Suzee Cameron was my friend long ago and far away, when we were not 60 something old ladies, but topless little girls, three something, sitting spraddled in the hot beach sand at the edge of the Pacific in our underwear, vigorously stirring sand soup and shaping sand castles and then going to swing on the tall beach swings of the Hermosa Beach Strand, pumping our short legs in earnest effort, higher and higher and higher, then leaning entirely upside down to feel our blonde hair tickle across the sand as we swung through the arc. As seven and eight year olds, we explored tide pools together in front of Topanga Canyon, naming the baby octopi we captured, poking sea anemones and screaming as they sucked our fingers in with their retreat. We slept all in a tangle with her sisters in a big bed full of sand and little girls as the hum of adult conversations and laughter by the fire in the main room faded from our consciousness.
The Camerons and the Hamptons were comrades in adventure in those days, living in shabby beach apartments, or in the Cameron’s case, even camping out on the top of Mt Tamalpais. I remember living richly with few dollars. I remember classical music playing at top volume, raucous volleyball games, exploring in the mountains, and for us children, a world made vivid, magical, smelling of salt and beer and suntan oil. So very full of possibilities.
There is a long break in my memory. The Camerons went away, and came back. And then I remember Suzee, briefly, as an awakened butterfly, a tall slender thirteen year old emerging from the dark dreams of encephalitis coma and discovering she had become a truly beautiful young woman. Dark haired. Laughing with delight at her new self. We visited. We parted to our now different countries. And for many many years I did not see Suzee again, or very rarely.
I caught glimpses of her life sometimes as she passed by where I was living, or I managed a short trip to Canada. From her middle years, my mind holds images of Suzee as a pregnant traveling hippie, a frantic novice real estate agent, a happy young wife with Peter sitting in a sidewalk café before a jazz concert, a warm-hearted house mother to foreign students, and friend to a circle of women, and finally a powerful career woman, thriving on coffee and adrenalin and teleconferencing as she organized for the Neil Squire Foundation. But other people know those parts of her life far better than I.
I can’t say we were close friends in those years. Indeed we only barely knew the outlines of each other’s lives. And yet, for two days, since receiving the news of her death, I have had to fight tears all day long, submerged in tsunamis of grief and trying to understand how this astonishing woman with her tangled wondrous life came to mean so much to me, far more than I understood.
I did correspond with her in her forties and see more of her in her late fifties. She wrote from solitary campsites in the Canadian wilderness and visited several times to California, sitting on my porch in her white shorts and lace T, smoking her stogies and looking thoughtfully out to sea. Gradually, staying a few days at a time, she filled in some of the rest of her story. I wont tell it all again here. But only try to understand what there was in it that made her so extraordinary, and now, so deeply missed.
Suzee was not always easy. She was strong willed, sure of herself sometimes to a fault, and I often found myself pulling back from her certainties about a spiritual path or an approach to health or finances, too cautious for such exotic experiments. She filled a gallon jug with water on one visit and pronounced it innately pure from the secret ingredient she had added. I was to keep filling new ones from it. She generously urged a low acid diet I was to follow, avocado shakes leading the way. She explained that nearly all that ails a person could be cured with a solution of silver – until I looked up the negative side effects of this on the Internet. She passionately supported causes that left me skeptical or bewildered.
And yet when she arrived it was very much like the sun coming out. Suzee had a presence of joy, of boundless generosity that overcame all doubts in her relationships. She did not enter a room, as her mother writes, she exploded into it. She filled it with radiant charisma, and she did this in the face of challenges that would have defeated a lesser person a hundred times over. She suffered terribly the loss of her beloved son, and yet came to my door still smiling, determined to break the hold that alcohol had on her in a retreat in Arizona. Months later, on her way home, life slammed her down again and she broke her pelvis and much else in an automobile accident on an icy road in the Canadian winter. And yet again she came south with that smile still there. Still wonderful in its power. Her battered body not even limping. I believe Suzee was as courageous in her life as any champion on any battlefield. Fierce and kind and bold in all she did. Generous to all she met. And she had something else that touched me. In fact I think that is the quality that has left me with this grief more than any other. Suzee was free. Half her spirit belonged always to the forest and the sea. Half gave itself passionately and generously, and without reserve or caution, to everything and everyone she came to love. She never succumbed somehow to the velvet traps society sets to capture us, to direct our labor to its purposes. It is determined to name us, define us, number us, bind us with caution and the hope of small salaries doled out each month. Suzee chose a life outside society’s safe walls. In this way she embodied a person part of me yearns still to be.
Suzee, like her father before her, was a free spirit in the truest sense of the word. When she came to visit, she did not save for months first and set out with an itinerary listing hotel reservations in hand. She just came. Living light. Traveling in a trusty ancient car, sleeping in public campgrounds with the least gear possible. She trusted each new day. When she was broke, she would exchange labor for a living. When she was alone, she opened her heart warmly to each new person she met, and made new friends, loved new lovers, tried new roads. Rich or poor, she had style, and elegance. She was self-educated, a poet and a teacher. She was a spiritual wise woman, and she was an ardent mother. She never retreated in fear or found a comfortable home in depression, for all that life threw at her. She was just astonishingly vital and bold. Indeed, when the news of her death came, it truly seemed to me as if a law of nature itself had somehow been violated. How could such a dynamic person ever leave us?
And yet she has, and I and all who loved her so deeply must live with that. We hope there is a heaven. She surely earned it. As a Buddhist, I hope she goes on to another life, as radiant as this one, and more at peace. My father’s loss six years ago taught me one sure thing we can hold to. What such a rare human being leaves behind is the changes they have made in the people they loved, the inspiration they gave us, the lessons they taught, the sweet memories we made together. Those are not gone. And holding those gifts close, we go on.
Travel well old friend. You will be remembered long upon this earth.