Left to right, all ’89: Jeanne Hannahoe Mason, Jarrell, McGreevy, Missy Cahill McKnight and Patty Dutile.
It’s 10 a.m., January 11, 2012, in St. Paul, Minnesota. I’m working from home, my three daughters are at school, my husband is at his office, the sun streams in through my living room windows, the weather is unseasonably warm. My cell phone rings, and I glance at the caller ID.
It’s Cathy, a friend from my Notre Dame years whom I haven’t seen or talked to in forever. We were Lyons Hall dormmates and good friends, but time and distance and adulting have done their thing, as they do. Why would Cathy be calling on a weekday morning after all these years? She lives in the same Michigan city as my closest friend from Notre Dame, Sue. A tiny spark of dread ignites. I pause . . . but pick up.
A worrier’s instincts are no joke. Cathy voices my worst fear: Our dear friend Sue is dead, murdered the night before. I’m shattered.
The facts are tragic: Susan Pawlecki Jarrell ’89 was killed by her ex-husband, who then turned the gun on himself. Their three young children, the same ages as mine, were present when it happened.
Sue’s death is part of a narrative about mental illness (his), perseverance (hers) and resilience (her family’s). The children’s experience of that day and that time is their story to tell, and over the years they’ve told it well. Sue’s parents swooped in from Toledo, Ohio, and from that first day forward made sure the kids were safe, healthy and thriving.
I grieved my friend in 2012, and I continue to grieve her with our close group of college friends now. But at first, in the darkness, I fumbled with what felt like a wrenching plot twist. Our lives — mine and Sue’s — weren’t supposed to be like this. The story seems like it shouldn’t belong to someone I knew and loved. Sue had just called me to say she was coming to the Twin Cities the next month for a teacher’s conference.
Young death is always stunning. But a death like Sue’s, inexplicable and violent: It stops time in its tracks.
- Sistering, Sheila Weller
- My Warm Spot, Genevieve Redsten ’22
- Who Do I Say I Am? Maraya Steadman ’89, ’90MBA
- The Ones Who Came Before, Elizabeth Hogan ’99
- A Benevolence of Friends, Mary McGreevy ’89
- Still Some Loose Threads, Maggie Green Cambria ’88
- Flame Launcher, Interview by Tess Gunty ’15
- Rider on the Storm, John Rosengren
- Under the Long Haul, Abby Jorgensen ’16, ’18M.A.
- Writing Her Own Script, Madeline Buckley ’11
- Callings Unanswered, Anna Keating ’06
- Much More than Baby Talk, Adriana Pratt ’12
- Undeterred, Abigail Pesta ’91
- The Good Place, John Nagy ’00M.A.
- Scene Setter, Jason Kelly ’95
- She’s Got Game, Lesley Visser
All the pretenders out there who describe someone’s smile lighting up a room never met Sue. Her smile really did shine: dazzling perfect teeth, trust, humor and down-to-earth charm radiating from her beaming face.
As a college student, Sue loved rooting for an underdog. She loved her hometown, Toledo. She loved chocolate-peanut-butter buckeyes, Billy Joel, preppy clothes, late-night study sessions, creative writing of all kinds and prank-calling people from the dorm. (A casualty of caller ID. Sigh.) She had natural beauty, though she was seemingly unaware of it. She had unusual thumbs, aka “toe thumbs,” which she never minded pointing out at her own expense. In summer, her skin browned gloriously, a hot commodity in the baby-oil-as-sunscreen 1980s. She liked to roll her eyes and to catch your gaze as she did it.
Being women at Notre Dame in the ’80s, we didn’t feel the political urgency of those pioneers who started it all in the ’70s. Still, our female camaraderie was strong because of the lopsided ratio of men to women. Opportunities abounded, but we knew we’d needed to hustle a bit harder than the men to be admitted to Notre Dame and would need to keep hustling once we were in. Even though the campus had been coeducational for only 13 years when we arrived, the women’s dorms already had their own traditions and provided us all with a cozy (think: no air conditioning) place to nurture friendships.
Sue and I met during the first week of our freshman year in Lyons. The icebreaker prompt was “Name your favorite movie”; when I heard her say Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I sensed a kindred spirit. Old souls know. We lived across the hall from each other that year, then spent sophomore year as roommates in Angers, France, then returned to Lyons as dormmates for another two years.
In Angers, Sue’s nickname was “The Pulse” because everyone told her their secrets. (That trustworthy smile, remember?) She had all the gossip. We spent a memorable Christmas in Vienna with my sister who was studying abroad in Ireland, the three of us hanging out in our hotel room with a packet of dry bread. (We hadn’t realized the whole city would shut down on Christmas.) The house we shared in Angers was more than 500 years old. Our landladies were eccentric, to say the least, which produced endless stories and misadventures. Sue reveled in it all. She adored a good story and — even better — a good storyteller.
