Yesterday my dear friend Sue passed from this life. She was in Mexico watching the sunset with one of her beloved daughters, and chose her moment to slip to the other side. Why was she in Mexico? It was one of those things; no one throughout Sue’s life would ever have predicted that she’d die in Mexico, of all particular places. Connecticut, New York, or India, sure. But then, a few weeks ago, seeking the possibility of a “radical remission” of her suddenly aggressive cancer, she was on a plane, and thus the story went.
So Sue. She was incredibly well planned, organized, in control, on top of things. Always hyper prepared, super particular, minding all the details. She’d been a party planner as a profession. When she packed to travel, she made lists. Not just for herself – for the rest of us too. When we went to India in 2009, she had planned out exactly how many squares of toilet paper she could go through per day so that her stash would last the entire trip. (She would bestow 2 squares at a time on friends who hadn’t packed sufficiently.) But, when it came down to it, underneath it all was an ease with things. She welcomed intuition to override logic, and she did it with humor and generosity. (On that same India trip, a friend was upset to realize she’d forgotten to pack her phone charger. Magically, Sue just happened to have the charger the friend needed – having packed it despite the fact that it didn’t go with Sue’s own phone. “I wondered why I was packing that,” Sue said with delight, “and now I know – it wasn’t for me – it was for you!”) She was a person of formidable precision and preparation, but also of complete surrender. She would do whatever needed doing. She wasn’t too concerned if the story suddenly seemed to change course. Her planning was intense, but she wasn’t attached to it. A crowd of people at her house for a potluck havan, and now it’s going to rain? “Swaha”, she’d say, with a shrug and a smile.
Swaha. In Sanskrit, it’s the word you use to make an offering to the divine fire. “Swaha,” Sue would say, about whatever came up in life. It’s an offering. It will all work out. It’s all just as it’s meant to be.
I was talking with Sue a few weeks ago about her changing personas. When we first met, Sue was a pure samaya yogi, the type of spiritual seeker completely focused on internal, private practice – silent meditation, visualization, and the like. External, public ritual was not her thing at all. At the time, a couple of us were beginning to practice fire ceremonies. We decided to hold one at our friend Kathryn’s house in Connecticut. Sue was scared of worms. There were worms in the fire pit that needed to be relocated. That freaked her out. Sue was scared of fire. I didn’t know this, and I built a massive fire. In the final ghee offering, it jumped up, five feet high, a column of flame. She was terrified. Of course, it was only later that she fessed up about the worms and the flames. Not that it stopped her. She felt moved to practice the fire ritual, and so, Swaha, she took her intense, private, internal practice into the physical world. She asked for instruction in how to build a fire. She found a Sanskrit teacher and started learning the mantras, then she memorized them all. Being Sue, in no time flat, she was holding monthly fire ceremonies for 30+ people at her home. She’d convinced her husband Michael (who was concerned about fire so close to the house) that they should add a stone patio onto their home, with a permanent fire pit built to perfect Vedic measurements.
So I was teasing Sue: “Look at you. You go from being a samaya yogi to practicing external fire rituals, and now here you are, a left-handed tantric druggie!” In her last months, Sue, Miss Goody Two-Shoes, the clean vegetarian, who barely even ate sugar, was taking medical marijuana to ease her pain. Sue laughed her good-natured chuckle. Swaha. You take what comes, and you do what needs doing.
The last time my husband Brian and I visited Sue at her house, I had secretly arranged to ship Brian’s birthday present, some rare Irish whiskey, there, since the seller could ship to Connecticut but not to New York or Pennsylvania, where we live. “Too bad I don’t like whiskey, or I might drink some of it!” Sue said. “You don’t like marijuana either, and that hasn’t stopped you,” I said. She laughed. I was trying to make her laugh. At the pain, at the whole thing. What could we do, except at turns be serious, at turns laugh. Swaha.
