Susan Dix Lyons

You’re sitting across from me at the table. It’s our date night, something we don’t do often enough. This is what’s between us: Refinancing our mortgage, investing in the kids’ 529’s, our parents getting older, a bigger car, our work, fatigue, the next family vacation, time. We wonder loosely whether to go with the mushroom tortellini or the shrimp risotto.

I look at you. Deeper than I’ve had the breath to do in weeks.

There are new lines on your face, each one a story of concern for us, your family. I look at you, only half-hearing the words of explanation and regret.

“You’re not listening to me,” you say.

I look at your face, the face I’ve loved every day since I met you, and this is what I want to say:

This morning I woke up to something complete — to you, the simple sound of you, steady and warm. This morning I woke up and all the things that unsettle me, keep me hurtling forward, were for that moment hushed, because you were there. This morning, before the sun split the sky, the world was perfect, because our children were near in their beds and I was next to you.

This morning you walked out the door after a short kiss and we went on with our days. The small and large crises, the trifling errands, the lost instruments and heartbeats, the contracts and calculations, the needs of others wrestling with our own wants — but you kept coming back to me. In moments at the computer on the road, in conversation, I was reminded of you, and why my life is always brimming.

I was reminded of you — the man who looked at me and said, Yes.

You are sitting across from me at the table. It’s our date night, and you are right. I’m not listening. I’m just holding you with my eyes and thinking, You. Always You. Only. You.

With a Perspective, I’m Susan Dix Lyons.

Susan Dix Lyons lives in St. Helena.

Susan Dix Lyons’ daughter is at ‘that age,’ making the difficult passage from childhood to independence. Here’s her Perspective.

Sometimes I’ll drive 30 minutes each way just to get her a taco. Anything, really, to make her happy and have her by my side.

Her silence thunders inside of me.

My daughter is 14 — that stage when you reach the crest of the climb and suddenly begin to drop, all thrill and panic. She is magnificent, alive, full of private reproaches and fears, and her beauty is the storm that she doesn’t see coming.

I think about how to reach her as I do a stubborn equation. What’s the word limit for keeping her attention? How many minutes of Soundcloud does she need before I earn a question? Three? Seven?

Other times I give up and start to sing behind the wheel, making moves that I know will get me a cheap look of horror or a plea to stop. “That shouldn’t happen,” she’ll say, squinching her brows as I break out too-loud in my off-pitch Sylvan Esso. “Whaaaat?” I’ll say, all mock coolness as she gives me The Look. I’ll clam up for a mile or so, then say her name.

“What,” she’ll respond.

“I love you,” I’ll say, remembering how tightly she liked to be swaddled, how I would tuck her beside me as a baby so I could feel her breath. She’ll look out the window at the passing vineyards. A beat will pass. Maybe two or three. “I know, Mama,” she’ll finally say.

I look at her as a mother, my own private ache and concern. I look at her as a woman, respecting the messy journey as I search for crumbs in her trail. I look at her as the girl I once was, knowing how I wished my own mother would understand and yet wishing even harder that she would leave. Me. Alone.

“Hey,” I’ll say again, speaking her name like a prayer or invocation.

“What,” she’ll respond again, sometimes with a short, deep sigh as she turns her head my way and removes one earbud from her slender, open ear.

“I love you so, so much.”

And we’ll drive.

With a Perspective, I’m Susan Dix Lyons.

Susan Dix Lyons lives in St. Helena.

I was awakened by the sound of my name, whispered twice. “Suzie.” I lifted my head from the pillow and opened my eyes to see a man framed by the doorway, thin white hair, slightly bent forward in pajamas. The morning light streamed in from behind him.

“Dad?” I whispered back. “I brought you some coffee,” he said. He set down a mug on the bedside table in the summer cottage, and left without another word.

