July 18th, 2016
A friend of mine, 75 year old Barbara Surwilo, died this weekend. She was technically the mother of my childhood best friend, Steph May. But I consider Barbara a friend, too - or more accurately, like another mother.
It's interesting how a fleeting period of time with someone can leave a lasting impression on your heart, as she did for me. I spent about four years of my elementary school life in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, where her middle daughter, Steph, and I were stuck together like glue.
Small in stature - maybe five feet, tops - Mom Surwilo was an intellectual giant, with an indefatigable personality that persisted after a cause until she won. Brilliant, she held doctorates in biochemistry and endocrinology, and worked as an environmental consultant and longtime politician. She was Rocky Hill's first female mayor.
She juggled career and family perfectly. Mom Surwilo had her priorities straight. Every bill she supported, every cause she advocated, was for love of family - and the knowledge that keeping her family safe meant keeping other families safe.
That's what I remember most about her: her nurturing motherliness. She had three daughters; the younger two were a year older and younger than me, so we formed a tight trio and are close to this day. The eldest, Lisa, got stuck with babysitting us.
Mom Surwilo opened her house and her heart to me, this wayward Chinese kid in a 1970's, very European Connecticut. I was probably the only Asian kid in Rocky Hill.
I spent so many nights sleeping over the Surwilo household, she laughingly proclaimed she had a Chinese calabash daughter. What I remember most is passing long summer days playing in their backyard, picking raspberries off the bush, swimming in their pool so much my hair got crispy and brittle (it'd have turned green if I were blonde.)
Mom Surwilo took me camping with them, let me visit for a month after my parents moved away from Connecticut, and acquiesced to Steph and Robin's pleas for me to accompany them on a RV trip across the country.
I have my own mother and I love her and appreciate her dearly, but Mom Surwilo was an excellent complement to all the things my Chinese mother is not. An effervescent Italian in a very Italian community, she was open, loud, and expressive. She was life itself, and drew others to her by virtue of her incandescence.
Both women taught me by example how to own my power. My mother did it in her quiet way, forging a career in showbiz at a time when that wasn't done for Chinese women, and earning a master's degree at an Ivy League university (Columbia), which still isn't that common for people in general today.
Mom Surwilo did it entirely differently. She got atop the bull that was life, rode that bad boy for way more than eight seconds, and only stopped when the bull got tired and asked to take a rest.
Most people live in fear; she lived with ferocity. Many spend their lives timid; she was tenacious. She was something to behold. I was lucky to be in her presence, to know this woman, to be embraced in her circle.
I loved going to her house. It was boisterous where mine was still. Mom Surwilo was the neighborhood mom, the house where all the people dropped in to visit, where all the neighborhood kids zipped in and out of doors yelling and screaming in delight. She'd interrupt a weighty conversation about the planning and zoning commission to occasionally holler at us to shut! the! door!
She was a little bit like the stereotypical mother of Hallmark channel shows - the kind that sits her daughter down and has an uplifting talk after a disappointing day at school or after a boy breaks her heart for the first time.
Here's a story about my moms that illustrates it:
When I was in seventh grade at Kamehameha Schools, I was doing my homework for Mrs. Lindblom's English class. (Remember that yellow book of grammar, anyone?) I was very good at grammar.
My mother walked in my room nervously and asked me in one big breath, "Doyouknowabouttheperiod?"
I couldn't believe she was asking me this. This was like, so Mrs. Smith's third grade? Impatient to finish my work, I said, "Yes?"
My mom seemed relieved. "The period. You know about it?"
"Yes," I repeated, puzzled as to her sudden and remedial interest in my English class. She left in a hurry.
Later, when the school year ended, I flew to Connecticut to spend a month at Steph's house. I missed my friends so much.
I remember lying on her living room couch with the worst stomach ache ever, which lasted for days. Pills didn't help much. And then came the blood.
Mom Surwilo attended to me, and then her eyes lit up amusedly when I told her what happened in the bathroom. She laughed and told me about menstruation, which I already kind of knew about from reading "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." But I got the endocrinology end of it.
It wasn't until a long time later that I put two and two together. Yeah, it was Mom Surwilo who coached me through The Change, while my own mom happily avoided any topics of uncomfortable discussion involving reproduction.
I'm disappointed that cancer took away a vital and vibrant woman who could still do so much good. In her last year, she decided she was going to get her real estate license. It wasn't at all about the practicality of it, as it was about the act of continuing to live, to pursue dreams, to expand that ingenious mind of hers.
I cried and felt sad for days after I learned of her passing. I feel sad for her husband, her daughters, her grandchildren, her friends, her community. I feel sad for me, because of what she meant to me.
Then I realized she was showing by example once again how to best live: to give it all you've got until you reach the finish line, and then to surrender with grace and dignity, surrounded by what matters most in life - the people you love, who love you back.
I love you, Mom Surwilo. Thank you for everything.
More on Barbara Surwilo at http://www.courant.com/community/rocky-hill/hc-rocky-hill-barbara-surwilo-obit-0716-20160715-story.html.