On April 25th, 2018 one of my oldest and dearest friends passed away after a valiant battle with pancreatic cancer. Susan Davis Crooks was a remarkable person. Along with another lifelong friend, Judy Scarborough Essick, I spent a great deal of time with Susan during the last year of her life, offering her what support we could. My wise friend knew that Judy’s gifts would be her extraordinary ability to nurture and nourish people with love and food. I could never equal Judy’s graceful gifts but Susan had always supported my writing and requested that I write a remembrance to offer at her memorial service. It was a burden, a blessing and an honor. My tribute could never sum up the extraordinary person that Susan was but my attempt was read and approved by my friend before her death. (Yes, she really did that.) I believe my eulogy can bear repeating. Here are the words I wrote – how I was able to stand and deliver them was none other than grace and the strength that Susan left me:
I am Linda Griffin and I’m from Susan’s hometown, Zebulon, North Carolina. I have had the great pleasure of knowing Susan and her family for decades — even our grandfathers were friends. My first memory of Susan was in First Grade. She was a tiny thing with golden blonde tresses doing a cartwheel on the front lawn of Wakelon School. We became good friends in 3rd Grade. I believe that on the road of life, people come along to teach us things. My friendship with Susan has been full of lessons. Allow me to recount just a few.
At the end of 3rd Grade we students were eagerly looking forward to summer days and the teacher was getting rid of the year’s accumulation. Students clamored for the giveaways – all except for one lone tadpole swimming in a fishbowl. Since there were no takers, Mrs. Coley asked someone to flush the unfortunate creature. Susan began sobbing and wailed, “No!” We all watched Susan pull herself together and march proudly forward to accept the now reprieved victim. Lesson: Justice for all.
In 4th Grade our teacher, Mrs. Elliott, was one of those teachers who began the year with a firm hand in order to gain control of her classroom. Susan was the kid who put the first crack in her demeanor. A new state was added to the Union that year and Miss Elliott held up a flag with 48 stars and asked, “Can anyone tell me what’s wrong with this flag?” Susan’s hand went up first and she confidently proclaimed, “The pole is too short.” Miss Elliott’s usually stern face broke into contagious laughter. Lesson: Speak the truth confidently.
That same year Susan had a piece of rubber that was made to simulate a puddle of vomit – and it looked like the real thing. She brought it to school and told me that she was going to put it on Miss Elliot’s desk as a joke. I was horrified and told Susan so. I feared the wrath of Miss Elliot. Susan insisted it would be funny. Later that day, Miss Elliot stepped out of the room and my stomach went into knots as Susan tiptoed up to the teacher’s desk and laid the fake throw up in her chair. The glint in Susan’s eyes, her smile and that look of mischief on her face was unforgettable. Miss Elliot returned to the room and was aghast at the sight she found lying in her chair. She looked around the room and queried sympathetically, “Who did this?” Dead silence. Finally Susan rose, slightly red faced, but with a mischievous grin, and retrieved the deceptive piece. Miss Elliot’s eyes went wide with surprise. Susan had been right – it was indeed funny and the whole class began laughing. Luckily, our surprised teacher joined in the laughter. Lesson: never underestimate the power of humor.
Sometime during 5th Grade Mama took me to Martha Flowers Dress Shop – a local shop in downtown Zebulon that carried stylish clothes for girls. I heard “Miss Martha” tell my mother that Susan Davis had been in shopping all by herself – no mother in sight AND that Susan insisted on purchasing an outfit that didn’t match. Wow! Susan went shopping alone and made her own decision without the input of her mother! I was totally impressed. As for the outfit not matching, well, I couldn’t imagine that Susan would be anything but cool. Lesson: Be bold. Trust your instincts.
That same year while on a sleep over at Susan’s we took our dolls with us on a bike ride out to a farm on the outskirts of Zebulon that had an enormous rock in the middle of a corn field. Susan and I thought it would a fabulous place to pretend to be tribal women who must sacrifice their children to the gods for appeasement. On top of the rock was a shallow place that had retained rain water from a recent shower. We named our god “Ter-wa” (which was water backwards, sort of). We placed our dolls carefully by the water, got on our knees, lifted our arms heavenward and bowed ceremoniously from the sky down to the rock, chanting, “Ter- wa, ter-wa, ter-wa”. Then we sat in silence for a while, fairly pleased with our performance, until we were struck by our religious upbringing and the words, “Thou shalt have no other gods before thee.” Uh-oh. We just broke one of the ten commandments! Lord have mercy! But we were just playing. And God knows everything, right? Surely he would know that? Well, maybe we should ask for forgiveness – just in case. We knelt again on the rock in the cornfield, clasping our hands together and bowing our heads in earnest prayer, “Dear God, we were just playing. We weren’t really worshiping Ter-wa. We just made it up. Okay? Well. Amen.” Not being struck by lightning was our assurance that all was well. We figured God might have even laughed at our little trespass. Lesson: spirituality does not have to be serious and austere – it can be fun.
Probably the worst thing we ever did was break into the elementary school building when it was closed. Actually, we just crawled through an open basement window. We were pretending to be Spider McGillis, an amazing detective who could solve unsolvable mysteries. We then prowled all around the building looking for “clues”. Lesson: when life is boring – look for excitement!
