Friends and readers of my blog know that I lost a lifelong friend, my best friend from childhood, Suzie Wetzel Seemann, last September. She was killed by a man who murdered a woman in her home, stole her car, then ran down my friend and her two running partners. Suzie died at the scene. Her friends Terri and Jessie survived, with grave injuries from which they are still recovering. I don’t know that I will ever get past the senselessness of this random, malicious act.
If you didn’t know Suzie, you missed out. Here are her husband Hank’s beautiful words describing her life: http://www.seemann.com/suzie/
This past Saturday, I helped co-lead the memorial part of her service in New Jersey, with Suzie’s sister-in-law Caroline. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. In the days leading up to Saturday, I felt overwhelming sadness, and I worried about how I would handle my emotions during the service. I didn’t want to just get through the service–I wanted it to be personal, warm, and welcoming, reflecting those traits in my friend.
Sometime last week, I wrote that I felt crushed by the weight of a thousand mountains–when I knew that I needed to BE the mountain.
But that introspective time somehow helped me prepare to do what was needed. The memories shared brought together snippets of Suzie’s life in a way that showed the depth of her character, and the richness of her too-short life. And I was grateful to have the opportunity to honor my friend and help her family.
I’ve been asked to share the words I spoke at the service, so they are posted below, along with some photos of us. I kept the tone light, so I could read them at the service. I hope they bring a smile, and convey how important our friendship was to me, from the time that we met all the way into adulthood. We were friends for more than thirty years.
I think this kind of friendship is rare, and I treasured it.
Memorial Service for Suzie Wetzel Seemann
Church of the Nativity, Fair Haven, NJ
April 13, 2013
The most memorable part of Suzie and Hank’s wedding for me was their inclusion of stories. So I wanted to share a few stories with you today, from different points in our lives. Each story says something important about Suzie and our lifelong friendship.
The first story surprises even me in its clarity, because it happened so long ago. We met around the age Simon and Malcolm are today, so this story is for Stephen, Simon, Malcolm, Evelyn and Belle. My parents kept our sailboat at the Atlantic Highlands boat yard over the winter. Bill’s friend Steve Schoggen also had his boat there, and Bill would come on weekends, bringing Suzie and Becky with him to play while he helped Steve.
My mom and dad encouraged me and my brother Alec to introduce ourselves when we saw the girls one weekend. I wanted to, but I was terribly shy and could not bring myself to even say hi. Instead, I spied on them, peeking around boats propped up on land. The day ended, and I left feeling bad that I was too shy to say anything.
The following Saturday just one of the girls was there. My dad told me not to come back until I had introduced myself. “Don’t be silly,” he said. “She looks like a nice little girl about your age.” Again, I was tongue-tied as I followed her around. And because I was so afraid that she wouldn’t like me, I decided that, most certainly, I was not going to like her. I studied her deep brown Dorothy Hamil haircut, green eyes, blue jeans and sneakers, and convinced myself that she looked like a pretty tough customer. I’m not exactly sure how I reached that conclusion, because she saw me spying and hid behind her dad. If there was anyone shyer than me as a kid, it was Suzie (or possibly Becky).
Luckily for both of us, Bill finally broke the ice. “My little girl’s name is Suzie. What’s your name?” I don’t actually remember the rest of that day. Memories of roller-skating, playing at the playground and the beach, and pizza parties at Steve’s house have blurred together. But I learned that it’s important to take risks, and to find the courage to keep your mind and your heart open. Because you just never know when you might meet a lifelong friend.
The next set of memories is for our gang of high school friends. We were good kids—kids who would ride bikes before dawn to the 7-11 in Sea Bright to get bagels, then watch the sunrise over the ocean. But then we’d actually go to school, and make sure we got there on time.
Suzie and I were partners in crime and rarely could you find one of us without the other. Together, we negotiated the sometimes bewildering social melee of high school—sometimes we did this well, more often we did it poorly. And we spent many weekends choosing a park as a destination and then relishing the adventure of getting there, sometimes riding 30 or more miles on our 10 speed bikes. The longer the ride, the better we liked it. Sometimes friends joined us, but more often it was just the two of us. By the end of my junior year, we had ridden to every park within a 25 mile radius of Little Silver, including Allaire State Park. [An aside to all our friends who now have kids of their own, remember: we were 14 and 15, and there were no cell phones. But we always carried a few dimes in case we needed to use a pay phone.]
Our opposite personalities meshed well on these adventures. Suzie was the planner and mastermind of our rides, figuring out the details and making sure we had everything we needed. I happily went along for each ride, which was usually longer and much more difficult than I’d bargained for. If things went awry and Suzie’s worry gene kicked in, my seat-of-the-pants intuition about what to do often helped us form Plan B. Once, I talked us out of being arrested when we decided to take a shortcut on the off-limits military road to Earle Pier.