On the day after our graduation in 1989, Sue and I went to lunch together in South Bend. She said with tears, “This tastes like sawdust — I don’t want to say goodbye. Why does this part have to end?” As usual, she put the perfect words to my feelings. This time it was the despair we felt at having to grow up.
After college, we both joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in New York City. Although JVC didn’t stick for Sue, and she moved back to Ohio, we stayed as close as we could despite the miles and, well, life. She earned a master’s degree in education and began teaching French to a generation of lucky kids. We were in each other’s weddings. When our children were young, our families vacationed together one year in South Carolina: a golden and ultimately complicated set of memories, given everything that was to come.
It’s a natural, ancient human instinct to respond to tragedy by taking care of business. And women, be it genetic or the result of cultural expectations, are experts at getting the word out, organizing meal deliveries, parachuting in to take care of kids and pets, raising money, brainstorming solutions before a problem even appears.
Going back now to reread emails from the frantic days after Sue’s death gives me chills, because I’m brought back to the shock and sadness, but also because I can see how our friends clicked back into familiar, urgent, trusted, mobilizing, “got your back” conversations. We came of age when you had to call or write a letter to stay in touch; suddenly we were lighting up the nights with our emails and texts. It was comforting, in a bleak sort of way, reconnecting by email with Lyons and Angers friends who’d drifted apart over the years. I read an email from our legendary French professor, Louis MacKenzie ’69, and a series of emails from the Alumni Association offering suggestions for tributes and getting the word out. Looking back on those conversations, I am struck that I remember almost none of it. What stands out acutely is the moment I saw my friends in person again, after so many years, and the moment I saw Sue’s parents at the wake.
It’s nonsense to compare the sadness of one funeral to another, but let me tell you that in terms of emotion, Sue’s was a barnburner. Some 1,300 people gathered at St. Hugo of the Hills in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, to remember her, and the grief was raw. She was a beloved high school French teacher in addition to being an involved mother, a writer, scout leader, runner and parishioner. Singing the “Alma Mater” (which, truth be told, was something College Sue might’ve found corny) gave new meaning to the phrase, “My heart was in my throat.”
And yet. Despite a cathartic funeral, the next few years left me feeling like I hadn’t done enough to honor our friendship. It was a constant itch, the kind of guilt that goes along with enjoying your life after someone you love dies.
My first attempt to scratch that itch was a solo trip to Angers two years after Sue died. It felt to me that walking those streets would bring back some kind of connection with her and, in whatever hazy way I was imagining it, would do her some justice. In a different life, Sue would have made the trip with me. Her memory for places and events was far better than mine, and the jolly ghosts of college escapades would have come alive with her there to remind me.
Walking out of the Angers train station into the bright September sun, I had a moment of panic: Nothing looked familiar. I scanned the Place de la Gare — left and right, right and left — looking for familiar landmarks. Nothing. It was a disconcerting start to a trip I’d undertaken as a journey of remembrance. But I walked on with the help of Google Maps, a far cry from the wrinkled city maps we once carried in our backpacks. Back to our campus, which was kind of a dump — and is stubbornly unchanged in the best way. I walked and walked and walked.
I ordered a kir royale in a familiar café. I ate bread and Nutella in a park. I reacquainted myself with the path we walked from home to school. And I walked past that 500-year-old house of ours multiple times. When I saw the “new” owners in their yard, I used my fading French to explain why I was there, and they invited me inside to walk around and take pictures. (Thank God for small kindnesses!) The friendly and strange wisps of stories stirred themselves to life. All those stories rest with me now.
I think Sue would’ve approved of my trip. Seeing, smelling and tasting Angers again was important. And yet. As the years went on, the itch for a proper tribute didn’t go away. I didn’t want our memories to float away. I wanted to make sure her family knew Sue wasn’t forgotten by the women of Notre Dame. So, in the summer of 2021, I got back on the phone with Cathy.
We cooked up a 10-year anniversary tribute to Sue on campus that October. As a group of friends, we again did what women do so well: We planned, we organized, we built consensus, we had fun. We reached across the years and the miles and pulled together an event that finally felt 100 percent right. Because of the geographic spread of Notre Dame alumni, you don’t often get to see if Adult You would be friends with the grown-up version of the faces from your yearbooks and photo albums. Would personalities or politics intrude? Happily, we didn’t have to wonder. Not one person had escaped life’s humbling turns, and that is always the equalizer. Throw good food and good wine into the mix, and you’re bound to get a love fest.
