Susan Zimmerman: A Remarkable Life Well Lived
It is with deep sadness that the L’Arche Toronto community announces the death of Susan Zimmerman in her 72nd year, a member of L’Arche for over 45 years. Susan died of cancer on April 26, 2020 at Toronto General Hospital.
We are heartbroken, but so grateful too, as in the end she was ready to go home after living such a good and full life. She is now reunited with her beloved parents Leroy and Winnifred and her sister Eileen Granville among a heavenly host of L’Arche saints who have been waiting for her arrival to thank her and celebrate with her! She will also be missed by her sisters Erma Drobnis and Elizabeth Scott and her six nieces and nephews.
Susan introduced L’Arche to the deep spiritual insight that everyone’s life is an unrepeatable grace, for oneself, for one’s family and friends and for society. How true for Susan’s life too!
She grew up in Columbus, Ohio, Oakridge, Tennessee and Poughquag, New York, until the family moved to Woodland Hills, California in 1960. She played the flute in her high school band and marched in the Rose Bowl parade. She also played the piano and guitar. Along with her family she was an active member in the choirs of the Woodland Hills United Methodist church. Although still a teen herself, she directed the children’s choir while singing in the adult and madrigal choirs. Her love of music and singing was one graceful thread woven throughout her entire life.
Susan was an active member of the 4-H club with projects in dairy goats and sewing. Her love of animals was another colorful thread that added to the tapestry of her life as she had a deep affection and concern for all her many four-legged companions.
But it was one day in high school that changed her life irrevocably. Susan’s heart stopped during a swim meet and she had to be revived by the school nurse. She was soon diagnosed with a congenital heart defect that required two open-heart surgeries in the coming years and eventually a heart transplant in 1993. Physically unable to attend school, she had to be home schooled by her teachers. As a teenager, the horizon for her life seemed truly short as she struggled with grief, anger, denial, and bargaining. She gradually let go of future hopes. Yet her many health challenges over the years were also part of the unrepeatable grace that shaped the caring and giving person she became as she knew what it felt like to be vulnerable, weak and on the margins of life.
Despite these challenges, Susan went to Mills College in Oakland, California and completed her B.A. in mathematics, graduating as valedictorian. Did we mention yet that she was extremely bright? (Both her parents were scientists.) For example, she was excellent at learning languages. Susan studied French in high school, Russian in college, Japanese at the Monterey Institute, and worked independently to learn Hebrew, Spanish, and Tagalog.
Susan went to Northwestern University in Chicago as a PhD student in economics in the early ‘70s and finished all the course work. Her strong background and training in mathematics would have served well in that field. The choice of economics came from her desire to serve the less fortunate. At that time, she also entered the Catholic faith and lived it intensely. In her pocket copy of the New Testament, she wrote, “I, Susan, dedicate myself to life directed by You and Your Gospel.”
At the Newman Center on campus, she was an active participant in the liturgy, including morning and evening prayer, and she initiated a meager meal program to identify with the less fortunate during Lent. The Martinez family began to play an important role in Susan’s life at this time. She went to a social agency to ask for the name of family for whom she might prepare Easter baskets. She was asked if she was interested in a large or small family, she responded large. The Martinez family numbered 8 children, 4 boys, 4 girls, ranging in age from 2 to 12 years old. When the mother, Francisca, was once hospitalized, Susan became the principal caregiver for the children. And when the family was evicted from their storefront apartment, Susan and her friends from Northwestern found temporary housing for them before mounting a search to relocate them eventually to the city of Chicago. The family remained friends with Susan throughout her life, and members of the family were the last to speak with her via FaceTime the day she died.
Susan was offered a teaching position at Northwestern, but her intense desire to live an authentic life of faith, made L’Arche particularly attractive. Her many years in L’Arche began with a pilgrimage.
In one of her more dramatic moves in the summer of ’75, she set out walking from Chicago to Gimli, Manitoba for a L’Arche retreat. “Taking nothing for the journey” was to be applied literally! While she did walk a significant distance, she was the fortunate recipient of a ride with a group of sisters who had opened their convent to her along the way. But the community leader of L’Arche Winnipeg had to meet her at the border to convince the border officials to let her into Canada in her long cotton dress and bare feet as she didn’t have the proper papers! Once more, that unrepeatable grace won the day so that Susan could began her longer pilgrim journey with L’Arche, a choice which she never regretted, though it wasn’t always a walk in the park on a warm day.
In reflecting on the pilgrimage to Gimli, she once wrote, “The whole trip has been for me a blessing, a very centered rejoicing time… a time of hope – of wavering, but yearning faith in our God who loves His people, and deals with us generously… and there at the limits of our capacities, in the shadows of our fear.”
