Thursday, December 1, 2011

Susan Keeler Smith (1957-2011)

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. - James 1: 2-3

How does one share the story of someone who became something of a medical miracle through continually exceeding expectations? How does one pay tribute to a person who had such a positive effect on so many people? How does one capture the indelible influence that a family member left on their life, mostly from three thousand miles away? Despite that distance (despite, even, never living in the same time zone), my aunt Susan served as one of the principal guiding influences on me throughout my young life, and affected me in a number of ways. Referencing the verse above, no one I know has gone through the trials that Susy did, or remained as steadfast and strong in resisting what for many would have been an easy excuse to give up. Although I do not possess my father's talent with the written word, I will try to describe how Susy influenced me throughout my life.


I was not always a basketball fan growing up. My mother went to Duke just ahead of Mike Gminski and Gene Banks (class of 1978), and only a couple of years before Mike Krzyzewski arrived in Durham. As such, she was (and is) a huge basketball fan, and televised Duke games were sure to be on in our house. However, I was always annoyed by this obsession with basketball, and when particularly young, would root against Duke just to be contrarian. One of my earlier basketball-watching memories is of "The Shot," in the greatest college basketball game ever played, a game I was pulling for Kentucky to win.* My feelings about Duke didn't really change until a local kid who had gone to the same elementary school as I, and for whom I spent my Sunday afternoons shagging rebounds (really, that's false; mostly all I had to do was stand under the net and wait for the ball to drop through), chose Duke over Stanford, his parents' alma mater. But in the meantime, my aunt helped me to love basketball as something more than just a pleasant diversion (to play) or somewhat annoying distraction (to watch).

*I know, I know, if you know me, you're wondering what on earth was wrong with me between the ages of 4 and 10.

Younger than my mother by only about 14 months, Susy was also fortunate enough to attend a school where basketball was supreme, and happened to be a student at the best possible time. She attended Michigan State, and if you've just done the math, you have already realized that she was a contemporary of one Earvin Johnson, who led the Spartans to the 1979 title in one of the best title matchups ever. A few years later, when I was a wee lad, she moved to Chicago (which became her permanent home), coinciding almost directly with the ascendancy of Michael Jordan. And so since I was of a highly impressionable age, and did not exactly live near an NBA market in Anchorage, I became a Bulls fan, mostly because Susy encouraged it, both through the occasional gift (I used to have an MJ jersey) and through our many phone conversations.

I probably came by my night owl tendencies via osmosis from Susy. Both of my parents, and indeed my father's entire family, are morning people, and while I operated a morning paper route that required 4:15 wake-up calls every morning for almost two and a half years, I have for many years been much more of a night owl myself. Susy, being close with my mom, frequently called our Anchorage home at 8 or 9 PM local time (11 or 12 in Chicago) to talk, and often to me as well. In fact, due to the sheer volume of calls, it is entirely possible that I spent more time talking to Susy than with my other close relatives combined. Even when I went off to boarding school, I made a concerted effort to call Chicago at least once a month. At all stages of my childhood and adolescence, she was a tremendous conversationalist and listener, and there were certainly times in my life when I was more likely to heed advice from her than from my parents, even if the advice was identical. She had a way of talking with me that got through (or around) my often hardheaded resistance to my parents, and was always able to offer another perspective when I needed one.

As soon as I was old enough to be on an airplane by myself, my parents sent me around the country visiting various relatives. I think I first went to Chicago in the summer of 1994, and was introduced over the next few days to a place that is still my favorite American city. She made sure to indulge my love of baseball with a trip to the South Side (the Cubs were out of town), but she also took me to the Shedd Aquarium, the natural history museum, the Magnificent Mile, and Lake Michigan. On later trips, when I had indicated an interest in architecture, there was the art museum, the Chicago River architecture tour, and visits to the suburbs to see the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. She was passionate about her adopted city, and she shared that with me. We watched movies, ate well (it is impossible to eat less than well in my family), visited Grant Park during the summer basketball tournament, went on a college visit to Notre Dame, etc., etc.

In the fall of 1995, when I was twelve years old and in seventh grade, Susy was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. I was old enough to comprehend the seriousness of the disease, and I remember it being frightening in the instant. But she dealt with it, going through nine months of chemo and coming out seemingly fine. In December of 1996, she got married (for the second time) to an incredible man who was also a Paine Webber stockbroker. That was a memorable wedding for several reasons: Steve graciously asked Susy's favorite (okay, only) nephew to be one of his groomsmen, the wedding itself was held in the United States Naval Academy Chapel (one of the great churches in this or any country), and at the reception next door at the superintendent's house, I got to play the drums, courtesy of Admiral and Mrs. Larsen. Susy had made a full recovery and life was great.**

**If I had a digital copy of a photo from that wedding, I would share it here to show how great Susy looked just a year after her first diagnosis, even if it meant giving you, the reader, an opportunity to laugh at goofy, awkward, 13-year-old me.

Less than two years after the first diagnosis came another, worse one. This time the cancer was metastatic, and back with a vengeance. Again, Susy fought it, and fought it hard, and for more than a full decade kept the disease from making any further advances. She was healthy enough that she and Steve were able to travel to China and adopt Grace, a boisterous little girl, from an orphanage there. It wasn't until a little over three years ago that, having defied expectations as to her survival for so long already, she got sick again. And still the cancer couldn't beat her. Just over a month ago, with her condition worsening yet again, the doctors gave her only a few more days. And once more she rallied, making it weeks longer than the prognosis, just as earlier she had defied the doctors' chances for years. It wasn't until early this morning that she passed away peacefully in her sleep.

Susy was certainly inspirational, and like all of the Keeler women, tough as nails when the occasion called for it (it would be difficult for me to name three more resilient and admirable women than my mother Catherine and my aunts Patricia and Susan). It was originally doubtful that she would make it to 40; instead she lived to be 54. She was able to lead a full life, to travel frequently, to raise a daughter, and to punctuate get-togethers with the same quick wit as ever. She was able to open the eyes of both her nephew and her daughter, among others, to worlds around them. She was a terrific ambassador for her adopted hometown of Chicago. She is certainly one of the main figures responsible for the path that I have chosen, and it would be difficult to name more than maybe three or four other people who have had as great an impact on my life. The world is a better place for her having been in it. God bless you and keep you, Susy. I will miss you.