Suzanne Marie Worthington, born Suzanne Marie Drinen, and lovingly known as Suzi, is the visionary of and inspiration that led to the creation of The Suz Fund. Suzi was raised outside of St. Louis, “A small farming community in southern Illinois is where my feet found the earth”, as she put it. She ended up in Alaska when she jumped in last minute with a friend who was taking a road trip. “I’d never really thought about Alaska.” She recounted, “I went immediately to a map to be floored by the fact that an entire country split this gigantic member of the U.S. It sounded like a great idea, so I packed up my red VW Jetta … and in the summer of 2004 began a most exhilarating chapter of my life”.
Alaska became home for Suzi, where she spent the next 12 years of her life, finding a true sense of belonging in its unique community and inspiring landscape. Suzi felt at home in the mountains. She loved outdoor adventures, and was a natural endurance athlete, an aptitude she applied to mountain running. She took up every new activity with zeal and enthusiasm and learned to safely explore Alaska’s mountains, rivers, and oceans by way of backcountry skiing, packrafting, and kayaking. But most of all, she enjoyed the simplicity of putting on a pair of running shoes and heading off into the front range of the Chugach for a run, in her backyard. Suzi’s practical upbringing shone as she applied it to the Alaskan subsistence lifestyle. She chose to live in a dry cabin with a sauna for bathing, bringing a decorous and aesthetic sensibility to the minimalist rustic lifestyle she loved to live. She found her true passion as a teacher at Winterberry Charter school, where she could pour her heart and soul into teaching children within a Waldorf-inspired curriculum. Beginning as a kindergarten substitute teacher, she nurtured a teaming class of up to 28 children into their 5th grade year. This was surely her most treasured undertaking in life.
It was around that time, however, that Suzi’s trajectory changed dramatically with one of life’s unpredictable and cruel twists. At 31 years old, in the spring of 2013, she was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. Suzi’s journey with cancer is best heard through her own words within her blog, http://suzannedrinen.wordpress.com. As such journeys can be, it was difficult and ultimately tragic beyond comprehension. Among the many qualities that shone through Suzi in this time, was her courage - and grace - in unbelievably trying circumstances. It was humbling to be a witness to her courage, as it wasn’t a bridled stoicism, but an honest and emotional reckoning with the reality she found herself in. She would express her true sadness and vulnerable fear one moment and the next walk forward unflinchingly into the difficult trials that plainly awaited. Her selflessness and desire to give back to her community of friends and family was remarkable, and even in her last six months of life, when she was no longer able to practice asanas herself, she taught a yoga series; a gesture of returning the support and generosity that she felt so privileged to have received.
Suzi confronted her cancer in a way that was truly her own. She stalwartly refused to be goaded by fear into making any decision and instead chose in her own time and measure the treatments that made sense in her heart. These included the whole gambit; from surgeries, chemotherapies and radiation treatments to alternative therapies such as acupuncture, naturopathy, massage therapy, and ayurvedic medicine, including a retreat in India. Her final attempt to treat her then stage 4 cancer was an experimental immunotherapy at the National Institute of Health, that, in its failure to slow her disease, left her having to accept the ultimate and final impending loss of her own life. Throughout this time Suzi somehow found ground to delve into her inner work and develop a meditative and chanting practice that augmented her yoga in helping her through some of the most difficult times, including her own end of life, three days before her 35th birthday.
The community that had been fortunate enough to know and love Suzi was bereft in the wake of her passing. It was hard to imagine a paragon of such health, well-being, and generosity of spirit and heart being stripped of vitality and life at such a young age. Even more disheartening was to bear witness to the difficulty and the depth of suffering inherent in this process. At the same time Suzi taught us all, through her nearly 4 year journey with cancer, how to live. Her lack of self-pity was humbling and her embrace of whatever limited faculties remained over time taught us all to be grateful for those things we so often take for granted, such as the simple ability to take a walk, or sit in the shade of a tree listening to birds. Most of all in realizing the imminence of her mortality Suzi lamented being stripped of the years that would have afforded the opportunity to give. “I have so much more to give!” she once tearfully lamented. One of those visions was that if she were able to overcome her own cancer diagnosis, she would start a non-profit to help others along through their own equally trying journeys with cancer. So it was - the Suz Fund was born, and now we are so fortunate to still have the opportunity to give. Borrowing in some ways from her generous and indomitable spirit, we carry on this torch in Suzi’s honor. We love you, Suzi.
Here are Suzi’s Words: