“Don’t cry because it’s over –
Smile because it happened.”
–Suzanne Corrales, quoting Theodore Seuss Geisel
A Personal Farewell To Suzanne Corrales
The teen-age Suzy Rathz saw herself as these adjectives:
The only one who told her back then that she was beautiful was her mother, Kathleen. Of course, no teen-age girl accepts her mother’s judgment on that subject, no matter how obviously accurate it is, over the harsh judgment of her classmates.
But her teachers also could see the real Suzi that was emerging, or at least a glimpse. I found her Spring, 1972 12th Grade Report Card in one of the boxes she labeled, “Sue’s Treasures.” Her grades:
“A” in Mass Media
“A” in American Literature
“A” in Sociology
“A” In Newswriting.
“B” In something called “Balk dan adv.”
That’s what it says next to the “B”-- “Balk Dan Adv.” You can’t even tell what the subject matter is, and this Rathz girl was such a good student that she managed to get a “B” in it. (It would turn out to be Balkan Dancing. Advanced, no less.)
But it was the comment at the bottom of the report card from her homeroom teacher (or whatever they called it at San Marcos High back then), Mrs. Measley, that drew my attention:
“Suzi, you’re one of the rare ones.”
Academically, she proved that again in college, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. And if you read the obituary I wrote, you know that Sue helped found our small company and was the editor and chief writer of Inside Healthcare Computing, and that she won three national journalism awards.
I’m trying to go through the professional stuff quickly. That is intentional. I think we put too much emphasis on public awards. Yes, Sue won the awards, but real life is not a race for awards.
Real life is...
...Sue’s Treasure Boxes
The possessions we treasure tell a lot about each of us.
Sue kept cardboard storage boxes in our house, which she had labeled, “Sue’s Treasures.” Let me list a few more items those boxes held:
– A guestbook from visitors when her daughter, Kristina (Kristy to friends and family) was born.
– A tiny dress and shoes – Kristy’s baptism outfit.
– A binder full of pictures and memories from her father’s retirement
– Hundreds of pictures of family and friends, but especially of Kristy. Of those, the most vivid and alive were the ones taken by her former husband, Rick Corrales, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the Los Angeles Times.
– A postcard that friends Kevin and Valerie sent from a trip to Paris – just one of dozens of cards and letters from friends and family she saved.
Not all of the treasures of her life would fit in the “Sue’s Treasures” box.
The most obvious of the treasures she left behind is her relationship with Kristy – the best relationship between a mother and daughter I have ever witnessed.
She also had a soft spot for stray animals. When we met, she had a cat. The way she got that cat was that she left the side door of her Whittier house open on hot summer nights, and the cat wandered in looking like it needed a friend. So she fed it, the cat stayed, and later, when it passed away, she adopted another cat, which passed away of age and infirmity in our home.
Years later, one Saturday in Oxnard, she went to K-Mart and found a male Dalmation wandering around the parking lot, looking lost, apparently trying to find its owner. Sue took the dog by its leash, led it around the lot asking people if it was their dog, and then finally went into K-Mart and asked the manager to announce over the PA system that someone’s dog was missing. She waited for half an hour, but no one showed up to claim it.
So she brought this big, happy, handsome old dog home. She put up signs in the neighborhood around K-Mart, ran an ad in the paper, and reported it to the city, but no owner showed up.
We eventually learned that the dog had been abandoned. So we had our own Dalmation. We named him “Mister Ed,” but Sue started affectionately calling him “Doggers,” and that name stuck.
Doggers passed away in 2002, the first bad event of our worst year, the year Sue’s cancer made its ugly presence known. But more on that later.
When Sue and some great oncologists beat her cancer back the first time, her reward was a fluffy little golden retriever. We named the retriever Buttercup. Then, somehow, after the veterinarian took down “Buttercup” as her official name, it got changed to “Cupcake,” which is the name under which the boarding kennel knows her. Ultimately, Sue found another nickname more comfortable: “Puppy Girl.”
But it was more her people than her pets that Sue loved.
Her Greatest Treasures Were Family…
She clung to the good in relationships, with great determination.
She loved her cousins, aunts, and uncles in the extended Harnett, Rathz, Mangano, and Corrales families. I have felt privileged to bask in the glow of these warm and loving relationships, which she treasured so much.
The same is true of her former in-laws, the Hansens. A few weeks before she passed away, she told me that she sometimes regretted having left her first husband, Rick Hansen, whom she had loved then. In recent years, she bridged the gap of time and separation, and re-kindled her friendship with Rick’s mother, Joanne. She went up to visit the Hansens, and kept up contact by email.
