Sunday, August 10, 2014

For Suzi Ortiz
Originally published August 8, 2014 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

Suzi and I were different in many ways. She listened to The Fray and Florence and the Machine. I prefer Paul Simon and Crosby, Stills and Nash. She was a dog person; I am a cat person. She has a vast network of friends that she worked hard to cultivate and preserve; I have only a small handful. We were 16 years apart in age and maybe not so much alike; but that didn’t seem to matter much. She had a green thumb when it came to nurturing a friendship—diligently tending to ensure it would thrive.

Suzi and I didn’t read the same books. She loved the “Twilight” series and traded books with her sister, Michelle, but we rarely recommended books to each other. I think I only passed along one book to Suzi - “The Art of Racing in the Rain” - because it was the best dog book I ever read, and she loved her dogs. But she ordered tons of magazines to support the various school fund-raising causes of her nieces and nephews, and brought them all to work for me to enjoy. I suspect she ordered Rolling Stone just because it was my favorite.

Unlike me, Suzi wasn’t exactly an art consumer. She had trouble covering the large white walls of her home with art – most of what she framed was small drawings by loved ones and photos of her nieces and nephews – items with sentimental value. But the “walls” of her Facebook page were covered with photos of her wide circle of friends, her family, her projects and trips, and her beloved golden Lab, Mia. In that way, she was a great historian – documenting and reminding me and all her friends of the great times we spent together.

Suzi wasn’t a maker in the traditional sense—she didn’t paint, build, knit or sew. But she did have some very special talents. Every spring she made the very best strawberry jam, in huge quantities, to share with all her friends. For many years at Halloween she dressed in elaborate costumes and decorated her house for all the neighborhood kids to enjoy. And, for every baby shower she was invited to, she made a personalized diaper cake.

To assemble these signature cakes, she spent countless hours searching for just the right diapers, tiny wash clothes she rolled into flowers, and other decorations to complement the theme of the party, and the interests of the mother-to-be, from Mickey Mouse to the University of Oregon ducks.

One thing we did have in common—besides working together in adjacent offices for 6-1/2 years—was hiking. We hardly missed a week, hiking 3-4 miles after work with Mia (an ardent squirrel-chaser) in the hills surrounding our Morgan Hill office, at parks like Christmas Hill, Harvey Bear and Mt. Madonna. Sometimes friends Celia and Angela would join us. These were special times, when Suzi photographed unexpected encounters with snakes, lizards, coyotes, tarantulas in the fall, and radiant sunsets, posting them all on Facebook. As Uvas Reservoir evaporated to almost nothing this spring due to the drought, she documented the stages and posted them on Facebook. I was the former newspaper photographer, but she was doing all the reporting.

Unless it was breaking news, we usually didn’t share too many personal details at work – instead saving all our updates for the weekly hike. We recounted TV episodes we loved: Naked and Afraid (Suzi), Work of Art (me), and Project Runway (both of us). We shared the highlights of weekend trips: Suzi to Reno or Cedarville with her boyfriend Leo and the dogs, or me on various outings with my family. We blabbed about the usual stuff: family, friends, our health, home, projects, work, fun, etc.

She may not have been the devoted crafter I was, but she supported my obsession in countless ways. When I got interested in making furniture out of pallets, she asked Leo to find some discarded ones at work. When I wanted to make a chair for the Symphony League’s Rare Chair Affair, she started collecting rusty cans, bottle caps and other cool detritus for me on the beach excursions she and Leo took with his metal detector. She had a large collection of colorful duct tape and brought me a flower she had made along with the instructions for other duct tape creations. She also sent me photos of projects to inspire me—like a floor covering made from pennies and resin, or the striking garden bench Leo made from a vintage Chevy truck tailgate.

I still have the instructions for a project Suzi emailed me a few months ago: making accent garden lights using Mason jars and stake solar lights. This week, I shopped for the materials and put some together to serve as glowing reminders of my bright, nurturing friend.

Suzi died suddenly on July 16 at the age of 43. Every day I encounter another detail of my daily routine that has been forever altered by her loss: our Rav4s are no longer parked next to each other at work; there was no flurry of texts last Thursday night when season 13 of Project Runway began; I can no longer overhear her phone conversations at work, charming all her clients with her endearing laugh. I miss Suzi in so many ways.

But it also hurts to know that I missed an opportunity—the chance to recognize, while she was still alive, what an extraordinary friend I had.