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November 11, 2010

Stephanie Salter: The years may pass, but a friend will always ride shotgun

TERRE HAUTE — I should have known there would be a first-aid kit. Susan provided for every contingency.

How like her to have tucked a 106-piece, American Medical Association-approved kit under the passenger seat of her Honda Accord. How like me not to have discovered it until I was deep cleaning the car to get it ready to sell.

In the late winter of 2003, my friend, Susan Collins Mead, was spending her last days on Earth in the hospice wing of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif. Susan wasn’t a military vet — she’d worked as a civilian for many years at NASA Ames Research Center — but the VA hospice was big, fairly new and had room for private patients with the means to stay there.

Organized and on top of every situation, Susan chose to enter the hospice when she realized her ovarian cancer was not going away. She’d fought it off once, buying a few very good years, but when the cancer returned, she knew the only terms she could dictate were how she would go out.

Susan and I had met and become friends outside of our day jobs. We were supernumeraries — extra actors — for the San Francisco Opera. She, the assistant chief of NASA Ames’ Space Sciences Division, and I, a newspaper writer, never tired of disappearing into makeup, wigs, costumes and the backstage madness of a grand opera production. Over the years, we portrayed everything from harem girls to nuns to page boys in a czar’s court.

Nobody among the supernumeraries didn’t like Susan, which is saying something because the calling — basically unpaid — attracts some high-energy divas and divos. She was extremely smart, tall and slim with an elegant carriage. She played ladies-in-waiting better than anybody, looking perfectly at-home in a royal setting.

After Susan’s husband, an aerospace engineer, died, and while she was still in remission, we went to San Francisco Symphony concerts, always with dinner, wine and conviviality before the show. She was especially fond of the violinist, Joshua Bell, the Bloomington native who studied at Indiana University. He’s now an international star and widely known for a YouTube clip that features him playing, almost unnoticed, in a Washington Metro station.

While Susan was in the VA hospice, I drove down regularly from San Francisco to visit her and the family, friends and nurses who congregated in her peaceful room. During one visit, I was regaling Susan with stories of the car I drove at the time, a 16-year-old, rust-pocked Honda CRX-si that my aunt had nicknamed “The Bondomobile,” because the entire sunroof was held on with the magic pink epoxy.

Susan looked at me over her reading glasses like a study hall teacher and said, soberly, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about The Bondomobile.” She then informed me that she knew I loved my car, but it wasn’t safe. “I won’t be needing my car,” she said, evenly. “I want you to have it.” Her Honda Accord EX was five years old but in the only sort of condition Susan tolerated in anything she possessed — mint.

I was humbled. I still am nearly eight years later, and I have never thought of the Accord as anything but “Susan’s car.”

I’ve apologized to her, repeatedly, for not keeping it as clean as she would and for dragging it from mild northern California to a cold-weather climate that batters its engine and exterior with ice and snow and no garage. During more than one blinding rainstorm on the highway, I’ve asked her to help me drive smart and stay safe. Always, I’ve entrusted the engine to excellent service mechanics, who’ve handled the scheduled tuneups and rare repairs with appropriate skill and respect.

Susan had put 72,000 miles on the car before she gave it to me. Now, it has nearly 145,000 and still runs like the proverbial top. I figured I would drive it past 200,000 and beyond, likely losing my license to old age before the Accord would give out. But earlier this month, my fiancé told me to come outside for “an early birthday present.” A pretty, brand-new Accord was parked in my driveway. I lost the ability to speak in any coherent language for at least 20 minutes.

After I pulled myself together, I wondered what I should do with Susan’s car. The tax laws have changed since I donated The Bondomobile directly to a hospice organization, so that route doesn’t make as much sense anymore for a charity or a donor. Bill checked the Kelley Blue Book to get a value, we settled on a figure a little lower and, before I could put the word out, one of my colleagues asked to buy Susan’s car for his college-age son. The money will be split among Susan’s favorite charity in San Francisco, I.U. (for Joshua Bell), and two charities I know Susan would like.

The day before the title was to be transferred, I parked the silver Accord in the driveway and hand-washed and dried its exterior. Luckily, the weather was almost balmy. Then, I wiped down the interior and emptied it of all my stuff — and Susan’s.

The idea of getting rid of her personal things had never sat right with me. Consequently, I’ve tooled around for nearly eight years with the console containing such items as Susan’s driving gloves, her anti-glare, nighttime clip-on glasses, her little box of Kleenex, a baggie full of quarters (for parking meters), yet another spare ignition key and some meticulous directions she wrote out for an unfamiliar destination.

I also kept her purple umbrella, the jumper cables she’d tucked in the wheel well and an emergency road kit with flares, a rain poncho, a mylar-like cold-weather blanket, a bungee cord and similar gear, all encased in a waterproof plastic box with “HELP” printed on it in big, Day-Glo letters.

But it wasn’t until the next morning, when I drove to a car wash to vacuum the trunk and floor mats, that I discovered the first-aid kit. All these years, I’d never known it was there, its clear wrapping unbroken, its list of 106 items detailed on the back. Suffice to say, a skilled medical professional could probably perform an appendectomy with what’s in the kit.

Obviously, like the emergency road box, Susan never needed the first-aid kit and neither have I. But I could hear her say, oh-so clearly, “You can’t be too careful. Humor me and put those things in your new car, OK?” And so I did. Susan rides on.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or

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    March 12, 2010