Sixteen of us friends from Lyons gathered on a sunny but chilly Saturday. (More were absent who wanted to attend.) The students were on fall break, so even though we adapted to COVID-19 protocols inside buildings, the campus was ours to wander. Sue’s parents, Dennis and Linda, and her brother and sister-in-law, Mike and Betsy, came in from Toledo. We spent time in the Log Chapel, chairs in a circle, reminiscent of the get-to-know-you activities from decades ago. We brought pictures and trinkets and poems and music. We brought laughter and tears in equal measure. We took turns remembering aloud and reminding ourselves what it had meant to be together as young adults.
Father Bob Dowd, CSC, ’87 celebrated an intimate Mass. We said our tearful goodbyes to Sue’s family as they headed home to Toledo. And at our South Bend rental houses, we — the college friends — spent a few evenings with ’80s music, yearbooks, “dogbooks” (ugh — why didn’t we and Notre Dame know better?), photo albums, life updates, light humor, dark humor and promises to keep in touch.
I fear it sounds trite, but it’s true: The peace I felt after that weekend was profound. After spending time with so many people who loved Sue, that nagging guilt about living your life when your friend didn’t get to had finally evaporated.
I attribute it all to friendship. I hadn’t felt this way after Angers, and I think it’s because I had gone alone. The memories had bubbled up there, but I didn’t have anywhere to put them except back in my own head.
There’s a French expression that loosely translates as, “Our task is to remember, and through remembering, to lighten our own burden.” The beauty of women’s friendships is that remembering and sharing the load comes naturally. These friendships, and the remembering, may just save you.
I know of no way to derive meaning from Sue’s death. I’m not a philosopher. I don’t know how a loving God lives in harmony with tragedy and cruelty. Knowing ahead of time that you’re marked for tragedy would, obviously, be too much to bear. Being oblivious is a mercy, and so vital to living a vibrant life. Another of our treasured Lyons Hall friends, Missy Cahill McKnight ’89, died from brain cancer 10 years before Sue died. While Missy’s death was equally heartbreaking, equally bewildering, at the very least cancer gave us a chance at a gentle release. Sue and her family didn’t get that chance.
As much as we try to hold on to our dearest ones and their stories, leaves are falling around us all the time. No human is spared.
You might be tempted to wall up your feelings to protect yourself against these heartbreaking truths. Brian Doyle ’78, the brilliant essayist, knew better about the particularities of the human heart:
You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.
So how to proceed in the meantime? I believe we’re fundamentally wired for happiness, and tragedy is still the exception. You may not ever truly get over the big losses in your life. But you put your left foot in front of the right one, and so on. You make a perfect tart, you run a 5K, you crush a sales goal, you visit Machu Picchu. You slowly gather the courage to look at pictures of the ones you lost. You forge a delicate truce with grief. You breathe.
Some of the prettiest phrases in the English language describe groups of animals: a parliament of owls, a loveliness of ladybugs, an improbability of puffins, a shrewdness of apes, a fever of stingrays. Where’s the poetic title for a group of women who help protect and heal when the unthinkable happens? I propose “a benevolence of friends.”
I know the power and pure gift of a benevolence of friends, and it’s Notre Dame that brought us together in a random, chaotic lottery of residence-hall assignments 37 years ago. Alone, we stumble. Together, we still stumble. But at least together we can laugh and cry with each other. Friendship is benevolent, and friendship heals.
And now the happy postscript. Sue’s parents push back on the notion that they saved Sue’s kids. They insist Sue’s kids saved them, and that they only truly understood their purpose — raising their daughter’s family — after Sue’s death. Either way, the kids are thriving: All three received the Chick Evans scholarship, which provides full tuition and housing for golf caddies with special circumstances. Nick teaches English (his mother would’ve loved that) and coaches cross-country at La Salle High School in Cincinnati while pursuing a master’s degree in school administration; he married in 2020. Ellyn ’22 is working for Deloitte US in Washington, D.C. Caroline is a rising senior at Ohio State majoring in human resources. Each one has their mother’s smile.
Sue’s parents are healthy and living with purpose and positivity, sharing their story publicly and reminding people of life’s essential goodness.
In all the emails I have saved from Sue, she attached a signature block with an excerpt from her favorite poem, “Ithaka,” by Constantine Cavafy:
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
The poem is an urgent plea not to let the fear of tragedy prevent you from living a full life — a Greek version of “stop and smell the roses.” Its conclusion, a caution to Odysseus as he heads home from Troy, feels like something Sue might’ve known would be the right words for loved ones worried about moving on after her death:
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
I want to tell young people to hunker down and be ready. One day you’ll see that the solid ground you’re on has fissures. Things get rocky. And yet. The beauty of youth is that the young probably won’t (and shouldn’t) listen to me. Machu Picchu is meant to be climbed. Goodness persists. Friends matter.
Stay in touch. I mean really, really: Stay in touch.
Mary McGreevy lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is a video producer and the co-founder of Epilogg.com, a free digital obituary platform. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.