RIP, Susy Carroll: Defining friendship & a hard lesson learned

“You’re the new intern?” I asked her. She looked maybe 19, way too young to be working in a newsroom. Wearing olive drab pants, a tank top and a stud in her nose.

She was brand new out of the “cop shop,” a small newsroom for the Tucson Citizen and Arizona Daily Star reporters set aside on the ground floor of Tucson police headquarters. She’d been doing night cops. It’s what all the interns did.

Her eyes got big and innocent. “I am, in fact, the new intern.”

“Good,” I said. “It’s your job to buy me Cokes.” 

It was in no way her job to buy me Cokes. I was being sarcastic and Susan Carroll got the joke right away. She  knew I was funning around and more to the point, happened to have the necessary 50 cents on her. A cheap price to pay to appease the guy who would be sitting across from her that week.

She laughed the laugh I would hear thousands of times over the next three years. Like a deep, throaty hiccup. Hic Haww. Hic Hawww. Hic Haww. “I’ll be right back.”

Susan, as friends called her, died suddenly the weekend before last and I’m flattened. She had no business dying at 46. Crap. She had no business being 46. She’s always the intern, even though she went on to be far more than that. My loss is a minor part of the tragedy. Her two kids, Oliver and Owen, are without their mom. Her family lost a treasure way too young. Those
who lived, worked and knew her in Houston where she was digital editor
of NBC News, are having to deal with what death took from them.

Houston Chronicle immigration reporter Lomi Kriel, summed her up as well as one can in a Tweet:

“Not enough space to capture the brilliance & kindness of @_SusanCarroll, a remarkable investigative reporter, lyrical writer, beloved prankster, wonderful mom, dear friend. Despite her tiny stature, she laughed loud, dreamed big & changed the world as much as she could.”

Another colleague, Lise Oslen, called her a “an exceptional writer, a talented editor, caring mom and an absolutely fearless advocate.” The best part about her post was the photo that captured the Susan I remember. It was a shot of her from the back while she edited. Taped to her chair was a hand-written sign: “ON DEADLINE; Approach only if you have snacks or 9-1-1 tapes.”

Kriel is organizing a GoFundMe page for Susy’s kids.

All my Susan stories are from a past that’s now 20 years old. That’s part of what I’m grappling with. You, reader, may recognize yourself in this piece because there’s a painful and human lesson in this moment.

Real friendships have it all. Laughter, tears, anger, intimacy, support, kindness, betrayal and something utterly lacking in today’s online companionship: Silence. Just being able to sit in one another’s company and watch the traffic go by. That’s the intimacy. That’s the good stuff.

Susy, as friends knew her and I will now refer to her, and I weren’t always peas and carrots. What we were, for about three years, was constantly there for each other.

Our stars crashed at a pivotal time for both of us. We both changed the trajectory of one another’s lives. She would be hired full-time at Citizen in 1999 and wound up as my “podmate,” sharing a work area with me. That’s an antiseptic professional description of something that was really important.

Young men, heed this advice. Find women to be friends with. It can be done. And frankly, they’re better at it. There’s nothing of that alpha-omega energy or the need to constantly knock you down a peg. Women are glad you are there but will tell you if they are not. You can talk to them about things other than sports and politics. They’ll take you places emotionally where guys fear to tread.

Glorious contradictions

Susy was a contradiction. She grew up in Paradise Valley. Her dad had a weird monopoly calibrating the gauges on giant cylindrical fuel tanks, the kind next to airports. Yeah, she came up with means, but she was raised around truckers as much as golfers. Sometimes they were truckers who golfed.

As a teenager she had horrendous acne. In her early 20’s she resembled a supermodel left in the dryer too long. The proportions were there, but she barely broke 5’1″. However, that imp could rifle a softball on a frozen rope and was a sniper from long range with a basketball.

She failed the University of Arizona Upper Division Writing Proficiency Exam, which is the kind of like Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team.

Susy created copy like God works desert sunsets. 

In 2002, she traveled with a photographer to Mexico to find the families of a group of border crossers who were killed by exposure to the sun the year before. It was national news. The first words of her story about “Forgotten widows” were:

“The hurt here is deeper than the graves, fresher than the flowers that adorn them.”

Most of her copy was like that. I fancy myself a pretty good scribe, but here was an early 20-something I could not keep up with in terms of the written word. In that, I found inspiration.

She could drop a word like “askance” into news copy and the eye just floated right over it. Sometimes she was too good, in her cub reporter days. She could so dazzle with prose that editors missed planet-sized holes in her reporting.

I’d quietly scrunch up my face, “Susy isn’t there this part over here that’s important to that part over there.” She’d hit me with a whispered “Sssshhh. They’re happy.”

Well, Susy would go on to be a leader of investigative reporters at the Houston Chronicle – a major league market. So, yeah, her reporting caught up to her writing, which is frightening. 

She was the first journalist to win the Arizona Press Club’s Virg Hill Print Journalist of the Year
two years in a row. In Texas, she was part of a team nominated for a Pulitzer
Prize. 

She left Tucson in 2002 to go to the Arizona Republic and from
there, on to Houston and onto ProPublica and NBC News.

When I worked with her, she never really understood just how good she was or could be. I wonder if she ever really figured it out or if the humility, which she so valued, just kept her from admitting it.

It was no secret to those around her, as former colleague Mike Hixenbaugh wrote on the GoFundMe appeal: “I’ve never met a reporter or editor more talented at so many different things.”

