Taped to the refrigerator door in Susan Sayer’s kitchen on Bay View Avenue in Mystic is a list with the heading: “Places Susan wants to go in 2021.” It is dated March 3, 2021.
Never mind Yosemite or Paris or Machu Picchu.
Rather, the places include Ocean Beach Park, Narragansett Beach, the Newport Cliff Walk, Peter Pots Pottery in West Kingston and the Connecticut College Arboretum.
The list could not be more moving.
Mystic River Park and downtown Mystic. Blythewold in Bristol. Harkness Memorial State Park and beach in Waterford. The Umbrella Factory bamboo grove in Charlestown. Mohegan Park in Norwich.
How her world has receded, yet how her embrace of the outdoors, open space, horizons has not diminished.
Susan Sayer, who is 60, has been wheelchair-bound with multiple sclerosis for 15 years, essentially since she moved here with her husband Jeff Crewe, and in recent months was diagnosed with uterine cancer that has metastasized to her lymph nodes, lung and hip. She is at home, weakened, bed-ridden, under Hospice care.
Not long ago, I visited with Susan and Jeff. He and I sat on opposite sides of her bed as she talked, often struggling to make herself heard, about the joys of her youth in Oswego, N.Y., a port city on the shores of Lake Ontario in central New York, remembering as a 4-year-old putting eggs into cartons in her father’s grocery store and, later, working the cash register, one of those grandiose contraptions dating to the 1920s.
Jeff, who is an exhibit designer and supervisor of exhibits at Mystic Seaport Museum, and maker of wind-activated and mechanical art, quipped that she likely was an early advocate of the minimum wage.
The Susan I’ve known is whip smart and with a beautiful complexion, still. She graduated from the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University in 1983, and before settling in Mystic, she was a professional facility planner, working, among other jobs, at Thomas Jefferson University (Jefferson Hospital) in Philadelphia and then as campus planner and project manager for five years at Swarthmore College, just outside Philadelphia.
When her voice faltered to a whisper, Jeff, intimately attuned to his wife’s thoughts, would lean close to her and repeat what she had to say.
It was after the birth of their son, Dan, in 1996, that the MS was diagnosed. By 2006, she was using a walker and then a scooter before her wheelchair.
Her mind and her spirit have not been compromised. Only her energy, and her body.
Nevertheless, Susan, besides planning her travel list, has produced elaborate recipes for her aides to prepare, just as she cooked for dinner parties not terribly long ago at which Jeff would strut his stuff on guitar and friends would do the same, or play the psaltery or mouth harp or simply sing.
We talked that day about her long commitment to preserving open space, including, while living in Montgomery County in Pennsylvania and a member of an open space board, overseeing the acquisition of more than 1,000 acres of forest land, and her time on the Groton Zoning Commission, helping to rewrite the zoning code in accessible language. She talked about the spiritual comfort and social conscience she found as a Quaker, first in Pennsylvania and at the Westerly Friends Meeting since she’s lived here.
That activism and conviction among the Quakers imbue her writing and public stands.
“Sept. 11, 2001, was my son’s fifth birthday,” she began a letter to the editor published on Sept. 11, 2008. “On the day of the attack I hurried to his preschool to bring him home and hold him close. This maternal reflex was repeated all across America.
“Today my son turns 12. In my mind the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, is forever linked to mothers and boys. I think of the boys who go to fight in Iraq. I think of the sorrow of the thousands of mothers whose sons (and daughters) have died there. I think of the boys in my son’s class that year, and I wonder if we will still be in Iraq when they reach enlistment age.
“I think of mothers and boys who live in Iraq. I imagine a mother just like me with a boy just like my son. I imagine that the Iraqi boy blames America for the destruction of his country. I imagine that this Iraqi boy hates America so much that he becomes a terrorist. I feel the anguish of all these boys and all their mothers.
“It started on Sept. 11, 2001. It continues today and, thanks to our government’s decisions, will continue far into the future.”
In another letter to the editor, published on Sept 21, 2015, she decried the erosion of civil discourse:
“… Barbed language does nothing to advance political dialogue.
“There is far too much of this dismissive and angry language in political discussions today. Perhaps it feels good to say our problems are simple and could be solved if only our leaders weren’t so stupid. In reality, our problems are complicated.
“ … Division between political parties seems wider than ever. How can we have intelligent discussions about solutions to complex problems if we — and I include presidential candidates — simply spout harsh language at the other side?”
Susan was able to achieve some of her travel list for 2021. She visited the Umbrella Factory bamboo grove in Charlestown, Ocean Beach Park in New London, Mystic River Park and, delightfully, Peter Pots Pottery in West Kingston.
I see her there. This strong and lovely and determined and willful woman.
I hear her.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at: email@example.com.