Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Last Dance: Sue Weiner's Final Year

“Stage four, small cell, metastasized lung cancer;” mention those words to a medical professional and watch his or her expression change and eyes divert. Those are the same words we heard one day in late September, 2010, in relation to my mother-in-law, Sue Weiner.

Prior to that day, Sue had been a remarkably active adult with an effervescent personality that made people gravitate to her. She loved to walk, dance, and be as physically fit as possible. At my son, Alex’s bar mitzvah twelve years earlier, she had danced with the teenagers until their feet hurt, while they cheered, “Go, granny, go!” She could find wonder and humor in the smallest things—a flock of seagulls, a store with a funny name, or a house surrounded by trees (she called them “houses in the woods”). When I was with her, I noticed things I would have otherwise taken for granted.

Sue consistently watched her weight (hoping to remain under 100 pounds), she eschewed matronly garb, choosing instead to wear the shiniest, glitziest clothing she could find at a reasonable cost, and she loved rings and shoes (mostly Sketchers). It was often those clothes that made people talk to her, and she relished in finding out about others’ lives. She used to sit at restaurants, looking at different people and saying things like, “Do you think they’re a couple?” or “He doesn’t look very happy.” It was not uncommon for her to utter those same statements to the actual subjects themselves.

As Alex put it, Sue “stood for what she believed in as a pinnacle of acceptance and love.” Joni and I will always remember the day that Alex told Sue he was in love with Angelo. “I was worried,” Alex said, “because I thought you might be confused.”

She replied, “Alex, I’m confused about a lot of things, but this isn’t one of them. I’ll always love you, no matter what, and I’ll accept whoever you love.” At the time, Sue was 85.

Joni (Sue’s daughter and my wife) saw her mother as her best friend, and they would speak every day, often as Joni drove to work in the morning. Joni’s students at the Rashi School loved hearing tales of Sue’s exploits. Even when she was mugged on her 86th birthday, Sue had everyone at the police station sing “Happy Birthday” in her honor. She radiated that kind of positive energy.

So when Sue was diagnosed with stage four, small cell, metastasized lung cancer, we were told that the average prognosis for a person with that disease is nine months, but that average included previously healthy, younger patients who could withstand multiple rounds of chemotherapy. Sue was 86, already had COPD (having smoked cigarettes for nearly 70 years) and significant osteoporosis, and it was doubtful she could even withstand one round (four treatments) of chemo, so our most optimistic expectation was that she would last a few months. However, Sue chose to fight it, opting for chemo as soon as possible. Her only caveats were that she did not want any treatment that would cause her to throw up or suffer from dementia.

So, an informal plan took hold: Joni, who had considerable experience as a patient (three spinal fusions), would oversee the medical treatment via phone from Massachusetts, while her older sister, Michele, who lived 20 minutes away, would stop by regularly to make sure Sue had everything else she needed. Michele does not drive long distances, so her long-term boyfriend, Bill, would frequently drive Sue to her appointments while Joni listened via cell phone.

Joni and I drove to Philly for the chemo treatments, then returned every weekend or two to be with Sue. My cousin Carol selflessly gave us a key to her home, which was five minutes from Sue’s apartment, and she generously allowed us to use her spare bedroom whenever we came to Philly.

Sue not only survived the chemo, but she thrived, astonishing all of the medical personnel. During her inpatient visits to Jefferson Hospital, she often could be found lining up the nurses and doctors and leading them in dance. At 4' 6", she was the tallest of cancer patients. On several occasions, she walked up to doctors and said, “You should smile more often,” while the overhearing nurses attempted to hide their chuckles. Along her many walks, she stopped in at other patients’ rooms and brightened their experiences. Her unlikely medical journey was inspirational.

