Suzy Wortman

Suzy and Randy Wortman were invited by his former students to a Theodore Roosevelt High School reunion in Chicago, Illinois.

Suzy Wortman lost Randy Wortman, her husband of 54 years, on Feb. 14, 2020.

Randy had Parkinson’s disease but died of pneumonia. He might have died of COVID-19, but since his death happened before COVID testing became prevalent, she’ll never know.

“He died holding my hand, looking at me, and was surrounded by family and friends,” Suzy said. “So, that’s how 2020 started.”

Then, the quarantine came. It took Suzy some time to figure out the difference between being lonely and being alone. She spent the pandemic trying to heal, sitting with her memories and discovering parts of her husband she never knew in the things he left behind.

“I think I closed my heart and my feelings. And every once in a while I would open it a little bit and then close it,” said Suzy, 78. “I could have crashed completely.” Instead, she did whatever she could to stay positive and get through the hardest year of her life.

Randy lived in an assisted living facility in the East Valley for about two years before he died. Suzy would drive up from Casa Grande to be with him four or five days a week, and once a month or so, she would also visit her daughter, son-in-law and two teenage grandsons who live near the facility.

But between March 2020 and March 2021, she only saw her family a handful of times. “I would have loved to have been able to see them every week. But I think I learned to be patient — I was trying to be careful.”

After Randy died, Suzy spent some time “not doing anything at all.”

“Not only was I not able to connect with family, I was not able to do the memorial,” she said. “My family would — and my sister still does — call me every night to make sure I’m okay.”

One day, she realized she needed to write. About a year before Randy died, Suzy started writing a book to preserve their family history and encapsulate the essence of who Randy was. She would bring her laptop to Randy’s room and dictate his thoughts on whatever subject he chose. Stuck in her house alone, as the pandemic’s spread worsened, she decided to complete that book.

“I wanted to make sure my grandsons knew the important parts of their grandfather,” she said. She wrote about his career as a teacher, and the support he gave to women and girls. He was the first swim coach in Chicago to bring girls to the swim team and the first theater stage crew sponsor to bring girls on, she said.

“I have a lot of stories, and this past year I realized these are important stories to share,” she said.

She wrote about what Judaism meant to Randy and her, which she described as being encased in several “basic values,” including learning, “we think that study is the highest obligation of mankind”; mitzvot, “what you do is more important than what you believe”; and tikkun olam, “always try to improve societies that we live in,” she said.

Writing was also a way for her to feel less isolated from her family and more connected to her grandsons, who were more interested in texting than talking on the phone.

“Sometimes I didn’t talk to them, but I had them in my head, especially when I was writing things down for them to read later,” she said.

She also thought about her family as she went through Randy’s things. “My husband kept every piece of paper,” she said. Stuck in her house for the year, she looked through it all and experienced several pleasant surprises.

“I found some poetry that my husband had written, and I didn’t remember seeing it,” she said. “I’m glad that I didn’t just throw everything away.”

She made photo books of her grandsons, so that when she missed them, she could look at them and feel connected.

“Fortunately, my two grandsons are older. If they had been younger, it would have been so much harder for me,” she said.

Whenever she took a walk, she thought of her grandson, Colin Morris, 17, who likes sports.

Whenever she comes across something of Randy’s from his days as a physics teacher, she thinks of Ethan Morris, 14, who loves science.

Now that Suzy has been fully vaccinated, she is beginning to visit her family and spend less time at home.

Reflecting on this past difficult year, she feels grateful she found ways to channel her grief in positive ways.

“I’ve always tried to figure out a positive way to deal with what was happening,” she said. “Someone who says they’ve never grieved, they’ve never loved.” JN

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