We met in Joplin...two days after an F5 tornado ripped the small Missouri town apart, killing over 160 people in the process.
Sue was a fellow Red Cross volunteer, from Sacramento. The day we met, she happened to be sitting next to me in a large van, full of fellow volunteers...as we made a quick run to the airport to pick up rental cars for more volunteers. We had just introduced ourselves to each other when my cell phone rang....It was my mother, who was sobbing, and giving me the devastating news that my sister had just been diagnosed with rectal cancer.
Without missing a beat, Sue immediately reached out to me...gave me a hug...and became one of my dearest, most loved friends.
We worked side-by-side for the next month, initially the only two female ERV drivers in a sea of testosterone and machoism. Our days were long, and at the end of our shift, we'd chill out, talking about our respective families. I have a tendency to let the frustrations of the job get to me - but Sue was a calming presence, always reminding me of the mission - of why we were there, serving. She didn't just know the American Red Cross mission - she LIVED it.
If I could describe Sue with a few words, they would be: Genuine. Loving. Big-hearted. And wickedly funny. She had a sly sense of humor, and she could crack me up with a clever one-liner, and it would be enough to keep me going when I wanted to throw in the towel. What you saw is what you got with Sue - there was no pretense, no phoniness, no hypocrisy. She lived. She loved. She gave.
I saw this later during our time in Joplin. The local animal rescue haven was a few miles up the road, and the shelter was inundated with lost pets...dogs, cats, birds - all separated from their family because of the storm and the devastation in town. Sue soon found this haven, and being the animal lover that she was, she would go there at the end of her 14-hour shift with the Red Cross to offer comfort and solace to the pets. She would come back to our dorm and talk endlessly about the different dogs she had fallen in love with, and I'm sure if she could have, she would have adopted Every. Single. One. of them and taken them back to Sacramento with her.
She loved. Big.
At the end of our deployment in Joplin, she tracked down a small embroidery shop, where she had a t-shirt made for me, emblazoned with an inside joke that she had cracked me up with during our time together. She dared me to wear that t-shirt on my last day of work in Joplin...and so I did, which got a huge laugh from our boss. I still have that t-shirt in my closet, and it makes me smile to this day when I see it.
After Joplin, we didn't see each other again, although we stayed in touch via telephone and Facebook. In 2011, I served in New Jersey for Hurricane Irene...she was in New York. We'd often talk at night on the phone, after our shifts, to offer up support and humor to each other. During Hurricane Isaac in 2012, I was in Mississippi...she deployed to Louisiana. I missed her again during Hurricane Sandy - she was initially in New York, while I was in New Jersey. We may have been separated by miles, but never by heart.
To sign onto Facebook last night and see that she died...suddenly...yesterday morning, in her sleep...words can't tell you how much I hurt. I am shocked. I am pissed. I am scared.
She was my age. She was only 51. Things like this don't happen. This shocks me.
Why her? She was a giver. She was an angel on earth. This angers me.
Who do I turn to when I'm frustrated again with the Red Cross? Who will remind me of our mission? This frightens me.
A fellow Red Cross volunteer wrote this touching tribute to Sue on Facebook, and I have to copy it here, as it is beautiful:
We never met face to face, but like so many other things that good souls bring, we met heart to heart. The hearts that you have touched are a gift that bears witness to goodness in the human soul. It is the way you lived your life and the gift you left for us to cherish. It is a gift that is everlasting and one that never dies.....go now free spirit and be one with the many hearts you have known who reside on the other side.....we will remember you in our own hearts, the ones you touched so tenderly here as we wait to meet again......You will be with us always........
RIP, Suzanne Larippa. I miss you already.
May 18, 1962 - July 30, 2013