To have been Sue’s friend, to count her a soul sister on this journey, has been an amazing gift of grace. There are overlapping collectives of us who have been traveling life together, who consider Sue ours and ourselves hers. There is one small circle of four of us who, in our particular context, each see ourselves as one in four. A complete set. The cardinal directions, around the fire of worship. And within the circle, we each have our still deeper connections, each with each other. For me, Sue is the one person in that friend set with whom I have shared some aspects of practice. Some part of spiritual DNA that was just hers and mine. Is she gone now, and I hold that alone? No, so clearly not. When she passed, I felt it, but not as sorrow or grief. I did not feel loss or sadness. More a sense of wonder, at the one of us, so capable, going ahead. I feel her presence, completely unbroken. When others I’ve loved have passed, I’ve needed to reorient, to readjust to finding them again, in a new form. Not this time. Surely I will miss seeing her and being with her. But apparently that has never been the main thing of it, for her and me. And the fact that it feels somehow not that big a change in circumstances or energy shows how much she occupied that other, formless place already, even when she was here with us.
Sue called me a few times from Mexico. Once was about an hour before she went in for a surgery. The pain she was in was so excruciating, I could hear it in her voice. It was a goodbye call. “See you on this shore, or the next,” she said. She told me she loved me, and why. I told her the same. Her call was a gift, something she did not because she needed it, but because she wanted to make sure I had that call in my mind and heart, someday. Today. If there was something in it for her, it was allowing her to be that person she loved to be: wise, generous, thoughtful. If it’s a gift back to a loving person to let them love you, then we exchanged that gift that day. This was my friend Sue.
It wasn’t the last time we spoke. She called again, after the surgery. “I’m still here,” she said, “Let’s play!” I thought of one of my favorite lines from Aghora II Kundalini: “When you begin to come near the deity you are worshipping, the deity will begin to play about with you. Everyone likes to play about.” Let’s play, my sweet Sue. You are as close as you’ve ever been to the Divine, and as close as you’ve ever been to me.
She called one final time. She could barely speak. “I want you to know I love you,” she said. “I know you do. I love you too,” I said. “I know you do,” she said, “Mwah!” “Swaha!” I said. Swaha.
Swaha is one of the 11 names of the Divine Mother, in one of our little circle’s favorite prayers. Once, in India on a festive occasion, some of us were dancing and laughing, playing about (as indeed everyone likes to do). Panditji came up and danced a step with us, then noted we happened to be 11 women. “Look!” he said, “Jayanti, Mangala…” and he went through the line of us, pointing and naming. He wasn’t officially naming us, and forgive me, other eight of you, since I don’t even remember who else was there, but three of us, Sue, Kathryn, and I, took those names as our nicknames for each other ever since. That day, Kathryn was Swaha, the power of fire. (Also, as it became clear, the power to accompany through fire. Kathryn, for all you did for Sue over the past year, on behalf of all the friend collectives, we are forever grateful to you. People, if you want a friend, get Kathryn.) Sue was Kshama, the Divine Mother in the form of compassion. And yes, obviously, she was. She might just hand you two squares of toilet paper, or spend a Saturday working through your dharma code, or call you from Mexico, when the pain was catching her breath, just to make sure you would always have that memory as comfort and strength.
Sue, so well named, every time. Sue, as a syllable in Sanskrit, means auspicious. It is the syllable you join to anything else to indicate: this is good. Sue, anyone who knew you knows, you were the essence of good. Pure good. You joined with us, and we were good. Were we good without you? Sure. But with you, so good. Her friends in one of her study groups christened her “Sue-ji”, the “ji” an honorific. How good? That good. And then Rod, her beloved teacher Yogarupa, gave her the name Ambika. This too, a name of the Divine Mother, the essence and source of all that is beauty and bliss. The very power of good.
In Panditji’s playful moment, I was Swadha, the power of water, the offering to the ancestors. So here I stand, dear sister, witnessing you becoming the ancestor of us all. And how you did it, Kshama. I think you went to Mexico in your last weeks so that your precious mother, husband, daughters, grandbabies, all your family, your students, and friends would never wonder: could anything else have been done, anything at all, to keep her with us any longer? Then you took your moment, on the evening of May 12, as the waning moon was at 11%. I’ve heard that great souls go when the moon is waxing brighter. Or, it seems, they slip through the perfect crescent of the 11 names, one percent each, chanting the names of love as they go.
