Goodbye, Susan Butcher
With everything going on in Alaska this week, the story that still most effects me is the memorial for my personal hero, Susan Butcher.
Susan passed away August 5th, losing a valiant battle against Leukemia when the attempt to save her through a bone marrow transplant failed. It was a cruel ending...it had been just weeks before that the transplant showed every indication of success and Susan's disease went into remission.
While Susan't claim to fame is as a successful musher and four-time winner of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, that title just seems to trivialize someone who represented so much to so many.
I think for a lot of us female-types who came up to Alaska alone and looking for something out of the ordinary, she was the ideal of a "real" Alaskan woman. She walked into a man's sport and took it over through talent, determination and an infectious smile. She showed the critics (and some other mushers) how a winning dogteam could be driven with love, kindness and meticulous care. (When she and her team were attacked by a moose during Iditarod 1985, you could feel her pain at the loss of her beloved dogs.) She became the enthusiastic face of the Iditarod, making appearances on David Letterman, the Today Show and many others.
Then, at the top of her game, she left the sport so that she and her husband Don Monson could raise a family. She had her first child, Tekla, at age 41 and her second daughter, Chisana, at 45.
Susan didn't wonder if she could "have it all." Like many Alaska women I've known, she just went out and took it.
It broke my heart when I saw pictures of Susan and her daughters during Iditarod 2006 in February. However, it was also a symbol of Susan's strength and determination that she could crawl out of bed after a Chemo session to put in an appearance at the Ruby checkpoint.
Even looking so much older and bald as the result of treatment, her smile was timeless.
This week, Alaskans were hit with the shock that happens when one discovers that a beloved member of the family was also deeply loved by other "strangers." One of the eulogists at Susan's memorial turned out to be none other than Mr. George Lucas, who produced a short film on Susan's life to be shown at the memorial. Another eulogist who flew up with her husband Bill from Seattle was Melinda Gates. They both described the same Susan Butcher Alaskans knew well, proving that Susan was the same person among the rich and famous as she was at a fish camp in rural Alaska.
Not half bad for a girl from Fairbanks.