Last Wednesday, July 18, at 10:05 pm, my friend Susan deWardt died in the presence of her devoted husband, John, and a hospice CNA.
Susan was diagnosed with peritoneal cancer the week after a 2015 poetry therapy intensive which she, Linda Barnes, and I co-facilitated.
Susan underwent several iterations of chemotherapy, was well enough to attend and present at Journal Conference 2016 a year after her diagnosis, was in remission for about a year, and then became ill again late last year. From November to April she fought valiantly. In May she let me know that she was stopping treatment and moving into end-of-life care.
I saw her for the last time in March, when I drove to Steamboat for a weekend with Susan and John. We played about fifty rounds of cribbage, attempted a large jigsaw puzzle (she stayed with it; I bailed), made art and had the same intimate and deep conversations we’ve had for 20+ years.
Susan was a complex woman with myriad talents, skills and gifts. One of my favorite ways to sum up her larger-than-life personality is that she was a poet and artist who put herself through engineering school as a belly dancer.
We met in Steamboat Springs in the late 1990s when I was invited to be the featured speaker at the Steamboat Writer’s Conference. I was presenting a Saturday workshop on journal writing. Susan plopped herself down next to me at the Friday night dinner and introduced herself. “What brings you here from Denver?” she asked. I told her I was there for the journal workshop. She didn’t realize I was teaching it and immediately launched into a 30-minute testimonial on the power of writing. She even quoted Journal to the Self to me. As dessert was served, she lamented that she had waited too long to sign up for the workshop and now it was filled and she couldn’t attend. I suggested that perhaps she could come as my guest. The expression on her face as the realization dawned on her that she had been speaking with the speaker was priceless. We laughed over that story for the next 20 years.
Shortly after that experience she took the Journal to the Self instructor certification training and became one of our most successful teachers. She taught too-many-to-count classes in Steamboat and became well-known as the local “journal lady.” In 2003 she began poetry therapy training with me and after credentialing went on to became a devoted member of the board of directors of the International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy, where she served as credentials chair for six years and president for four more. Her contributions to the standards-based practice of poetry therapy credentialing cannot be overstated.
Her contributions to my life can also not be overstated. She was/is a powerful advocate, a devoted friend, a smart and savvy advisor, an outstanding coach, a brilliant artist and writer, a highly regarded member of the Therapeutic Writing Institute faculty, a rampantly creative fabric and craft artist, a visual journaler, a strong voice for feminism and self-actualization, a global peacemaker and a beautiful soul and spirit. She will be deeply missed.
Susan died at 10:05 pm on Wednesday. At 6:00 am Thursday, her daughter went into labor–two weeks early–with Susan’s first grandchild. (Mother and baby had a healthy birth!) I have always thought of the hours immediately after death and the hours immediately before birth as the “Betweens,” a liminal space not unlike the Buddhist concept of bardo where the membrane between the worlds is most palpable and permeable, and the soul can travel between them. I love the idea that Susan and her grandson might have crossed paths in the Betweens, and Susan was able to meet him and download a lifetime of wisdom and love and courage to him as he prepared to enter the world as the first in a new generation. I hope he has memories of her.
Godspeed on your journey, Susan, fueled by the love and prayers of thousands of people all over the world who love you and miss you dearly. You will live within us forever.