Little signs of your continued presence. I expect we’ll all find them everywhere. One of your daughters asked me to email her the photos I was posting in your memory on Facebook. Some were large files, so I broke them across multiple emails, and numbered each email in the subject line. (I have a little bit of Sue-ji precision in me too.) As I sent the last one, I saw the number: 11. Of course. Here you go, dear beauty, 11 tributes to you.
Also, 66. Your age when you passed. 66 verses in the Rudram, the heart of the fire practice. With an extra dose of love, we can think of you, and the completion of your life, each time with the completion of the mantra you practiced and that you represented for so many.
That last time Brian and I were at her home, she found a moment to nap, and I read to her from the Lalita Mahatmya. That was one thing we did, read scriptures. Usually, and most famously in our extended friend circle, it was the Devi Mahatmyam. It started as a bedtime story on our trip to India in 2009, and spontaneously it morphed into a kind of live performance art, everyone acting out the various chapters as they were read out loud. Sue said, when we first started reading it, she thought, “Why are we reading this incredibly violent thing?” It’s the story of the Divine Mother killing demons, in vivid detail, punctuated by exquisite verses of praise and poetry. But, she said, “Then it became my favorite book.” And she let all of us loud, wild, crazy actors, jumping and pouncing and acting like demons, hurling imaginary discuses and yelling “HUM!”, be her favorite people. (Everyone likes to play about.) She welcomed it all in, the whole mishegas. Swaha.
When her cancer progressed, Sue found she was having trouble concentrating, and asked me to record a yoga nidra for her. Understand that Sue was a master teacher of yoga nidra. It was rather daunting to record a practice for a master of that practice. And it was yet another gift to me, to be inside her favorite practice, and to know my voice would be playing in her heart and mind, while she was in healing rest. A gift to be able to love her back. An offering into the light. Swaha.
But as we all know, for as much as Sue received, her ultimate joy was in giving. She gave to all of us, all the time. I’ve heard it said that, when someone becomes your ancestor, you can ask them for things. I’m not going to worry too much about how that works, but just accept that it’s true. Plus, as I said to Kathryn the other day, nothing could make Sue happier than if we all start asking her for things. So make your list. (Trust me, if you don’t, she’ll make one for you.)
Dear Sue-ji, here is the boon I ask of you. Freedom from fear. You lived a life that was one undulating wave of Swaha. It’s an offering. It will all work out. It’s all just as it’s meant to be. You planned, and you worked, but you did it with ease and surrender. The beauty of your example is one I hold in my heart and I aspire to in my life.
Dear Sue-ji, this is an ask of you, and also, for sure, an ask of myself. Would I be working on this without you, anyway? Sure. But doing it with you, Sue, is so good. It’s the path we continue to share. I know you too well to need to wait to see if you’ll say yes. We were taught a practice together years ago that I do every day. It includes recognizing the divine being at the heart: She who gives and forgives, before we even ask. Kshama, that is your heart. And from my side, it’s my tribute to you, to live that way, assuming, believing that I can. To know that, in the heart of me, is this unsurpassed generosity and nurturance. Giving me maybe what I plan, definitely exactly what I need. I learned once, during a practice, “All I am given, I am given to offer.” I have been given your life as an example of how to live, and how to die. May I take it in, and offer it back. Swaha.
Dearest Sue, here are two verses from chapter 4 of the Devi Mahatmyam, in your honor:
To that Ambika who is worthy of worship by all devas and sages and pervades this world by her power and who is the embodiment of the entire powers of all the hosts of devas, we bow in devotion. May she grant us auspicious things!
When called to mind in a difficult pass, you remove fear for every person. When called to mind by those in happiness, you bestow a mind still further pious. Which goddess but you, O Dispeller of poverty, pain and fear, has an ever sympathetic heart for helping everyone?
Dear Sue, thank you for being the friend, the daughter, the wife, the mother, the grandmother, the family, the teacher, the seeker, the person who you were. We love you with all our hearts. You were and you are a blessing to us all.