Without any prompting from me, Sue established a spiritual relationship with my uncle, Monsignor Puma. In fact, when they had sessions together, they shooed me out of the room. But what I do know is that in the past couple of years, she has reconnected with her Catholic faith.
Suzanne Blumenfeld, Phil and Annette, Valerie and Kevin, Paula Williams (who whisked Sue off to a beachfront resort on Kauai in December, 2005, just weeks before Sue would have been too weak to go), Valerie Martinez, Gracie and Debbie at Hair Dimensions, Julie Gift, and in her last days, her newest close friend, Jody, her hospice nurse – I know I’m leaving people out, and I apologize to anyone not named: Sue treasured these friendships and worked hard to maintain them.
She also tried hard to make and build the bridge of friendship and family connections with my family back east, especially my children – and succeeded with my daughter, also named Suzanne.
To put it all into a sentence: what the boxes labeled “Sue’s Treasures” reveal about Suzanne Corrales is that her most cherished treasures were family and friends.
Finally, After 17 Years, Our Wedding Day
We were together as a couple for 17 years. We began living together in 1991, about two years after we met. And at least once every year of those 17 years, I asked her to marry me.
And each time, she respectfully declined for the time being, but let me know I was very much in the running.
Finally, on the evening of January 31, 2006, I asked again. I think it just popped into my head that it would make her happy if I let her know I’d still be honored to be her husband.
This time, she said “Yes.” I waited to reconfirm it the next morning, and we began planning our wedding. By this time, she had had a couple of scary periods of days, and her life was under imminent threat of a final turn for the worse. So we moved fast: on February 4, 2006, we were married at home – wedding dress, cake, minister, and all, surrounded by over 60 friends and relatives.
It turned out that our haste was well-founded. Only six weeks later, she was gone.
It had all started...
...On My Best Day In California–The Day We Met
In 1989, I was a lonely guy, soon to be unemployed, living in Long Beach, Calif., and dreaming about a career in the movie business.
In other words, I was not exactly the most expensive cut of beefcake in the meet market, and I knew it. Women who looked physically attractive to me were just not interested, and knew how to make that painfully clear.
I saw a brief article or ad – I don’t remember which -- in the Long Beach Press-Telegram for a kind of evening group-therapy session at the Unitarian-Universalist Church, for people who wanted to talk about relationship issues, including my issue -- that I didn’t have one.
I walked in and sized up the crowd of about 30 people. It looked like the biggest assortment of aging geeks and sorority rejects I’d ever seen. Thinking, “I’m not this desperate,” I sidled as unobtrusively as I could toward the door. Once outside, I made fast tracks for the parking lot.
But just as I reached the lot, two women were heading toward the building. I caught a glimpse of one of them as they passed by. That glimpse was enough: I made a fast a U-turn and followed them in.
I recall watching the way this woman moved as everyone gathered for the start. I thought I saw shyness, a quietness, or something, signaling that I did not need to fear a mean rejection from this beautiful woman.
The way these sessions worked, the managers explained, was that they broke the big group down into little discussion groups, assigning 5-6 people to each of several rooms down the hall from the main room. Then, after 45 minutes to an hour, we would reassemble for social time in the main assembly room.
Watching them select people for groups, seemingly at random, I decided that no matter which group I was assigned to, I was going to follow this woman into hers.
As it turned out, we were assigned to the same group. Her name turned out to be Suzanne Corrales. Her Mexican-American last name was that of her former husband, Rick.
I must have said the right things in that brief group session, because we found ourselves walking back to the main assembly together, and spending most of our time fending off other men hovering and hoping for time with her. I ended up walking out with her phone number.
And now, 17 years later, I am trying to write this piece as a celebration of her life.
That Worst Of All Days …
The worst of what I feel is the screaming sense of injustice and pain over the way cancer took her life from her, an episode at a time, one capability after the other, laying waste to the external manifestations of her beauty.
So the worst day of my life was the first day her cancer revealed its ugly presence.
But it was also the day that an important statement emerged between Suzanne and me.
It started with the call from our friend and hair cutter, Gracie, at Hair Dimensions: Suzanne had just collapsed in her chair. The ambulance squad beat me there, but not by much. Suzanne was going in and out of conscious on the floor, afflicted by some mystery disease. The ambulance squad asked me a fast but penetrating series of questions about her health and possible causes. But she was in very good health, or so it had seemed as recently as an hour earlier, when we’d had lunch with a friend.
