Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Full Moon for Susan

photo by @Mammaloves aka Amie Adams

Sunday evening, walking out the front doors of the Museum of Natural History as it closed down for the night and they shooed us out of the halls of planetary and earth sciences, as we tore ourselves away from the looming bones of ancient giant lizards, a big, beautiful, near-full moon held court in the deepening blue sky, a gleaming white marble suspended over Central Park.

I stood at the top of the stairs, arrested by its majesty, and refused to walk down the steps until both my sons had stopped and paid homage to its luminous presence.

And I thought of my amazing astrophysicist blog-friend, Susan, of how she has always encouraged us to share the night skies’ magic with our children. And I thought again of HER courage, grace and luminosity as she was currently facing the very endgame of her long battle with metastatic inflammatory breast cancer.

Susan Niebur AKA @WhyMommy
Then last night, with my children eagerly tucking into their supper, I stole a moment at the computer to try to write a post for my 2 year Blogaversary, but instead my eye was caught by something at the top of my sidebar blog-roll: a new post from Toddler Planet titled, simply “Goodbye.”

A lead weight crashed into my heart. “Nooooooooo!” I howled in my mind as I fearfully clicked over and saw that Susan was indeed gone.  I burst into tears, had to calm frightened children and explain.

In that post, her husband, Curt shared the devastating news with the same grace, love, honesty and generosity with which Susan had lived her life; faced her impending death.

The saying "to know her is to love her" is oft used. But I can think of no one that applies to more aptly than to Susan Niebur.

Susan's battle with Inflammatory Breast Cancer, a little known form of the disease that presents without a lump and is often mistaken for mastitis, went on, with ups and downs, for 5 years.  It was very public as she blogged, wrote, and spoke about it; worked with foundations and organizations to  spread awareness and encourage research.

She created Mothers with Cancer to support other mothers with cancer, and also, very practically, she helped to get compression sleeves to women in need, who, like herself, had arm swelling problems since the removal of their vital lymph nodes.

Susan pushed and rallied herself, set aside self pity and made Every. Moment. Count. in a way I had no idea was possible outside fairy-tales. She was no saint, she was a feisty, full of life, flesh and blood woman. And while others would have been consumed by rage about dying young, her attitude was "I don't have time for anger."

She endured the excruciating pain of her disease and its treatments with something that was not stoicism, but rather a fully emotionally present acceptance. She willed herself to push past the pain and exhaustion because every moment that could be salvaged and spent with her children was a moment to be cherished.

She loved her children fiercely, and tenderly. She had, in Curt, a partner who loved and supported her with amazing strength and resilience and patience and fortitude. She had an incredible support system of family and in-laws and friends upon friends who rallied around her. Team WhyMommy stepped in and stepped up.

When it became clear that the battle was lost and nearly over, that it was just the end game to be played out, she faced that too with astounding grace and compassion. COMPASSION as she lay dying, I sincerely doubt I would or could be capable of that. And yet it was just who Susan was.

She was, quite honestly, one of the bravest and most admirable women I have ever had the fortune to know.

And on top of everything else? Susan was an astrophysicist. She was a connector in a field where there is often isolation, awkwardness, the very nerdy field of Astronomy. But even more than that she was a champion of women in the planetary sciences, an encourager of girls to go into science, a wonderful role model.

Most people don't know this about me, but I almost became an astronomer. I loved the courses I took in college, and my teachers there were very encouraging, told me I had "the gift" of understanding astrophysical models. I had loved the stars and astronomy as a child, dragging my mother through the halls of the Hayden Planetarium numerous times. sitting rapt and breathless, quivering with excitement during the planetarium star shows while my Mom took an expensive nap.  But I ended up making other choices. One of the factors driving me from it was the isolation factor.

So Susan was living my discarded dream, joyfully, and I loved and admired her for this, too.

I will think of Susan every time I look into the night sky,
And I am mad, mad, mad that the demon cancer took her. Took her away from her husband and young sons. Too soon, my god, too soon.

We had only met in person once, in the summer of 2010 at the BlogHer conference here in NYC.  At the time I was a blogging newbie, 6 months in and still green behind the ears. Somehow I had a huge group of bloggy connections in the DC moms, and they had come up in en mass, in large part to support Susan who was a BlogHer Voice of the Year keynote speaker that year, as well as my friend Stimey who was on the amazing "Blogging Autism" panel.

Susan in hotel room at BlogHer1o (photo via TeachMama)
I was going out to an event with a member of the DC cadre and we'd had to pop up to her room for something. Susan was there, resting on the bed, slowly getting ready for the evening. She sparkled. We hugged; very carefully, very gently. And there was more overflowing love in that hug than in any 10 full-on bear hugs I have had before or since.

Susan BlogHer10 VOTY Keynote address (photo via TeachMama)

I am eternally grateful we had that moment. I ran into her again and again over the course of the next few days, heard her amazing VOTY address.

Last night I spent the hours after I'd put the boys to bed hunkered down by my computer, refreshing my twitter feed, tuned to the search word: WhyMommy. I read and read and read all the words that were flowing out into the cyberverse from the people whose lives she had touched: from the dear friends in her "real" life in DC, to her close blog friends she would meet up with at conferences, to the thousands who knew her only through reading her blog, but never before commented or exchanged words.

We are a community of mourners. But also a community whose lives are full of more light because she walked among us and spread her light, inspired us in everything she did. 

Please harken to the words of her husband, Curt in his farewell post:

"Please consider furthering Susan’s legacy through a contribution to the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation.  Or please choose to make a difference somewhere, anywhere, to anyone."

Also, hug your children tightly, play with them, listen to them with more patience tonight. And know that in doing so you are honoring Susan's legacy, too.

The internet is now FULL of tributes to this amazing woman. Go, read them all, know more about her and how she touched each and every one of us to the core no matter how essentially or tangentially she was actually in our lives.

Tonight, the moon is full at 4:53 PM East Coast time, and I am sad that it shines down upon a world without Susan in it.

I am not ready to say goodbye to her. None of us are. And yet here it is. Time.

I will always remember the love that radiated from her as we hugged hello, and the light that shined from her eyes, always. The honesty and emotion that suffused her words, how she gave of herself fully, every day of her way-too-short life.

Susan thought long and hard as she knew her days were coming to an end, and distilled her philosophy down to these words:

“All that survives after our death are publications and people. So look carefully after the words you write, the thoughts and publications you create, and how you love others. For these are the only things that will remain.”

She is now up there in the firmament, among her beloved stars. And remembered with love here on earth, by a multitude, forever.

Goodbye, Susan, goodbye.

Star trails above Australia (via time-lapse photography), in purple for Susan

Photo credits: Spiral Galaxy by Calar Alto Observatory via NASA, Star Trails by Lincoln Harrison via Pinterest

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