Susan, you'll be missed

While I was in my early 20s, I adopted a cat named Squeakers. Upon adopting first meeting her, she proceeded to pee in my car and meowed Beverly Sills' style for 30 minutes without ceasing. 

When my brother decided to be my roommate, my cat didn't endear herself to him as he was already allergic to her and then she peed in his bed.

I needed to find a new home for Squeakers to keep family peace, but who wants a cat who squeaks incessantly and pees?

My college friend Susan Zorsch took her in. She gave Squeakers a home.

It's hardly surprising. She was a giver, of herself, her spirit, her time, and if you were lucky enough, she'd give of her life story, which shockingly and sadly came to an unexpected end yesterday morning.

We met in college, as freshmen at the University of Missouri as two small town girls navigating a campus of about 25,000. She hailed from Mansfield, MO, home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, of Little House fame, about 1,300 people strong. I was in a metropolis by comparison from Richland, MO, almost 2,000 residents. We both pledged the same sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta, loved sports, were dilligent students who liked to have fun.

Susan was also one of the most reliable people I have ever met. Appointments were written in ink, not pencil. She never canceled, always left with time to spare usually with at least half a tank of gas in the car, could color code anything, sent Christmas cards early and always, always showed up.  She was also a lot of fun. She loved to dance, and we'd even sing boisterously in her car, pre-Idol Paula Abul's "Straight Up" and Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation."

Our lives moved circuitously. We navigated Missouri, which meant finding paths that led us in different directions. I settled into journalism school my junior year, was less involved in sorority life and spent Fridays playing basketball with my sportswriting buddies and then drinking beer and eating unhealthy food. She studied business and probably ate a bit healthier.  We got busy. We graduated. I stayed in Columbia covering MU football for the Columbia Daily Tribune, when one day I learned Susan had been sick. Very sick.

She was a graduate teaching assistant and full-time student, just 24, when she was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia most common in children. The survival rate was low - around 20 percent. She ignored the odds. She underwent aggressive treatment losing her beautiful long blond hair. She kicked cancer. But that was merely the warm-up battle. The aggressive treatment that saved her almost killed her. Serious damage was done to her heart. She needed a transplant. 

I re-entered her life around that time, when she was facing a hoped-for transplant. While cancer-free, just getting on the transplant list didn't look likely given her history of leukemia. By the time she finally got on the list, her condition was dire. She had a matter of a couple of days to live. In the most miraculous miracle I've possible ever experienced, a heart became available in what seemed like less than a day. I remember at the time we were told it was the second fastest turnaround for organ donation of this sort in the entire country. 

I stayed at the hospital with her amazing tribe of family and friends and she emerged from that transplant in typical Zorsch fashion, wondering where her computer was so she could get to work. She had school obligations, she had life to live. 

Professionally she had landed at Ellis Fischel Cancer Center in Columbia as the program manager of oncology. Through Facebook I followed her life from afar as I had relocated to Texas. She was passionate about helping others in her work and as a spokesperson for organ donation. I remember we once drove to Kansas City, to Kauffman Stadium in the year or two after her transplant in a night honoring organ donation awareness. She triumphantly walked the bases, and I don't think anyone would have ever guessed she had been sick.

And unless she was out raising awareness, I think she liked it that way. She would offer her story if asked, but she never once questioned to me why someone so young and seemingly healthy had been dealt such a rotten hand. Maybe she was practical, stubborn and hard-nosed enough to know it wouldn't matter.  She was not a wallower. Nor a sympathy seeker. Not a taker of pity. She was a giver. 


Somehow her new heart rivaled her old one in its capacity to share. She gave countless hours to Theta serving in so many volunteer capacities I wouldn't even know where to begin. Her journey inspired others as a cancer survivor and bringing awareness to organ donation. But she also gave great gifts. I still have Mikasa Christmas dishes she gave me - I think of her every holiday season. I think she got them at the outlet mall at the Lake of the Ozarks. I bet she would buy them well in advance of the season and have them at the ready. She anticipated. She didn't just laugh, but guffawed. While smiles fill rooms, her laughter could reverberate city blocks. She gave willingly of her spirit. She truly loved Mizzou even when the football was god-awful while in college. 

I guess it's a testament to how healthy I thought she was that we had morphed into birthday-wishing, Christmas-card sending friends. She was no longer in my inner nucleus of friends, but I knew I could call on her anytime, and true to her style, she'd listen. In many ways, I was more prepared for her to die at a young age, when it was expected, than yesterday. That's when I hopped on Facebook and got the news that sent my heart into my shoes. 

It's all a mystery to me, how life usually hums along, then you get dealt a curveball a la Clayton Kershaw leaving you shaking your head wondering how it went by so unexpectedly.

She shocked us by staying alive, and now reminds us of the fragility of our house-of-cards-type of life that with a big poof, it can all come crashing down. It landed with a thud yesterday - it still reverberates. But I'm considering her example, and that helps: give often but not to just anything, pick things that matter and give a lot. Be kind to people, but don't forget animals. Be a meticulous planner but equally dedicated in your zeal to follow through. Have half a tank of gas in the car. Travel. Laugh and cheeer loudly. Hug friends. Life isn't about what you order up, it's how you handle the things that aren't even on the menu. 

You'll be missed, Susan. Deeply missed. 

Libby Dallmeyer Blair
- 2015-01-09 at 10:13

What a beautiful tribute to Susan, and so well written - i bet you have made her smile in heaven!
Holly Clark Distefano
- 2015-01-09 at 10:40

A beautiful tribute....I enjoyed your perspective and how Susan affected your life. We should all live life to the fullest and never take it for granted. It appears she continued to live her life in the way I knew of her in High School. What a true spirit!
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