On May 2nd, I logged onto my Facebook page and the first post I saw was by someone I know in Louisville, who was also a friend of my friend, Sug.   I didn’t understand it at first, “Godspeed to my friend, Sug…”.  As I read on, it was clear: Sug had just died.

The sensation was as if I had been punched in the stomach.  “How could this be?” I thought.  I had just received an email from her in January – she made no mention of an illness.  Could this have been an accident?

Quickly, I went to her page and sure enough, her step-son, Richard had posted that after only six weeks of knowing she was ill, she died at home of stomach cancer.  It was very quick – she only found out that the tumor was inoperable on April 23rd.

Images of her flooded my mind.  A beauty who once was first runner-up to Miss America, I met her years ago when I was a buyer at Saks Fifth Avenue.  I remember receiving a call – would I come in to see the Regina Porter blouse line?  I would and did — and walked into the showroom soon after to be greeted by a beautiful woman who seemed genuinely happy to see me.  “Genuine” is the operative word in that sentence – as a buyer for a famous store, many that I met were trying hard to get me to buy their line – there was no room for graciousness or true generosity of spirit.  And yet – here they were.  I warmed to her instantly.  She was “Lee” then – she had given up her Southern name to blend into the hard-core life of the fashion world in New York City.

We “took” immediately.  I looked forward to going to the showroom because I knew I would be at home in her presence.  Soon, she invited me to join their weekly after-work yoga class in the showroom.  I liked all the women there, but Lee was something special.  We started a friendship outside of work.  Looking back on it now, it’s hard for me to imagine there was a time before when we were not friends – much like having children and not being able to remember what life was like before they were born – that’s how it was for us.

We shared everything – and soon, that was a life history together as well as stories from our past.

Lee was older than I and didn’t have children.  I was just recently married and having children was just about all I could think of.   We both got pregnant around the same time – we were so excited that we would both be going through this episode in our lives at the same time.  What previously lived as a budding friendship quickly turned into a bond so strong, you’d have thought we were sisters.

Lee lost her baby first – after only a few months.  In that time, I had come to find out that she had wanted children all along but, after years of trying, had finally given up.  This pregnancy had been what she thought would be her only shot at motherhood.  She was 38 and not too many women were having babies that late in life in those days.

I went through my entire pregnancy and, on my due date on May 20th in 1978, gave birth to a stillborn baby girl.  To say that it was a terrible time for me…  Well, it was a terrible time for me.  Lee came to see me in the hospital.  She was the only friend I allowed to come.   My husband, my mother and father — and Lee.

I became obsessed with trying to get pregnant again.  Lee seemed to have given up hope for another chance for herself, but she was in my corner from the start, comforting me every month when the evidence would show up, yet again — I was not pregnant.

Many months later that year, she asked me to lunch at the museum.  We loved spending time together away from the bustle of the garment district, where people thought nothing of coming to the table while we were eating to ask if I would come see their lines.  It was more fun to be somewhere elegant and pretty, far from the crowds.

Midway through lunch, Lee told me she was pregnant again.  As happy as I was for her, there was also a pang of such jealousy that I couldn’t believe myself!  She looked at me apprehensively – and I could see that she was worried about my reaction to her news.  In that moment, the jealousy was gone.  I reached across the table,  “It’s OK, Lee.  Yes, I wish I was pregnant, too.  I’m not.  I will be soon.  And today?  Today we celebrate YOU!”

Three months later, I was pregnant again.  Lee was far enough along that we both stopped worrying for her and now, we could be pregnant together!  What could be better?  Our children would grow up together, laugh and play together…  What dreams we had!

That Spring, the four of us, Lee and I, and her husband, Ronnie, and my husband, Fred, spent weekends on their boat, the “Sug-a-Lee” in City Island, a little area over the bridge in the Bronx that was like being in the Hamptons while in New York City.  I asked her about the name of the boat – “Oh, that’s the name I grew up with.”

Our bellies were bursting – Lee was so thin that she never gained much weight.  Me?  Say the word “pregnant” around me and I gain 20 pounds.  We were about the same size even though she was three months further along than I was.  Here we were, these two pregnant, happy women on the boat, laying around, sharing what we’d do together when our babies were born.

One night, I got a call really late – so late, I was in bed already.  It was Lee.   In what I thought was an eerily calm voice, she told me that she had miscarried at home, suddenly and unexpectedly, and wanted me to know – and wanted me to come.

The next day, I visited her at their townhouse.  She sat in bed and told me the story.  She cried, I cried.  I felt my belly protruding into the space, like the elephant in the room that it was.  Still, I had lost a baby the year before and I knew what a ripping, emotional pain that was.  Lee was far enough along that the  baby’s kicking and the extra pillows were already real for her.

In a short time, she was back at work.  She told me that she was not thinking about getting pregnant again.

