White Knuckle Parenting: In Memory of Susan Niebur

Scientist, blogger, activist, and mother Susan Niebur passed away yesterday. Our local area—and the world—has lost one of the good ones.

Susan Niebur is not someone I want to write about in the past tense. Susan was a local mother, scientist, activist, blogger, and cancer fighter. She passed away yesterday after years of courageous survival following her diagnosis with Inflammatory Breast Cancer nearly five years ago. She is my friend.

When I joke here about my white knuckle parenting and how I sort of flail around hoping that some of my good ideas will stick and the iffy ones will be forgotten, I often think of my friend Susan. I have known Susan for so many years, and one of the first things I noticed about her was how active and present her parenting style was.

Susan was one of the first people I knew who really thought about how she wanted to parent her children. She had a philosophy and she planned ahead. Everything she did was for her kids. I got to know her before her cancer diagnosis, back when our kids were tiny and would run around and play while we got to talk.

When my son Jack was obsessed with space and the Mars Rover when he was in preschool, Susan would tell him all about the planets and let him play with her kids' toy space shuttle. See, Susan was a real-life rocket scientist and could tell Jack all about NASA. She dropped by my house more than once with space-themed comic books and stickers for my kids.

Later, after Jack got his autism diagnosis, she remained one of his most steadfast supporters. She never batted an eye at his differences, remaining focused on the wonderful things about him. Fighting her own battle, she always had time and energy for me and my struggles. I called her a couple of months ago on her cell phone. She was at the hospital. She asked about me. That is who Susan Niebur was. She was one of the most generous people I will ever meet.

Susan Niebur was also a crusader. She had come up in an environment where being a scientist wasn't easy for women. She decided that wasn't okay and she worked tirelessly to create spaces for women, through her Women in Planetary Science website and her advocacy in the scientific community.

Susan also fought for research into cancer and spread awareness about inflammatory breast cancer, the breast cancer that presents without a lump. She created Mothers with Cancer to support other mothers with cancer and she taught so many of us that pink ribbons are pretty, but they don't cure cancer. She taught us to make sure that the money we gave to research went to research.

She was a blogger at Toddler Planet, and was known online as WhyMommy. She used her blog to craft word pictures that displayed her intense love for her children so clearly. I am the child of a parent who died when I was young and I can say with certainty that her two boys will cherish her words when they get older. She wrote about parenting and cancer and the nexus of the two with love, humor, and honesty.

She even fostered rescue dogs in her spare time. That was Susan.

Susan was all these things, but to me she was a friend. She was fun to talk to and a joy to be around. I always laughed when I was with her, although there were occasional tears. Every single time I hung out with her, I learned something, whether it was how to gracefully struggle with your health or where the center of the universe really is. It was always something.

There is a lot to remember about Susan, but the thing I will remember most is her smile. Oh, lord, that smile. I was looking through photos of her yesterday and although her hair style changed and her body changed and her perspective on life changed, the constant was her gorgeous smile. I am going to miss her smile.

At some point in the past few months, Susan adopted a mantra. It was this: "All that survives after our death are publications and people. So look carefully after the words you write, the thoughts and publications you create, and how you love others.  For these are the only things that will remain."

I look at the outpouring of love and support in the local community as well as a waterfall of mourning in her online blogging circles, and I wonder how many of us have had as much of an impact as Susan. She touched so many people through her words, with her vibrant personality, and with her smile. She was powerful, Susan Niebur was.

Actually, she still is.

All of my love goes out to Susan's husband, children, and family.

Susan's family has asked that donations be sent to the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

Jean, a.k.a. Stimey, writes a personal blog at Stimeyland; an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont; and a column called Autism Unexpected in the Washington Times Communities. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey.

Jill Berry February 08, 2012 at 06:27 AM
Beautiful post.
Jessica McFadden February 08, 2012 at 02:32 PM
The best tribute to Susan. EVER. You are incredible, just like our friend.
Jill Fuster February 08, 2012 at 09:04 PM
Thank you for spreading the word about how wonderful she is...what a warm tribute.
Amie Adams February 09, 2012 at 02:30 AM
Oh Jean you captured her perfectly! Yes. That smile--through it all. sending you lots of love
Lauren Dammanl February 17, 2012 at 08:25 PM
very moving, profoundly loving and honest. you have served her mantra well with your well chosen words.


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