Susan was a colleague in Baylor’s Honors College, not exactly a friend, though we were quite friendly. She was reserved and elegant, with a willowy figure all women couldn’t help but envy. She was a fine scholar and a beloved teacher, but she never cultivated a following, eschewing celebrity and recognition. She never seemed to worry about whether people noticed what she was doing; she simply did it.
The last substantive conversation I had with her was in November 2011. Thomas Hibbs had just addressed a group of prospective students, making the point that in the modern world most people are ill-prepared to deal with death. Either they sensationalize it, as in action movies, or they avoid thinking about it altogether. Many modern Americans, Hibbs pointed out, persist in the vain hope that healthy eating, regular exercise, and seatbelts will somehow protect them from the indignities of aging and death.
But when a loved one dies nevertheless, most of us don’t know what to do. Former ages had rituals for accepting the natural transitions of life. Now, much of modern America has lost the faith that made death something comprehensible, natural, and even, at times, to be welcomed. Many people offer empty phrases like “She’s gone to a better place,” even though they have no sense of what that place might be.
Susan and I ran into each other a few days after Dean Hibbs’ presentation and reflected on the prospective students we had talked with. A young man in my group had insisted that death was not a problem for him, because he had faith, and Susan said that her students had talked like this as well. Several had insisted that while death might be frightening for non-Christians, it would not be so for them. A few of these seventeen-year-olds even claimed to have no fear of death at all. We both smiled at this, and Susan commented that Plato, Augustine, and Dante might have something to show these students about the complexity of death and life alike.
But then the conversation turned serious, as we reflected that those students seemed to have overlooked the fact that death was not just about them, but about the others they would leave behind in dying. They assumed that they would simply “transition” to heaven. Both Susan and I paused at this, and I remember her saying, “You know, it just isn’t that easy. They’re so young, and they really don’t know what they’re saying yet.”
In the weeks that followed, we all became aware that Susan was ill. She announced in an email that she would be undergoing chemotherapy treatments but that her cancer had a reasonable chance of being cured. And so things went, for several months. Busy with our own lives, we all missed her but expected that she would be back soon. After all, she was young and strong, a devoted wife and mother with a great will to live. Someone like Susan just wouldn’t die, of all things.
But by April and May it had become too quiet. Those of us in the office respected the family’s privacy, knowing that their church was taking good care of them; and yet none of us knew how Susan was doing. We all had a creeping sense that things were not going well. Eventually someone contacted her husband Carlos and managed to arrange a visit at her hospital in Dallas. She was very ill, but nevertheless able to carry on a conversation with us and to welcome with great enthusiasm a gift from one of her colleagues—the complete first season of Downton Abbey.
During the last weeks of Susan’s life I found myself established in her office in the Honors College, advising nervous new freshmen who were coming to Baylor for the first time. It’s hard to describe the emotions I felt the first day I opened her office door, simultaneously aware of her grave condition and of my own hope that she would somehow return. I saw the family photos on her bulletin board and desk, one in a picture frame with a quotation from Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord.”
On her bookshelves were books by Dickens, George Eliot, Disraeli. On her desk was a stack of business cards, a list of journals in which (I imagine) she hoped to publish, folders with topics to be written about—parable, Victorian religion, and so on. A water bottle sat next to the phone, whose message light was blinking, and next to the phone a tape dispenser had begun to gather dust. The calendar was open to November 2011.
Most poignant of all was a cutout heart tacked on her bulletin board, the kind of item all parents treasure, with “I Love You Mommy” written in sprawling blue crayon. It was almost too much to bear: the absolute ordinariness of the scene, which would remind any of us of our own desks and unfinished projects, combined with a fear that she might not be back to finish things up, to clean the dust off the tape dispenser and wash out the water bottle for another use.
Throughout my weeks of advising in her office I became somewhat more accustomed to the surroundings, though never less aware of the strange situation. I was helping students start exciting new lives at college even as their parents were, in a sense, mourning the loss of their children to adulthood, and as I was more and more coming to realize that we all were going to mourn the loss of Susan. She declined quickly in the first weeks of summer, and late on a Friday night came an urgent message announcing that her daughter, Elise, would be baptized the next day, Saturday, at noon.
Susan and her family had been longtime members of a Baptist church in Waco. I arrived with my five-year-old son just after the service had begun. It took place outside in the grass around the large baptismal pool, a rectangular concrete structure that resembled nothing so much as a Roman sarcophagus. The heat that day was absolutely blistering, as it often is in Waco in the summer, and the sun shone with the kind of intensity that will burn a fair-skinned person in less than ten minutes.
The crowd was made up of church members and Susan’s colleagues from Baylor, and there was not a dry eye among us. Susan was able, I later learned, to watch from her hospital bed via live streaming.
I wonder now if any of us had ever experienced anything like what took place there that day. As churchgoing people, we had seen many baptisms, and we all understood that baptism symbolizes both death and life. But the death part had been only figurative, to be declared and observed and ultimately passed by in the event itself.
Death was something we’d turn to later, on another day, in other circumstances. But here, on this day, death and life were bound up together, and we realized that as Elise was entering a new Christian life, Susan, her mother, was leaving her earthly one.
As the pastor observed, preparing to immerse Elise in the water, this is what the Christian faith is all about: dying, and life again, and the faith that believes that it is all true. It’s almost impossible to convey the intensity of the scene: the vivid blue sky, the daughter’s baptism as her mother lay dying, the white towel that was placed around Elise as she emerged from the water, the combination of dread, sadness, hope, and even joy that we all felt as witnesses to the event.
Susan passed away the next morning.
Elizabeth Corey is assistant professor of political science at Baylor Univerisity.