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Archive for June, 2012

Sister Sue: A portrait of courage

Posted by Ron George on June 23, 2012

Sister Sue in her Fiddler hat

Sue in her Fiddler hat: A portrait of courage

I knew my sister Sue for all of her 58 years. She would have been 59 in September, but she died on Tuesday, June 19, after enduring 15 months of brain cancer and its treatment.

Newborn Sue came home with Mom in 1953 from a hospital in Oceanside, Calif., while Dad was overseas in the Marine Corps. We lived in a two-bedroom duplex on Ditmar Street, but within weeks, we were on our way to Corpus Christi accompanied by my grandmother, Mama Eva Berry. It was the first of several cross-country journeys we made as a military family: to Arlington, Va., in 1954; to Vista, Calif., in 1961; to New Orleans, La., in 1965; finally, to Corpus Christi in 1967. By that time, I was in college, Sue in junior high, and we had a little sister, Reba, in second grade.

Fifteen years later, I moved to Corpus Christi having wrecked my vocation and marriage. Sue had returned as well, from Japan in 1977, and a marriage wrecked by abuse. She was working her way through a bachelor’s degree in music when both of us took up residence in our parents’ home. We had a lot to talk about, and we did. We began, tentatively, to become friends.

I hadn’t been much of a brother to that point. By the time Sue was six, I was obnoxiously 12; and by the time she was 12, I was gone. It fit an overall pattern – absent brother, absent son, absent father. None of it was intentional; it just grew out of my flawed character as a self-absorbed, immature, adult male. Sue once told me she yearned for a relationship with me as we were growing up, but I was oblivious, more interested in frivolous things that turn a young man’s head away from his little sisters. It didn’t have to be that way, but it was.

Sue and I recovered together in our parents’ home for several months in 1982. She had just completed a bachelor’s degree and was about to embark on a 26-year career teaching music and art in Corpus Christi’s public schools. I had no idea what I would do next. I worked for my father as a posting clerk in his accounting practice. I taught as a substitute in Corpus Christi schools. I leased cars for one of Dad’s clients. I wrote some freelance pieces for a local business magazine. I went to church on Sunday and wept in a back pew. I was a mess. Sue listened and cared, which helped more than she ever knew, then she moved on.

Sue's clutch cross before her first surgery

Sue awaits her first surgery, May 2011: Hanging on for dear life

All of which is to say that I’ve admired Sue from a distance, even though our relationship improved over the decades since we returned to Corpus Christi. She was a gifted musician, music teacher and choral director, a creative amateur ceramicist – and through all of it, she showed enviable determination and dogged courage.

Sue grew up in church and school choirs and playing piano and guitar. Then she went to Del Mar College and discovered the violin and cello. Marriage and moving to Misawa, Japan, interrupted her music career, but she flourished creatively overseas by becoming an accomplished, certified tailor. Incongruously (except to Sue), she also became dirt-biker, such that when she returned to Corpus Christi in 1977, she shipped her motorcycle in pieces, which she reassembled on the patio of our parents’ home to the delight of our aging grandfather, Daddy Cecil Berry, who with Mama Eva lived in the apartment behind the family home on Barracuda Place.

Sue long endured the vagaries and humiliating slights of teaching orchestra in public schools, which seem possessed by the assumption that it’s not music if it can’t be performed on a football field. One principal assigned her to a closet instead of a classroom for her orchestra students. She had to scrounge just about everything to equip and train her students – instruments, music stands, sheet music. It took years, but Sue did build an orchestra program through the aforesaid determination, courage and a profound belief in the value of public-school music education, even if it wasn’t a marching band.

Holy Family sculpture, Sue and Steven's home

Sue and Steven’s home: A place of faith, hope and love

Sue also knew from experience that directing church choirs was a vocation often taken for granted by pastors and congregations. Church musicians are historically and notoriously compensated far less than the value of their talent, skill, education and training (for that matter, so are church administrative and pastoral staff). It’s just as Christian tradition affirms: Our treasure resides where our hearts are found; and our hearts, these days, are more likely to be found at the mall than at the parish church; otherwise, we might actually pay church employees a decent, living income rather than one necessitating second jobs and holiday gigs. Sue would say – and did say often enough – that church musicianship was not about the paycheck but about the offering of one’s self to God in the making of music for worship and fellowship.

A tension exists for creative people – especially school teachers and directors of volunteer choirs – between artistic aspirations and the inevitable accommodations one must make with the limits of non-professional volunteer performers and young learners. Sue experienced frustrations amid this tension all of her professional life, but she developed an admirable aplomb by which she bore shortcomings even as she called forth performances above and beyond expectations. It’s a common pattern but one beautifully etched upon Sue’s character as grace under pressure.

Sue’s courage and determination were ultimately challenged in March 2011, when she contracted glioblastoma multiforme, an especially virulent brain cancer. She underwent two surgeries in May of that year, the first of which left her right arm and leg disabled; the second of which entailed inserting chemotherapy wafers where the principal tumor had been removed. It was unlikely that she would survive more than the usual average of 17 months, but neither Sue nor her husband, Steven Utley, whom she married in 2002, were deterred from living in faith, hope and love. Steven became Sue’s primary caregiver and case manager. In October, Sue, Steven and Reba visited Claire and Chris Onuf, dear friends in Santa Fe, N.M.

Just after the first of the year, Sue took a turn for the better. Her speech returned almost to normal, though she still was confined to a wheelchair. Among other things, she began teaching piano in her living room and overcame her fear of operating a self-propelled wheelchair. She corresponded by e-mail via iPod and was able to accept telephone calls. Then in early May, Sue began to decline with excruciating headaches and other indications that the cancer was resurgent. Her care became primarily that of keeping her comfortable until the end. Steven held her hand as the end came, praying that God would take her to relieve her suffering – a prayer of the deepest kind of human love. To paraphrase a Christian tradition: There is no greater love than to give up the life of one’s loved one for her sake.

Among my more precious memories of Sue is her role as the Fiddler in the 1993 Harbor Playhouse production of Fiddler on the Roof. I believe it was her first theatrical role, and I know it was my mine as an adult. The show was a hit, sold-out every night – and the very last thing anyone saw of the final scene of that show was Sue, wearing a cap she kept and wore to the end of her life, playing the familiar Fiddler theme in a modest, unaffected way; after which, she turned to the audience and gave a slight bow.

Lights out. Curtain. Cue the orchestra.

Read Sue’s obituary.


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