To avoid nausea, the doctors decided to use the mildest form of chemo, and it worked. Sue never lost her appetite, and she enjoyed trying new foods. In her last year, she experienced cuisines including Indian, Chinese, Thai, Japanese (including cooked sushi), South American, Israeli, Ethiopian, Afghani, Spanish, a wide range of kosher-style delis, and an Italian restaurant in South Philly where the singing waiters serenaded her with opera. But her favorite food was still a good cheesesteak. She often asked me to get her a cheesesteak soft pretzel (a combination of Philly favorites), and once, we left the hospital after a chemo treatment and drove directly to Geno’s, where we sat in the car reveling in steak sandwiches and cheese-covered French fries.

Joni’s plan was to spend each weekend visit fulfilling a “bucket list” of field trips to places that Sue either relished or had never visited. Because Sue was tethered to oxygen, each of these locations had to be within 90 minutes of Philly, with the eventual goal of bringing Sue to Boston for an extended visit. During that last year, we visited Atlantic City (twice), Cape May, the Northern Jersey shore (Red Bank, Long Beach, etc.), Chesepeake City and Northeast Maryland, Hershey, Longwood Gardens, New Hope, Grounds for Sculpture, Wilmington, and countless other locations throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She also loved her shopping trips to places like Haddonfield, Peddler’s Village, and the Cherry Hill Mall.

In July of 2011, we brought her back to Boston for a two-week visit that required tireless efforts by Joni to coordinate Sue’s medical treatment, prescriptions, and oxygen. Sue loved Broadway musicals, but found it difficult to sit through an entire show, so, prior to leaving Philly, Joni arranged a surprise visit to Ellen’s Stardust Diner in New York’s Times Square, where the singing waitresses and waiters specialize in renditions of Broadway melodies. There was a table in the middle waiting for us as well as a free shirt and baseball cap (even our meal was free), and Sue’s wide-open smile clearly displayed her thrill at the experience. The wait staff did not know her favorite song, Anthony Newley’s “Once in a Lifetime,” so they regaled her with “Defying Gravity.” Then, something amazing happened—one of the waitresses started singing the Donna Summer classic, “Last Dance,” and Sue stood up and started dancing. She was quickly surrounded by all of the waiters and waitresses dancing, while the other patrons stood up and cheered. After the song was finished and Sue acknowledged the applause, the announcer said that in his seven years of working there, it was the best moment he had witnessed, and several patrons walked over to express how inspirational the moment had been.

During the next two weeks, Sue experienced the best of New England, including sitting outside at Legal Seafood’s new flagship restaurant on Boston Harbor, a visit to Southern Rhode Island, Westport (MA), Fall River (where she had visited my parents many times), Newburyport, and Portsmouth, NH. She saw fireworks (up-close) and the sand sculptures at Revere Beach, and she was treated by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to the Chihuly glass exhibit. It was a marvelous culmination of a series of memorable trips throughout the previous year.

As soon as she returned home, so did the cancer…with a vengeance. It had been eleven months since the intial diagnosis, and Sue fought the disease until the last few moments, and in doing so, she demonstrated a bravery I had never before seen. She got her wish of avoiding dementia, and some of her last utterances were of concern for her older sister and brother-in-law, Jean and Milt.

Although at times it felt like a hardship, I will remember the last year as one of the best of my life. I had the opportunity to see things, some of which I had never seen before, through the eyes of someone who truly enjoyed the world around her and brought happiness into the lives of those with whom she came into contact. In awe, I witnessed Joni’s heroic efforts to provide her mother with the best possible experiences and how she and Michele melded into a cohesive, care-giving unit.

Included in the countless moments I’ll remember are sitting over the ocean at Caesar’s Pier in Atlantic City, walking among the flowers and holiday lights at Longwood Garden, standing in the Hershey parking lot while strangers regaled us with song, and a brunch served by an incredibly caring staff at the Hyatt at Penn’s Landing. But amidst all of the fond and wonderful memories, the one that will always stand out is that magical afternoon in Times Square and Sue’s last dance.


  1. What a lovely and loving tribute. Sue sounds like she was truly one of a kind - now I know where Joni gets her moxie!

  2. Wow, Reid, such a remarkable woman and an amazing tribute to her. I'm so glad you managed to write all of this down for us. We all would have been thrilled to know her. She still has a lot to teach us about the art of living fully, and with joy.