Life Gets In the Way

John Lennon is credited with saying, “Life is what happens when we are busy making other plans.”

Sometimes life gets in the way of living. It seems I can be cruising along when, suddenly, something happens that “throws me for a loop.”

Recently, a dear friend of mine died. He was 94 years old and had a full life, but also many tragedies and setbacks. His attitude was consistently positive and cheerful despite the trials he faced.Susan and John May 2013

I first met John was I was a mere child, a 2nd grader. His daughter, Mary, was my best friend. I remember when I first saw Mary and her family, standing outside our 2nd grade classroom. Our teacher stepped out for a moment and all little necks craned to see what she was doing. There stood a mom and dad with three children, two boys and a girl. They were dressed in very nice clothes, not the plain cotton dresses and pants that the boys and girls in our classroom sported. They looked very foreign to me. The teacher returned with the girl and introduced her. “This is Mary. Her family just moved here from Philadelphia.” Wow. Philadelphia! Even though I lived in small-town Nebraska, I had heard of Philadelphia. I knew it was very far away. My grandparents lived in Pennsylvania.  I was “one up” on the other kids in the classroom.

Close up Mary

Mary (above) and I became fast friends and our parents were close as well. Being from “back East” as well, Mom and Dad found kindred spirits in John and Betty. We shared many experiences throughout my “growing up” years.

When we graduated from high school, Mary and I went to the university in Lincoln. We remained friends during our college years even though our interests became more diverse.

Our wedding pics

Mary and John walking down aisleMary studied in Mexico one semester where she met her future husband, Gonzalo. We both got married in 1974.  She was my maid-of-honor in June of that year, and I was there when she tied the knot on December 28th, el dia de los innocentes, the Mexican “April Fool’s Day.”

Gonzalo was an attorney with the Mexican government so they lived in Mexico City. Mary’s brothers also left their small town, Mike living in Australia and the other, John Jr, in NYC.  In March, 1975, John Jr. was killed by a drunk driver on Stanton Island.

John and Betty were alone. Mary came up from Mexico for a couple of weeks, but her brother, Mike, was unable to return from Australia for the funeral. The next few years were hard for John and Betty.

I became very close to them. I had lost both of my parents earlier–Dad in 1971 when I was 20 years old, and Mom in 1974, two months after Dennis and I got married. It was a hard time for all of us. Mary and I talked and she suggested we “adopt” each other. So, I drew up “adoption papers” and gave them to John and Betty. I was now their “daughter” whether they liked it or not!

The years passed and Mary and I maintained contact, writing letters and visiting. She usually came home to Nebraska in the summertime and we went to Mexico to visit her.  Mary's 34th birthday (her last)

We had the best visit when she was home for her 34th birthday. Her two children accompanied her on her visit. We talked of many things including tornadoes in Nebraska and earthquakes in Mexico City. She told me that she has a hanging planter that swayed when there were tremors and she knew to take the children outside. It was her warning system.

Our friendship grew as we aged. Then, on September 19, 1985, it all changed.

While  watching the “Today Show” on that fateful day, I sat writing a letter to Mary. I heard that there was an earthquake. I wrote, “Did your planter sway?” As the day progressed, the news became more dire. “Colonia Roma” was mentioned. That was Mary’s neighborhood! I tried to reach her parents but they were vacationing in Wyoming, camping. I called her brother, Mike, who was now living in Nebraska. Mike hadn’t heard about thefront of envelope earthquake yet. It was a day of confusion with very little information. Communication was poor with Mexico City because much of the power was knocked out. I received a letter in the mail that day from Mary.

A couple days later, we finally received news–Mary, her two children and her husband were all killed in the earthquake. Mary and the children were outside, but a wall had fallen on them. Ten years after their oldest son had died, John and Betty were facing another tragic loss.

Being the people they were, John and Betty turned their tragedy into a positive and became active in Compassionate Friends, an organization that helps people who have lost a child.

Through the years, they helped many people deal with their grief. They became well-known throughout the Midwest as they spoke at conferences throughout the region. John often said, “When you lose a parent, you lose a part of your past. When you lose a spouse, you lose your present. But when you lose a child, you lose your future.” Scan0008 (8)

John lost his wife, Betty, in April 2004. Only he and his son, Mike, remained. He continued to treat me like a daughter, giving advice and showing concern for me and my guys. We visited him when we could, often over Memorial Day weekend. He eventually ended up in assisted living where he remained until last year when he had to move to a nursing home. He was in failing health this past year and finally succumbed on April 2.  We celebrated his life Monday in Cozad, Nebraska, where he was laid to rest next to his wife, his son, John, and Mary and her family.

As we watched the military tribute and salute to John at the graveside, I looked down and realized I was standing on Mary’s grave. She and her family remain with me. I sometimes feel like that little 2nd grade girl, feeling the presence of my friend and her family in my life and wondering…


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