We became passionate about ocean pollution, and volunteered for what was then a small grassroots organization called Clean Ocean Action. It was the height of the ocean pollution crisis in the 1980s on the Jersey Shore, back when it was perfectly legal to dump trash and sewage 12 miles offshore. Beach cleanups were organized by t-shirt color to designate which type of trash you would be picking up, as COA tried to quantify the types and sources of pollution. My friends and I all knew not to get the pink shirts, because that meant you would spend the day picking up plastic tampon applicators.
Suzie and I spent a summer canvassing beaches with petitions and helping organize clean-up events and rallies. And one Halloween Suzie dressed as a hypodermic needle, with a sign that read “Jersey Shore Hospital Supply Company: From our beaches to your bedside.”
Just last summer we rode bikes out to Sandy Hook like we had so many times. The Sandy Hook of today is noticeably cleaner than it was when we were in high school. The 12 mile dumpsite was closed in the early 90s. And the water is clear, attesting to nature’s resilience. But what floored me more than anything was that I saw a type of boat I’d never seen before—they were clam boats, with their short little sails, all over Sandy Hook Bay. In all my life, I’d never seen these boats, because shell-fishing was illegal when we grew up. Although there is still work to be done, the transformation truly amazed me.
Suzie and I were so different, yet we shared so many of the same passions. She was unwavering in her convictions. And together we learned that some things are worth the time you put into them.
After high school, Suzie and I only saw each other sporadically. We rarely talked on the phone or exchanged email. We were too busy doing things that mattered to us. But when we did talk or get together, it never mattered how long it had been since the last time. When you have a connection this deep, and you don’t see each other often, you don’t have time for idle chitchat.
I visited Suzie at Woods Hole when she started there, and we shared a passion for science—for her, it was oceanography, then meteorology, with its data-driven models of storm prediction; for me, it was ecology, with its big-picture understanding of organisms and their environments. Last summer I told her I finally understood the Coriolis Effect. She listened to my explanation, then told me that it was totally wrong but that she would help me understand it. Alas, we didn’t have time, and I still don’t get it.
Suzie was my maid of honor at my wedding, and she flew to NC to help when both my boys were born. One summer, before we had kids, we did a camping/canoe trip up in Wisconsin. We plotted way more adventures than we ever had time to do. We talked about gathering all our favorite girlfriends together one day to do the Title 9K in Boulder, but didn’t get the chance.
While we lived in Phoenix in 2005, we made the trip to Yosemite National Park, where Suzie and Hank were working as seasonal park rangers at Tuolomne Meadows. Simon and Malcolm were toddlers, so they rode in backpacks for short hikes and filled toy dump trucks with stones at the lake’s edge. While we were there, Suzie planned a “mom hike” for just the two of us. She wanted to show me her favorite flower, the sky pilot. And I couldn’t wait for our next adventure.
We started early, because she needed to be back by mid-morning, since Hank had a ranger program scheduled. Six miles, round-trip, seemed reasonable to do in a few hours. As usual, I didn’t really pay attention to the details.
I remember emerging from a forest of lodgepole pine and crossing a lush drainage, filled with beautiful wildflowers. As a forest ecologist, I could have spent a happy hour botanizing there and catching up. But Suzie urged me not to linger, because we had some ground to cover to see the sky pilots. And she insisted that I simply HAD to see them.
The trail started switch-backing up a steep slope strewn with boulders. Trees disappeared altogether as we marched up the mountain’s flanks, covered with nothing but barely stable scree. I was gasping trying to keep up. Just before we hit a big patch of snow, we found our first clumps of the flowers we sought. Clusters of clearest blue flowers perched on upright stalks, so fragile, and growing in the harshest of environments. They were perfect.
We reached the summit and signed the logbook. I was ready to kick back and take in the views, but Suzie said we needed to hurry. She wasn’t kidding—we had less than an hour to get back. We started running down the steep trail. I did my first glissading that day and managed not to break my leg. We made it, just barely, and laughed about it later. It was another one of Suzie’s overly ambitious adventures, and I had walked right into it yet again, just like old times.
It wasn’t until afterwards that I discovered that the mountain we had climbed was Mount Dana. Mt. Dana is the second-highest peak in Yosemite National Park at 13,067 ft, and the 3 mile climb to the top had an elevation gain of over 3000 feet.
Suzie was never one to shrink from a challenge, and she didn’t waste time on unimportant things. She embraced life fully—a life filled with her family, her friends, her work and her passions.
Suzie and I always ran a deficit of time. Even when we were in high school, we wrote pages-long letters to each other every week, sometimes nightly, with lists of additional topics we had to discuss. Suzie was the first person I trusted completely with my feelings, and there are things about me that only she knew. I am so grateful for the time we shared last summer, especially for the 10 mile run we did one morning, just the two of us, where we talked about running, our families, our work, and our lives. Our friendship weathered time as well as distance, and in some ways, we led parallel lives on opposite coasts. I had always imagined that we would celebrate life’s mile markers together. Hers was a life too short, and yet, so well-lived.