In her nearly 47 years with L’Arche, Susan served in various roles in several communities. She started in L’Arche Victoria as an assistant in a home. The community quickly recognized her remarkable ability to connect in depth with vulnerable people at L’Arche and at the prison program. She also continued her walking pilgrim ways up the Island and with a group pilgrimage to Guadalupe in Mexico.
In 1978 she moved to L’Arche Edmonton to be the community leader during a time of crisis, and she restored order and stability, while learning that she had, at times, more difficulty in her relationships with assistants than with the core members.
She moved to L’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill in the mid 80’s and lived first at the Big House and then the New House. Susan made many innovative contributions to the community. For example, she started the Seniors Club for Daybreak’s retired core members. She was also the brains for the vision behind the first membership process and celebration in the community. In general, she was always a strong advocate for each core member, helping them to articulate what they wanted or needed and coming up with creative ideas and approaches to make things happen.
She knew quite a bit about Jewish traditions and was a help to Ellen Weinstein and Mel Kirzner in celebrating the Jewish festivals. When she was house leader, she invited Harold, Ellen's father, to
lead Passover seders at the Big House. She was part of the support group for Ellen when Ellen was preparing for her Bat Mitzvah and later with Mel for his Bar Mitzvah.
She was gifted in articulating the pedagogy of L’Arche, and in giving well thought out formation and training to assistants at various levels of L’Arche. She also preached the first and groundbreaking Canadian L’Arche Covenant Companions Retreat in Toronto in 1991, where pairs of assistants and core members really lived the retreat together as buddies. She auditioned and joined the Amadeus Choir in Toronto and won a prize for writing the best new Christmas carol.
During this time at Daybreak, she was asked by L’Arche International to go to Japan for several long visits over several years to help a L’Arche community start there, which still thrives to this day.
Also, during this time in the early ‘90’s, Susan was very aware of the reality of heart transplants. The first one was done in 1967 in South Africa, but that patient died after only 18 days. As her own heart grew weaker, this option was recommended to her. When she chose to say “yes” she really had no idea of the cost. There was considerable and vigorous screening and testing by medical staff. Her community didn’t understand very well how serious her reality was or how to support her well. There was a long, difficult wait of nine months for the transplant in her own apartment, which Daybreak helped to set up as it had other apartments in the building and so people could visit daily. She wondered if the call from the transplant unit would come in time, and, by God’s grace, it did!
Daybreak friends drove her to the hospital and waited there until she came out of the surgery. When she woke up, one person remarked to her, “Sorry, but we are not meeting in heaven.” Susan replied, “No, it would look a lot better than this!” At the time of her transplant, the average additional life span was ten years. Susan lived the rest of her 27 years with immense gratitude for her new heart, knowing that for her deep desire to live to be fulfilled, someone else had to die.
Her recovery was long and difficult. She had a broken sternum, innumerable bruises and stitches, along with fierce migraines and bad sleep. On top of all that was the social isolation she had to endure because of the possibility of infection due to her compromised immune system and the risk her body would reject her new heart. Yet once again Susan proved to be very methodical, self-disciplined and a woman of tremendous determination and resilience. She followed all the protocols and strict regimens. She delighted in being able to swim again and often left much younger swimmers in her wake!
Eventually she moved to Toronto and bought a small house. She started a new job for the Ontario government as an advocate and policy writer for people being served in the mental health sector, which was a great fit for her experience and concern for vulnerable people who needed support.
She also linked up with the L’Arche Toronto community and especially with Greenwood House where she regularly came for dinner on Friday nights and celebrated Shabbat with Jewish friend Mel Kirzner and his housemates.
Susan served as an advocate for ten years before retiring early due to her poor health and struggles with two bouts of cancer. Yet this did allow Susan to spend many months in California supporting her aging mother. During later years she was supported by many faithful friends, including L’Arche folks, especially Jane Powell, who found Susan’s last home in a Toronto Community Housing apartment
with a fantastic view of the Don Valley and downtown Toronto. Her last four years of her life there were exceptionally good and peaceful years, despite her ongoing, complex health issues.
Of course, there are so many more stories that could be told! But our hope is that this short summary of her life gives you a real taste of the unrepeatable grace of her life. Susan was a rare combination of a gifted intelligence and a big heart which was tender and compassionate. We will always remember how her unique vulnerability and fierce drive to live marked her life and ours. She taught us so much, often without our realizing it, about what it means to live a deeply human life, with its gifts and challenges. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.
We are confident that Susan would be delighted if you would make a donation in her memory to:
Heart Transplant Research at Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation. Please visit tgwhf.ca/tribute or call 416-603-5300.
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Susan Jane Zimmerman, please visit our floral store.
Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation
5S-801 190 Elizabeth Street, Toronto ON M5G 2C4