Chapter eighteen of “Where the Salmon Run” written by Trova Heffernan and sponsored by Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed.
The clock was ticking, but no one knew. The nagging cough stubbornly resided in Sue Crystal’s lungs where it had lingered for months. Enough was enough. It was January 2001 and Billy suggested a trip to Hawaii, where the American Indian Resources Institute was holding a Tribal Leaders Forum “We’ll get in the sunshine and get you rid of that cough.” Good friend Patricia Zell joined them. The small group traveled toward the sandy North Shore in a rental car. Sue, in the front passenger seat, pulled out a special wooden box.
“I brought this along. I want to share with you,” Sue explained. “It’s what the boys gave me for Christmas.” “The boys,” Willie’s close circle of friends while he was growing up, had become family to Billy and Sue. The couple extended a lifeline to the young men during overnights and heart-to-heart talks. In appreciation, they gave Sue a beautiful wooden box with a note inside from each of them. “They were getting daily life lessons in how to be,” says Zell. “You study hard. That didn’t come from Billy; it came from Sue.”
In a community weighed down by drug abuse and high school dropout rates, Sue offered support and direction: “You’re going to make something of your life. You don’t have a choice here,” she told them. “Don’t think of this drinking and drugs. You’re not going to do it.”
All my friends were her kids,” Sue’s son, Willie, recalls. “She made sure that every one of my friends had a home when they came to the house. She took them in and she cared for them. One friend—his mom worked two or three jobs. She had three or four kids. She had cousins living with them, aunts and uncles. He never had a dad. He was kind of—whatever is left over. He spent a lot of time with us. My mom really took care of him almost as one of her own.
“My other friend—his mom pretty much sent him packing right after high school. The day after high school she said, ‘You’re out of here. Good luck. I raised you for this long. Now, you’re on your own.’ My mom said, ‘You can come live with us.’ He’s always been like my brother. We’ve known each other since fourth grade. Him and I have always been really close, and we still are today.”
As the rental car hummed along, Sue pulled each note from the box and read it aloud. “Each letter made our hearts cry—in a happy way— over the beautiful way in which each boy so sincerely expressed his love for Sue,” says Zell.
“You were always there for me, if I was down or needed advice,” the boys wrote. “I wouldn’t be who I am today, if not for you.”
Four weeks later, when Washington rains replaced the Hawaiian sun, doctors diagnosed Sue with stage four kidney cancer, a baffling and deceptive disease known for its lack of warning and resistance to chemotherapy. Renal cell carcinoma forms in the lining of small tubes within the kidney. By the time doctors discovered it in Sue, the cancer had invaded other parts of the body. “Your mother and your dad should be living a long life,” Billy says, thinking of his own parents. “I told Crystal all the time, ‘You’ve got to outlive me.’ And we took care of each other. I mean, Jesus, she never smoked or anything. We took good care of each other all the time, and all of a sudden, this happened. She’d been going to the doctor, but they didn’t tell her that she had cancer.”
From what doctors have pieced together about the disease, Sue didn’t fit the mold. While its root cause is unknown, smokers, the obese and those struggling with high blood pressure are at risk. None of these descriptions applied to Sue.
“Finally, when they found out that she had cancer, we just tried to beat it,” Billy remembers. “You keep saying, ‘I need some warm weather and it will knock this cold out.’ That’s the way you think. But we could never make that happen. That cancer was eating her. We tried chemo and all that.”
Willie’s friends came and sat with Sue every day, holding her hands, offering to go grocery shopping or clean the house.
As they did each year on America’s birthday, Billy and Sue threw a bash on the beach outside their Johnson Point home. Friends say she was grateful to watch fireworks light up the sky from the deck outside her window.
The disease progressed. Friends and family came to pay tribute. “On her death bed, she had sage and sweet grass and also the Star of David,” Hank Adams said. “She had those things with her to the end. Now, both Indian and Jewish things go with her on this journey.” Billy sat at the end of her bed rubbing her feet.
“She got weaker and weaker and weaker, and then died,” Billy recalls. “God dang. And here’s Willie, a young man. The cancer come and took her away. That was a big, big blow to Willie and I. We were all so close together. Not only that, but all of our family was together, real close. We just loved one another and depended on each other.”
“I always tell people, you never realize how valuable your time is with somebody until they’re gone,” Willie says. “The one thing I regret is that people didn’t tell me how sick she really was. If I would have known that, I would have been by her side every day. I would have sat there every day. I think about it now, if I could have just one more hour, even an hour, that would be fine. The way she treated me, I couldn’t imagine anything else. I was always her number one priority. People ask me, ‘Could you explain your mom?’ I say, ‘I really can’t, I’ve never seen anybody like her before, the way she cared for people.’”
Sue Crystal died at only forty-eight years of age, remembered for her energy, her advisory role to two governors, and her contributions to Indian affairs and health policy. Gary Locke, former governor, called the loss overwhelming.
“As a person, she was one of the strongest, boldest personalities that I’ve ever come across,” Zell says, “yet she was also very soft, loving and compassionate. . . . Crystal opened new worlds to Billy, and that made him stronger in his local world here.”
“When Susan died, I never found out she died until after the fact,” says Billy’s son, Tanu. “I understand. Dad was too broken up.” “For a long time, I just couldn’t talk about her,” Billy says. “I’d get emotional. And I’d just stand up, and I’ve got to say something in different forums, and god dang, I just couldn’t say anything. Finally, I got to where I can talk.”
Tanu was able to offer Billy some comfort: he was going to be a grandfather. Tanu’s daughter was named Crystal, in honor of Susan.
Sadly, in April 2002, Crystal Elliott died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or sids, the baffling unexplained death of a child under age one.
Willie III, meanwhile, had enrolled at South Puget Sound Community College. “I probably shouldn’t have gone back to school right away. My grades weren’t in it. I ended up going through, and I got good enough grades to pass for that quarter. I got my AA and I didn’t want to go anywhere out of state or anything, I wanted to be close to my dad, so Evergreen will be a good choice.” Willie graduated in Native American studies and considers the education “the best thing he could have done with his life.” Willie is now vice chairman of the Nisqually Tribe and has developed a following of his own.
Sue Crystal would be proud, Billy says.
Next: The Catalyst