a moment. Aside from the grief associated with her loss, there is an overwhelming guilt that hits me every time I learn a friend or loved one has died of cancer. That, "Why me?" but worse - "Can't you take me instead?" I know I have many more people out there who would be happy if I were, and even benefit in my death. But no one "wins" with Suzy's death. No one benefits. It rips people apart. She was so much more than I ever was. And, it's ok, that many of our mutual friends think the same thing - I get it. And I'm not writing this to have a flurry of, "Don't say that! You're special, etc." I know the reality. I'm half the woman, mother, leader, educator and friend that Suzy was on a bad day. She has a husband who adores her. She has two, young daughters that benefit far more than my son, for example, whom I've failed time and time again. At least if it were me, my son might not remember everything that he hates about me, but remember the good. I have no husband to widow. Of course, I know I have my daughter, and family and others that would be hurt, but I'm seeing those same people devastated by Suzy's death.

Don't read into this as a suicide note - that's not what it is, either. But I can't bare the idea of walking into a room with some of our mutual friends, and Ron, now, having survived the same disease that killed his wife, our friend, and look anyone in the eyes. I'm marked with shame and guilt that I lived and Suzy died.

Oh, and Suzy's voice. In my mind's ear, I remember how beautiful her voice was. I would listen intently as she, and Kera Rennert, could weave harmonies at camp. I would mimic and memorize their melodies, not daring to upstage them, but to learn from their knack for finding the angelic sound in the gaps, so I could do the same when they weren't at camp anymore. Suzy's voice. Wow.

I was just getting reacquainted with her, this time as equals, and I'd begun to fall in love with her as a younger sister does an older sister, all over again. And then it stopped. Short.

I hate this disease. And, in many ways, I hate surviving it. I hate outliving people like Suzy.

I look to Suzy to remind me to be thankful. Bless whoever it was that posted this amazing version of Modeh Ani sung by Suzy.

As a tribute, expect to hear my daughter and me singing this at her Bat Mitzvah.

This is the voice of an angel.

A fund has been set up in her memory at the camp that she loved, and where she was wed:

By Ilana Zeffren:

Read more about Suzy here:

1 comment:

  1. Hi Rica, thanks for writing! I just want you to know that I would have traded Suzy's life for my own if I could, just like you. One thing I'm thankful for is that Suzy knew how much people loved her. She could feel it but wasn't one to really acknowledge it. But she KNEW. The fought like hell as a warrior and then died with grace. But I want you to know that you are loved too, Rica, and you deserve to live. Enjoy everyday as much as you can. God bless your daughter and my family and I are thankful for the love you gave to Suzy that encouraged her to soldier on. Also, if you wrote your message on Feb. 6th or earlier I promise you she has heard it. This was the day she woke after days of solid sleep. I read her every message and showed her every photo and she loved it.


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