At the end of my 6th month, I found out my baby was in trouble.  I was RH negative and, while there shouldn’t have been a problem because I had the injections the year before to prevent the antibodies from forming from the first baby, my tests were coming back with a result that indicated that the baby was already affected.  I wound up having an intra-uterine transfusion, already a risky procedure – and, one month later, my baby was born.  He – Josh — had 7 exchange transfusions in the first few days to keep him alive and he remained in neo-natal intensive care for 8-1/2 weeks.

The day after Josh was born, Lee wanted to come see me.  I assured her that she didn’t have to – it had only been a few months since she’d lost hers.  I remembered how painful it had been for me the year before to even look at a baby, let alone walk past the nursery in a hospital to see rows of clear plastic cribs holding blue and pink swaddled newborns.   She insisted.  That afternoon, in she came – with tears rolling down her cheeks, bearing a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates for me.  She knew how much I loved chocolate.

I didn’t see much of her in the next few months.  I understood.  I had a different life now – one that included a baby and nursing and sleepless nights and trying to be “executive, wife, mother.”  Lee had reconciled herself to not having children – we didn’t talk about it again.

We were still good friends – we just saw each other less frequently.  It seems like a short time afterwards – but, it was four years – she called to tell me that she was leaving New York and didn’t know when she’d be back.  She seemed removed somehow, as if she was holding something back.  No, she said, her mother was having an operation and she was going to stay with her until she recovered.

A month later, I received a six page letter saying that she and her husband were divorcing, she was in Florida and raising the water level with her tears, and she didn’t know what would happen but she thought that she probably wasn’t coming back to New York.  She was going to go live in Kentucky when she could pull herself together enough to face people.  That turned out to be awhile.  She thanked me for being a good friend and being the one who was there for her when she lost the baby.  She would never forget that.  She signed it, “Take care of your fellows and much love to you, Lee”.

I cried for a week.

We visited her in Florida where she told me the whole story of the demise of her marriage.   Shortly afterwards, she did move to Kentucky and that’s where she stayed.  We kept in touch and I saw her when she came to New York to work for Karl Lagerfeld or one of the other fashion designers.    She was always a classy, beautiful lady, so the designers loved having her for market weeks to sell and show the clothes.  My own marriage was dissolving, so no trips to Kentucky for me.

She signed her letters “Lee” for a long time – and then she started to sign off as “Sug”.  On the phone once, I asked her about it.  “That’s what they call me here,” she said, “Call me whatever you want as long as you call me ‘friend’.”

After awhile, Lee fell in love again.  His name was Dan Schusterman.  She called me, all excited, to tell me she was getting married and would I come?  I would and did – but without Fred.  Marriage was over for me as it was beginning for her.

I flew to Kentucky and it was a whirlwind three-day wedding on the hottest weekend of the year.  Heat or no heat, no one ever looked more beautiful than Lee.. Uh, I mean “Sug”.  That went on all weekend.  No one in Louisville called her “Lee”.   Sug Schusterman was born.

She went on to become one of the most beloved people in all of Louisville.  She fell in love with the Louisville Deaf Oral School when she visited the school and was present when a child was able to hear for the first time.  In that moment, she became the school’s champion, raising millions of dollars on its behalf.

That’s when she became a mother.  Those children were her children.

I could go on about all the fabulous things she did for the people of Louisville and all the lives she touched.  She came alive there in a different way than the way she was in New York City.  I used to visit her and, for a time, there were still 2 and 3 hour phone calls between us.  Our lives were different and the times between phone calls and visits became longer and longer.

She sent me a card last Fall and the picture reminded me of one of the Christmases I spent with her in Louisville.  I emailed her to tell her that and how much I missed her.  She wrote back in January, “I remember that Christmas – it was fun times, wasn’t it?”

She didn’t know she was sick then.

That was the last time I heard from her.

I went to the funeral in Louisville three weeks ago.  The Sug they talked about was a Matriarch of Louisville – and someone I knew and loved, for sure.  The Lee I’m mourning is the one who taught me how to make pies in her townhouse kitchen in New York City, the one who cried in my arms in her bed that Spring day in 1979, the one who ignored her own pain and walked past that nursery full of newborn babies to visit me after losing her own, and the one who told me to buy my Burberry trench coat 2 sizes bigger than I needed so it would look slouchy and chic.  That is the size I am today so I guess I’ll have to get another one.

Then again, maybe I won’t.   There are some things that can never be replaced.

Good-bye, Sug.  I will love you forever…

Deliciously yours in the Grace and Beauty of it all,  Linda

The magnificent Sug Schusterman.

http://www.voice-tribune.com/news/celebrating-sug-schusterman/  This is an article written shortly after Sug’s death, celebrating her life.  This article is a beautiful tribute to the woman she blossomed into in Louisville. written by her friend and society page columnist, Carla Sue Broecker.

The title of this post is from James Taylor’s song, “Fire and Rain”:

“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain   I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end    I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend    But I always thought that I’d see you again”

© Linda Ruocco and “Spiritual Chocolate”, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Linda Ruocco and ”Spiritual Chocolate”  with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  Thank you.

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