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Parent and Family of the Year Award Winner-Sue Phillips

For my mom, Sue Phillips.

When my dad died in May at the end of my freshman year at Gonzaga, going back to school was the last thing I wanted to do. After deciding to stay home following spring break of that year, I was content to leave my brief chapter at Gonzaga behind me. School seemed so trivial, nothing more than a pesky hurdle when grappling with the huge unknown entity of death. I didn’t want to go back and try to fill the same shoes that I had left.

Freshman year is supposed to be the ultimate romantic comedy: quirky and awkward at first, leading into major dramatic strife (aka homesickness), before finally mellowing out into a semblance of contentment. But between constant flights back home and my ultimate decision to withdraw from my classes, over a third of my freshman year was in a constant state of limbo. While my classmates were making friends on outings to the BARC or at basketball games, the only relationship I was starting was one with brain tumors and death. I had no desire to go back and pretend that things were the way they were when I first stepped foot on Gonzaga’s campus back in August.

My mom had different ideas. That summer after my dad passed, we were sitting at the dining room table, the late afternoon sun filtering through the sliding glass doors. We were shifting through some of my dad’s favorite music. In those days, the tears were as constant as breathing and the music added piercing rhythm to the breaking of our hearts. In the midst of it all, my mom turned to me and said, “You know your dad would’ve wanted you and your brother to go back to school. He was always so proud of your accomplishments. He would’ve been so proud to watch you cross the stage.”

Those sentences sealed my fate in a way that no other rationale could. She went straight for the guilt and laid it on thick. Yet, in doing so, she did something so completely selfless. Instead of asking my brother and I to stay, she pushed us out of our nest and back into the world around us. She only ever wanted to provide the best for us and knew that we would thrive in our experiences if only we took the opportunities that the world offered.

My mom has always been a world-traveler. From multiple trips to South Africa to a recent voyage to Antarctica, she has successfully conquered all seven continents and has traveled to over sixty countries. She started traveling internationally when she was just nineteen with her first solo trip through South America, and now, at fifty-seven, she has just spent a week with the penguins in the polar icecaps. From local expeditions on the Pacific Crest Trail to global encounters on the sandy beaches of Tahiti, my mom has explored the far reaches of the world. Her passion for travel has seeped into my brother’s and my life. From an early age, she taught us a deep and resounding care for each, individual person and lit an excitement in our souls to experience life outside the scope of our own understanding.

Often when I tell people of my mom’s career with the travel industry, they immediately respond with some variation of, “Wow, how’d she land that dream job?” They see the glitz and the glamor on the surface, without recognizing the toil underneath. Since high school, my mom has worked for three separate travel companies simultaneously. That means three jobs, three different set of workloads, three contrasting workplace procedures and policies, and hundreds of trips to plan between them. Getting paid on an hourly wage means she’s often starting her days at 5am and ending them around 8-9pm to maximize her wages paycheck to paycheck. Weekends don’t exist for her; Saturdays and Sundays are often only marked by leisurely mornings or extended lunch breaks. If a trip that she’s managing is underway, family vacations or holidays are often littered with terse phone calls or long absences. While my mom is often crossing borders as a perk of the job, the job itself knows no boundaries.

Yet, amidst working 50-hour work weeks, she’s also able to take her passion and instill it in so many others. She’s taught geography and hospitality courses at the local community college, and is an active school board member for the Edmonds School District, inspiring students young and old to spread their wings out into the world. She also took the time to tell detailed stories of endlessly patient Buddhist monks or of the slow prowl of a lion in the hot African sun to my brother and I, sparking our passion to fill her shoes and have our own encounters with the world. She’s fearless, tireless, and always open to the next adventure. She lives her life like she does her crossword puzzles: boldly, relentlessly, and always in pen. Her tenacity to overcome obstacles comes from a place of strength that I couldn’t even begin to imagine how to cultivate.

My dad’s headaches started shortly after I started attending Gonzaga. His complaining of their incessant pounding and long pauses in phone conversations became normal to our family in those months leading up to his diagnosis. While I could chalk up my lack of awareness of the growing situation to being too focused on the awkward phases of my first year, it really came down to my mom. She kept my brother and I calm amidst the growing panic. Even when surgery loomed, she discussed everything in soothing tones, not wanting to create more alarm than necessary. She shouldered so much of the weight of responsibility in taking care of my dad, but also in trying to keep our lives as normal as possible. Despite frantic weekend trips home, we always came back to school, leaving my mom to deal with the bulk of my dad’s condition. She took extended absences from her jobs, not knowing if or when she’d ever go back to them. She left her position as a school board member and completely altered her life in order to be there with my dad every step of the way. She encouraged my brother and I to take breaks from the day in and day out visitations, to spend time with our friends, to not put our lives on hold even though hers was on permanent arrest. She carried the burden and responsibility of all of us, even when she was crumbling at the base.  And after my dad passed, instead of holding us close to her chest, she encouraged us out of the nest to continue our lives and our education, even though she wasn’t sure what the next step in her own life was. Even now, in these past few years as she’s resumed her working life, she’s never once asked us to come home, though we both visit frequently. She’s never complained about being alone or lonely in my large, empty childhood home. Never once has she revealed that she’s anything but fine, in order for us to try to live out our dreams, guilt-free.

Because of my mom, I am the Zag that I am today. Since returning to Gonzaga, I was able to find the home I had been searching for. Budding friendships that I had left in the wake of my sudden absence welcomed me back with open arms. I found support and solace in on-campus grief group sessions with peers who also lost parents or loved ones, peers that would eventually become some of my closest friends. I found community and passion through the CCASL program of Zags Engaging in Serving Seniors Together, or ZESST, and family at the O’Malley apartments I visited, first as a volunteer and then as a leader. I found infinite spirit at basketball games and endless kindness in professors and staff members along the way. I found love in the Search community and became comfortable with silence on the Monserrat retreat. And I even was able to channel my mom’s travel-bug through my study abroad experience to Florence. Without my mom pushing me to return to Gonzaga, none of this would have happened.

She pushed my brother and I to continue our lives, but also let us know she was right there to catch us when we tripped and stumbled along the way. I am forever and eternally grateful for my mom. Without her unquantifiable support, I never would have been able to continue my education. Without her, graduating would just be a dream, instead of a moment that is just a few short months away. She made innumerable sacrifices for my brother and I, sacrifices that only can be acknowledged for what they were and can never be remedied with a simple ‘thanks.’ I owe her everything, but know that this is a debt I will never be able to repay. I can only offer her the same support and love that she’s shown me over the years, and hope it’s enough. So, this is to you, Mom. Thank you for everything, always. As Dad would say, you are the best in the west and love you tons.


One Comment

  1. Suzanne Anderson

    Such an inspiring story. A perfect read for Mother’s Day!