In 6th grade we were JV Cheerleaders together, Susan, of course, was the Head, whether it was by self-proclamation or vote I don’t remember. But who could argue? After all, her older sister was a cheerleader and that gave her some clout. So we learned cheers that Susan taught us and practiced them after school. One particular cheer I didn’t like and said so. Susan, of course, disagreed with me and the argument was on. We also exchanged insults – the worst being, “your mama wears cotton underwear”. After the last insult was hurled, Susan, all of 3 feet tall, stepped toward me, stretched out her foot, drew a line in the sand and with hands on her hips challenged me, “Step across that line!” At this point I could not back down and so I boldly stepped across the line and put my hands on my hips as well. This put us face to face – well, mostly – more like face to neck since I was a good head taller. For a moment we stood there glaring at one another, neither of us really knowing what to do next. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure she was shocked that I had defied her. However, in that moment, I was worried that I had just lost my good friend – until she giggled – which made me laugh. In the end we were both laughing and hugging and crying all at the same time. I don’t know whatever happened to that cheer or our disagreement but we remained friends. Lesson: you can have a difference of opinion and still be friends.
Those of us who were Susan’s childhood friends likely remember having to help Susan pull weeds out of the pasture before her dad, Ferd, would let Susan join in doing whatever. Grumbling happened out of Ferd’s earshot (hopefully) but we marched out to that pasture and did it because it was worth it to enjoy Susan’s company. Lesson: friendship is worth the price
OR Ferd would demand that Susan could not go until her room was clean – and if you knew Susan back then, you gotta know that was no small feat. Many were the times I joined Susan in kicking clothes and what all into the closet (leaning on the door so it would shut) or under the bed (making sure the bedspread was down and hiding the evidence) and raking brushes, make up, curlers, et cetera, into open bureau drawers (straining to push them closed afterwards). We would buzz around the room like mad houseflies until – Voila! Clean – but hoping there would not be an inspection from the General. Lesson: appearance is important
Susan and I are both poetry lovers. I have always been grateful that she introduced me to the acclaimed poet Edna St. Vincent Millay who was a feminist, an idealist and a true romantic. We would sit on Susan’s bed and read our favorite lines to one another – sometimes mixed with tears when they reflected our own feelings so poignantly. Lesson: Embrace all of life passionately.
Even if you did not grow up in Zebulon it will come as no surprise that Susan was voted Best All Around among our classmates. She was popular, made good grades and was involved in school activities. She was also stylish and thoroughly cool – in every sense of the word. She loved to dance and knew all the latest steps and moves – even some not approved by our adult chaperones. She had a keen sense of humor and could laugh at herself – once publicly dubbing herself “Lambchops” when she accidently died her hair completely white (as in Shari Lewis and her puppet – which some of you may have to Google). Lesson: don’t take yourself too seriously.
Susan and I took Drivers Ed together. Our instructor was the school’s football/basketball coach who was a little rough around the edges. His temper tantrums were well known and feared. Learning to drive under his tutelage was an intense challenge, to say the least. I’m sure all of his students have a story to tell about their experience. After I endured my own initiation and had somewhat mastered the art of driving, Susan joined my group. Having been raised by Ferd she was less intimidated than other classmates and roared happily down the road with the coach white knuckled and politely suggesting that she slow down. One day she was driving us up a steep incline when suddenly a poor unsuspecting chicken happened across our path. Susan screamed, slammed on brakes and all of us lurched forward with eyes wide and adrenalin pumping. The car stalled. That left lots of problems to solve – like how to engage the clutch and brake to keep from rolling backwards while getting us going forward and over the hill, not to mention the chicken that was now no longer in view. I figured we were goners – like the hapless chicken. Although Susan had a bit of a meltdown about the chicken she managed to get the car started and move us to the top of the hill where we found that the lucky chicken had managed to make it safely to the other side of the road. The coach was wide eyed and speechless – probably for the first time in the history of his career. Lesson: I know why chickens cross the road.
School years rolled on and we had lots of adventures – happy, sad, bitter and sweet. Some of them not available for prime time viewing – but no animals were ever harmed in their making – not even that chicken!
When Susan left for Spain in the Fall of 1968 I missed her solace and her smiles. Not long after her return home in 1969 she married John and I watched my friend grow and change, as she became a supportive spouse, a nurturing mother. I have seen her in a multitude of roles ever since: a nursing student, a nurse, a law student, an attorney, a good daughter to her parents, a profoundly tender sibling, affectionate grandmother, a patriot, an advocate for animals and a most wonderful friend to a sea of people. In every aspect she has exceled. Susan is a truly remarkable human being. From a personal vantage point, no matter where she has been or what she has been going through herself, she has remained a steadfast and loyal friend. She has loved me when I was most unlovable, always offering only her best self. She has cried with me when my heart has been broken, rejoiced with me in happiness and reminded me to take the high road during difficult days. It can be a challenge to be fully present to another person but she has managed it with an easy grace – leaving lesson after lesson in her wake. I have been blessed.
She has promised me that she will try to contact me and I will be waiting. I am already certain of life after death and knowing what an extraordinary spirit she has I expect it to be impressive.
Of note: several months after I wrote this I was sitting in a Yin Yoga class and I heard Susan speak to me. Her voice was clear as a bell . She was just checking in to let me know that all was well. Being in the middle of a yoga class was also a little private joke that let me know it was really her 🙂