In September, 79-year-old Timonium resident Susie Mann fulfilled a lifelong dream to go skydiving. Despite severe nausea leading up to the moment of her descent, Mann took the plunge from a plane at the Skydive Space Center in Titusville, Florida.
"I figured if President Bush could do it, I could do it, too," says Mann. "I don't know what I expected, but I thought there would be a feeling of speed when you fall 10,000 feet. I didn't feel like I was moving. I didn't hesitate to jump at all. You know you aren't going to get down any other way."
Although 11 other family members and friends joined in the adventure, Mann was the last to land. "I'm on the ground just looking at my mother, this tiny speck in the sky," recalls her daughter, Louise. "We are just standing there on the ground, and she is watching over us. If that's not symbolic, I don't know what is."
So what brought Mann to soar the skies? While on the mend from a heart-valve replacement and triple-bypass surgery in March, Mann was discovered to have another serious health issue. "They were testing for a bleeding ulcer," explains her daughter-in-law Ann Weadock. "It turned out to be inoperable, stage-four stomach cancer which had spread to the liver."
But instead of being devastated by the news, her primary focus was how long she had left to live. "The doctor was very reluctant to tell me how long I had left, but he told me in July that I had six to nine months, and I was like, 'Good, that gives us time to do things.'"
While her oncologist, Dr. John Downs of St. Joseph Medical Center, recommended a combination of chemotherapy and radiation in hopes of prolonging her life—a regimen that causes debilitating nausea and weakness—Mann had other plans: She opted to make the most of the time she had left. "Chemo was out of the question right away," says Mann. "Would it be different if I had felt like I was dying? Maybe. But I had no symptoms. Other than shortness of breath, I didn't feel sick." Says Downs, "We recommended the possibility of some drugs and chemotherapy. She was open-minded—it wasn't that she didn't listen. But she was pretty clear that she didn't want that, not in the short term, especially since she is so asymptomatic."
As a nurse and president of New York-based Access Nursing Services, Mann's daughter, Louise Weadock, has had her fair share of experiences with cancer patients.
"I said to my mom, 'Are you serious about this?' And she was," says Weadock. "First, she had to understand how this cancer was going to progress through her body and that the doctor would help her through the pain, and once she did, she said, 'Yes.' I am a nurse, and I deal with patients in home care and hospitals all the time. The key is to keep their spirits as high as you can, so I said, 'Well, in that case, we will do a 'bucket list' for you.' That meant setting up things she could look forward to every four to six weeks."
The night of the news, some of the family gathered for dinner on the terrace of the exclusive L'Hirondelle Club of Ruxton. Inspired by the terminally ill characters in the 2007 film The Bucket List starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, Mann and her family refined her list of adventures to do before she died. "A few weeks earlier, Louise had gone hang gliding and called me to tell me what wonderful fun it was," says Mann. "So when the bucket list idea came up, either she or I said, 'hang gliding,' and then we came up with skydiving. Once you start thinking along those lines, the imagination keeps going." (Not that Mann's carpe diem attitude is anything new. Even before the diagnosis, the inveterate traveler had recently gone gorge-swinging over the Zambezi River at Victoria Falls and swimming with great white sharks near Cape Town, South Africa.)
To date, Mann—the mother of four and grandmother of four—and her family and friends have gone on several bucket-list adventures, from hang gliding in Middletown, New York ("I went up 4,000 feet," says Mann. "It was very peaceful, very bird-like."), to swimming with the dolphins in Marineland, FL. Also on the list: hot-air ballooning, an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) escapade in Sedona, AZ, and a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon.
Mann's doctors have not always been happy about her treks. "At one point, one of her doctors said, 'What are you doing?'" recounts Louise. "'Your mother has cancer. What happens if she goes swimming with the dolphins and gets to the bottom and can't breathe?' I told my Mom what the doctor said, and asked her, 'What do you want to do?' She said, 'Follow the yellow brick road—that's what we are doing.'"
Mann's joie de vivre has not gone unnoticed—she has become a media darling, dubbed "Daredevil Granny" and "Super Susie" by CBS's The Early Show, which has featured her on a number of morning spots detailing her adventures. "She has been such an inspiration to so many people," says Ann Weadock. "Her grandkids and kids are begging, borrowing, and stealing to take time off from their jobs to join on these trips." (CBS has also joined along to chronicle her adventures and gives updates on "Super Susie" after every trip.)
Mann has also caused somewhat of a stir at her retirement community. As another resident heads down the hallway with her walker, Mann—lovingly known as "Grandy" to her family—jokes, "Wanna go skydiving?"
"The biggest surprise to me is that residents have come up to me, and they've said, 'I've had chemo and radiation therapy, and I wish I had done what you are doing,'" says Mann. "My impression is that they have this cloud hanging over them. Their cancer may be in remission, but they don't know when it is coming back. They've been through it once, but who wants to go through it again?"
Mann's optimistic attitude stems in part from her New York City and suburban New York childhood, where living life to its fullest was encoded in the family genes. "We were always a family who did things," says Mann, whose father, John Kirkland Weeks, was an umpire at the U.S. Open and whose mother, Geraldine Boardman, was an accomplished equestrian who competed at Madison Square Garden.
A family tragedy in 1967 also shaped Mann's attitude toward life. Her oldest son, John, just 16, had a diving accident in Lake Roland that left him a quadriplegic. "When something happens, you don't have a chance to react—you just do," says Mann. "John broke his neck, and we got him to the hospital on a Saturday night. They set his neck and put weights on his head, but I couldn't see him until the next morning. His very first words to me were, 'Happy birthday, Mom.' " I thought, 'Oh, my God, you'd better come up with something,' so I said, 'Thank you very much.' The first thing I threw at him was that President Roosevelt became crippled at a young age. I said, 'Look at what he was able to accomplish. You are young enough where maybe you can do even more.'" (John Weadock is now a favorite tutor at Sylvan Learning Center in Melbourne, Florida, and, at 58, is one of the longest-living quadriplegics in the United States.)
Says Dr. Downs, "I am not a psychiatrist, but she has seen her own family members, who are younger, suffer severe limitations. She feels that she has led a relatively long life, and her number-one concern is quality."
While the Christmas holidays will be spent at home, for as long as her health holds out, Mann has added whitewater rafting and snorkeling to "the list."
"Lousie says Mom's bucket list is killing her," jokes Ann. "I know my bucket list is going to include going to the spa. We've done it all with her."
Sitting in her sunny Mercy Ridge apartment surrounded by family photos and brightly colored needlepoint that seems to mirror her Technicolor life, Mann never stops smiling as she reflects on her unexpected star status in the twilight of her life.
"This has caught on by accident," says Mann. "If I have a message, it is to live life to the fullest and enjoy. There are a lot of people who revel in the lemons, but they can make lemonade if they try hard enough." And as much as she has inspired others with her positive attitude, she says that others have inspired her.
"This has helped me appreciate what I have, and it has made me realize how very afraid people are to talk about death and dying. People will say, 'Do you mind if I ask a question?' And I'll say, 'No, go ahead,' but they are uncomfortable. Dying is just another part of living."