On my side

Well, now Susy is bound for the grave and there aren’t enough flowers. The tears came in spasms.

I’ve had maybe a half-dozen defining relationships in my life and she was one of them. 

Hopefully, we’ve all had these people. 

At a point in my life when work was hell and home life was little better, she was the one person who was always on my side. 

And if she wasn’t. She hid it well. Frankly, being “always on my side” during that particular period occasionally required a suspension of disbelief.

She was there with a Coke and a smile. She was there as we sat on her coffee table, playing video games until well past a reporter’s bedtime. More than once, after she got me hooked on the “bubble game” she shook her head as I reloaded another go and said “I’m going to bed. Lock up when you leave.”

I won’t even get into how frustrated she got with the snowboarding game when I refused to do tricks on jumps. Pointy part down. Faster is funner is how I skiied growing up.  She let me know that I was “doing it all wrong.”

We would also sit on her front porch and I’d get funnier the more weed she smoked.  Hic Haww. Hic Hawww. Hic Haww.

She made me laugh, a lot. Her wit snapped like a bullwhip. She could say the raunchiest stuff and then stare at you with intentionally big eyes, like “Who me? I’m so innocent and tiny.”

A wisdom that was beyond her years offered truisms I would at first ignore and then realize “Naw, she’s right about that.”

And I was honored to be her sounding board and needed presence. Years on, she told me I was the one who got her to apply for the border beat. She was the higher education reporter and didn’t think she was ready for a beat with that kind of spotlight. I guess I convinced her otherwise. I’m not sure if she wouldn’t have found her way there anyway, but I’ll take it. The beat launched her career into orbit.

If I had something to do with that, cool.

The one that really stays with me though, for about six months she nursed a friend through leukemia. They were inseparable for months. She would be there the day his family decided to take him off the ventilator. 

Early the next morning, I got a phone call. She was sobbing. “He’s gone,” was all she said. “I’ll be right there.”

We didn’t do much that day. I vaguely remember a Walgreen’s. I think we read books, with her disappearing into Harry Potter. We were just together, in the same room. I was there to remind her she wasn’t alone. That was it. It was a lot.

When you are someone’s first call at a moment like that, it’s not a burden. It validates existence. Life means something when people need you, especially the ones who aren’t legally related to you.

If you haven’t figured it out, yeah. I fell for her hard. Nothing happened. Some might say we were just friends. Looking back, the idea that we were just friends seems wrong. There’s nothing “just” about it.

Drift away

And then  – tell me if this seems familiar – we were gone from each other.

She moved to Phoenix for a while to be the police reporter for the Republic. About a year later she would move to Nogales to cover the border and then back to Tucson.

By that time, my personal and professional life rebounded. When I hit bottom, hers was the hand that lifted. When I took flight, she was gone. We began running in other circles. Her last night in Tucson before moving to Houston, I met her and her fiance at local bar to say goodbye. Unfortunately, it really was vaya con dios.

I saw her briefly at her wedding. She was busy being the bride. It was a fun reception, though. The food was great. A bunch of journalists were there so the mood can be best described as celebratory cynicism.

And then that was that. She did marriage in Houston. I did my thing here. We lost touch.

To the degree that wisdom follows failure, allow me to hit you up with this: Don’t do that.

The idea that she would be gone at 46, never presented itself as a
possible logistical hurdle. Hell, it never occurred to me that my
21-year-old intern could ever be 46, let alone that would be all the time she would have.

What I’m left with is gratitude for knowing her and regret for losing her. People don’t have to stay in touch with all those who move out of our lives. It’s not possible or practical. Defining friendships, on the other hand, need tending.

Social media does offer us easy connection with those people. It’s what it’s good for. It’s about all it’s good for.

During the past few years, I’ve had this thing about British archaeology shows. I’m sure that’s a therapy session all its own but hear me out. Our physical bodies will spend 10 times as many years under the ground than walking around on top of it. 

The grave is where we will exist the longest. I know, some of you are going to be cremated, but you get the point.

At these archaeological digs, long-dead homo sapiens are pulled from earth as a femur that can be measured or a tooth that can be dated. But who were the people? What did they mean to the others around them? How did their life shape others that molded the community in ways future generations inherit but don’t understand? What story did their life tell? They were just as alive and real as the rest of us and probably thought they too were the most important generation that ever existed.

The dead, themselves, were the only ones to know their real stories. It’s kind of the point of living. Susy’s death reminds me and makes me want to remind  you, it’s not what we do, it’s who we do it with that defines us.

I think about that when we use social media to exaggerate our luxury, lord our moral authority over the inferior and make enemies, rather than friends.

People have never been more connected and yet never felt more isolated. We join conspiracy cults just to make friends and find people who care. We confuse instant messaging and threads with communication and company.

They are neither.

I’m hardly shocked that we are a nation depressed and all our vibes
suck. It’s not the economy. It’s not Donald Trump or Fox News. It’s not
cancel culture. It’s that we confuse text with talk and
scanning replies with listening.

Try sitting quietly on a porch along Speedway with a good buddy as traffic goes by. If you have a social media “friend” and you don’t know what their laugh sounds like, that’s a problem.

Our immunity to all the shitshow being forced on us through a variety of channels is the people who think of us as their first phone call when the bad news comes.

Anyway, I’m ranting. Lost in words as readers know I can be.

Here’s how to illustrate what I’m talking about. Don’t be this guy.

Sigh.

Goodbye, Susy. Sorry I missed you.