Nothing seemed to suggest itself as a reason that she would suddenly collapse.
Actually, there had been warnings – small, subtle neurological symptoms which had been emerging for months. She had kept them secret, refusing to concede that anything was wrong.
At the hospital, as they took her out of the ambulance, she pleaded with me: “Don’t leave me.”
I said something like, “Of course not. Where would I go?”
She said it again, more insistently: “Please, don’t leave me. Please!”
“Sweetheart,” I said, “If you want to get rid of me, you’re going to have to call the sheriff.”
And there it was. Even more than "I love you," which is easy to say and only half mean, it was my way of saying I was in all the way, and for the duration -- even though she wouldn't marry me (she had her reasons).
That sentence became something I would say to her when she needed reassurance:
“If you want to get rid of me, you’re going to have to call the sheriff.”
She never did. And finally, six weeks before she passed away, she did marry me.
Some Moments From The Last Year Of Her Life
Last Big Trip: Kauai with Paula, December, 2005
Paula Williams, one of her dearest friends, used a slew of frequent flyer miles to take Sue with her to a beachfront resort on the garden island of Kauai. They sat in beach chairs watching big fat seals loll on the beach in front of them.
It was one of those resorts at which cabana girls would take drink orders at your beach chair if you put up a flag.
Sue got happily tipsy on a rum drink and called me to tell me she was getting happily tipsy on a rum drink.
Barcelona, Venice, London, August, 2005
In Barcelona, we rented an apartment in a renovated ancient castle in the Medieval part of the city, wandering the narrow streets and alleys of the Barri Gotic and El Born with nothing particular in mind. We toured the Picasso Museum and Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, Park Guell, and Casa Batllo.
On the train between Barcleona and Venice, Sue got her first chance to sleep in an overnight berth as we sped through the south of France to Italy. Dinner on the train was surprisingly good. She had sea bass, I had beef shank; we shared a local bottle of wine, saving half the bottle for Venice.
Our Venice apartment – we did the entire trip in apartments rather than hotels -- overlooked a canal. In the early morning, delivery gondolas brought food and supplies to the restaurants, calling out as they rounded the corners.
Climbing the steps of the Rialto Bridge our first night in Venice, we heard a violin playing “Ave Maria” more sweetly than she and I together had ever heard it played. When we reached the top, we saw that the source of the music was a young man playing for coins.
Wanting to do something memorable for her, I approached this violinist and offered him 20 euros to play his very favorite song. He responded with a song so sad that it was as if the violin was weeping with uncontrollable grief. How could he have known she was dying?
In London, we saw a Queen revival and a very good, energetic comedy, “Tom, Dick, and Harry,” in which three actor brothers play three brothers.
New Jersey, May, 2005: Msgr. Puma’s Beach House
In the most obvious ways, this was the least of our trips out of state in 2005: it was before the summer season, cold, and rainy most of our time there. However, in the important ways, this was Sue’s most important physical journey of the year: It was the biggest of many steps in a spiritual journey she began when she understood that her disease would take her life.
Suzanne and my uncle, Msgr. Vincent Puma, spent hours together, and for some of those sessions, had me leave the room for extended periods of time. I went off to a local Internet café while they talked privately. So I don’t know the exact words that transpired between them, but I did see the outcome: Sue’s fear diminished as her death approached. He had used the term, “surrender,” to her, and over time, after that, as the outcome became so clear, she did – not to defeat, but to acceptance and to the belief that eternal life is real.
I know the Catholic faith, having grown up in it, and with a Monsignor as an uncle, but I am not currently of it. Neither, for most of our years together, was Sue a full practitioner. She didn’t disbelieve, just didn’t participate, until her fight against cancer.
The Suzanne Corrales Smile
I wrote in her obituary about the “quiet determination and courage with which she fought cancer for nearly four years.”
But something Gracie said to me the other day made me realize that I missed the most important part. It was not just the courage. Look at her pictures. It was the smile she bestowed on everyone, right through the worst.
In fact, one of her very last acts, with the last of her strength, was raising her hand to wave and smile at her hospice nurse, Jody, when she came the day before Sue passed away.
But with apologies for stretching a metaphor, the great sheriff in the sky has come.
As Mrs. Measley said in 1972 –
Suzi, you’re one of the rare ones.
Oh, my girl. My sweet girl.
– Bill Donovan, March 25-27, 2006