Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Alcohol 1, Susan Birmingham 0

Today I received a call from an old friend telling me that our mutual friend and former colleague, Susan Birmingham, slipped into a coma on Friday after being rushed to the hospital and was taken off life support on Sunday, April 1, 2007. Susan, who was 51, would have rolled her eyes at the irony of dying on April Fool's Day. Apparently, she had been ill for a while, but had not sought medical care because like over 46.6 million other Americans, she had no health insurance. The cause of her death was acute pancreatitis, which often results from long-term alcohol abuse.

Susan came to work in fundraising and grass-roots development at a non-profit shortly after I had started as a research attorney in the same organization in 1997. We became fast friends, and even faster drinking buddies. Many nights were spent huddled on stools with the rest of our thirsty co-workers at the Irish bar in the first floor of office building. When we were feeling culturally superior to our colleagues or just needed to feel that I-live-in-fucking-New-York feeling, we'd end up drinking multiple dirty Bombay Sapphire martinis (up, exceedingly dry) at Raoul's in SoHo and splitting an order of Steak Frites. We both loved this city and knew that is was where we were destined to live.

Susan had achieved considerable success in the world of non-profits, as one on the initial architects of the PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups) that brought grass-roots lobbying to college campuses. She was instrumental in bringing what had been so successful in the East out West. The contacts she made then sustained her in that world as she eventually set herself up as a freelance consultant in development in organizing.

She had so many abilities -- razor sharp mind that could strategize 50 angles at once, the ability to size a person up intellectually on the spot, incredible prioritization skills and she was a team and consensus builder beyond compare. Her issues were certainly to the left, but those around her considered her sharpest rebuke to be when she said you were acting like "such a fucking liberal." She had no patience for emotionalism of any kind and was equally intolerant of anyone's refusal to seek and reach his or her full potential.

Susan saw more possiblitity in me than I saw in myself. I, likewise, had the same ability when looking at her. We were, in many ways, each other's cracked mirror. Like so many alcoholics [she was of the self-admitted, non-anonymous variety], she held many inconsistencies in her life giving her, what I know she liked to think of as, mystery. As a grass-roots organizer, she was likely indirectly responsible for registering more voters in this country than any other person, yet she remained unregistered herself. She could manage millions of dollars of development without being aware of her checkbook balance at any given time. She organized multi-course fundraising dinners, seeing to the very last detail, but didn't have anything but frozen M&Ms and uncovered wedges of French cheese in her refrigerator. She was my kinda gal.

My heart sank when I received the call because I had not been in contact with Susan for a few months. We were just starting to speak again after a falling out about a year ago. I later learned that this pattern was one of Susan's and that her life had many similar loose threads. We deeply respected and cared for one another on a level that is irreversible. We had shared our truths with each other and remain connected in that place for eternity, but the ability to interact on an everyday basis eluded us. It had a bit to do with some unsavory hangers-on who had arrived on the scene and had started, in my opinion, to use her and syphon off energy and funds like parasites, but it also had to do with us, our stubbornness and our pride.

My life is a more honest one for having known Susan Birmingham. We were together on 9/11, walking below Canal Street listening to the sirens and joking about her mother being the only one in the world who didn't call her daughter in NYC that day, she threw me a wonderful 35th birthday party at her "fabulous Tribeca loft" (that's what she and I insisted on calling it), she gave me $20 when I didn't have it and I did the same for her.

We were able to see each other as the other really was. And neither of us flinched.

I already miss you SB. I can't believe I'll never hear your laughter again.

1 comment:

gazelle said...

I still can't believe she's gone also!