I am the daughter of a good man. Not a master of the universe, a baron or a statesman. A man who worked hard and seemed to hold only the most ordinary of ambitions: the happiness of his family. He is not celebrated by the masses. History books won’t remember him. Pundits don’t seek his opinion. But he is my Dad, and he’s a good man.

In the past months there’s been a lot of attention given to the failings of men, the reckless collisions with their desires and compulsions. Those we consider “great men” often seem to believe too much in their claim to that glory, risking what is precious for the spike of a thrill. These “great” men can appear like meteors, flaming bright and crashing hard.

But it’s the good men who hold us all together.

My dad never demanded recognition. He went to work, walked the dog, coached my soccer team, and beamed at my graduation. He talked about “doing the right thing” in a way that implied “the right thing” was always obvious. He raised his voice so rarely that we giggled when he did, and he regarded my mistakes with little more than a sigh of patience as he waited for me to course-correct. He was — and is — so good.

And good men are heroic. Noble and true. Good men may not command the spotlight, but they harbor our hearts and give us strength. Good men deserve the throne they will never seek.

After my Dad placed the mug of coffee beside my bed, I laid there a long time considering him, gray and receding, his sweetness toned with the years. I clung to my sense of privilege in the morning quiet. I am the daughter of a good man.

With a Perspective, I’m Susan Dix Lyons.

Susan Dix Lyons is Co-Founder and Design Director of a health design organization in San Francisco.

Their faces push forward through my dreams.

The young man who had been shot, his crooked-fixed stare both hard and scared. The woman who had been assaulted outside her apartment, a bright purple hematoma crowning her head. The hulking man, tattooed, with a wide red gash running vertically down the length of his leg like a sliced tenderloin.

I was rounding patients with the attending trauma surgeon at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. In our group, were a 4th-year resident, a half-dozen medical students, and a couple of nurse practitioners – an early-dawn battalion at the only Level One Trauma Center in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you live in the Bay Area and get in a car crash, or get shot, or confront a medical emergency that rattles you deeply enough – this is where you come.

And on this day I am here, a shadow, watching you, and watching the people who are tasked with caring for you, struggling with my urge to kneel at each of your bedsides. I am learning that GSW means gun-shot wound, and MVC means motor vehicle crash. And I am learning this:

If you are that woman who was pulled from your car after a collision; as you lie flat on the gurney with your neck in a brace worrying frantically for your baby and the daughter who were with you in that car. If you are that woman alone in that room with your shivering heart and your now unfamiliar body – you may, or may not, remember this.

There is a surgeon who stops to listen to you. It’s near the end of her rounds, and the morning has been long, but she lays her hand on your shoulder. She looks you full in the face and says, “I know that you’re scared. This is scary. Your baby and your daughter are going to be OK, and we’re going to take good care of you.”

When the surgeon says these words, I feel a flood of relief and gratitude. I feel that I am you, and I no longer need to kneel at your bedside. I just hope that you will remember. I hope that you will remember that you are in good hands – hands born for this moment to carry you through.

With a Perspective, I’m Susan Dix Lyons.

Susan Dix Lyons is Co-Founder and Design Director of a health design organization in San Francisco.

I’m driving the 101 north as a soft rain falls on my windshield. I read the exit signs mechanically, searching for distraction. Bayshore Boulevard. Cow Palace. Candlestick Park.

I’ve just dropped my oldest son at the airport after his first holiday home from college, and everything is draped in grey. The road. The sky. The bay. They all fade into each other, one vanishing horizon.

I don’t want him to go.

There. I said it.

I don’t want to watch from behind as his steps take him away from me. I don’t want to lose the blast of his too-loud voice. I don’t want to walk into his room and find that everything is noiseless and still. The plaid comforter on his bed. The LEGO starship on his dresser. the Sports Illustrated and loose socks. I don’t want to forget his face as he looked up at me, way up, so long ago, and said, “Hold me, Mama.”

I don’t. Want. That. I want to go back to the beginning and take every step with him again, only this time I won’t miss a single thing, a beat, an expression. I will hold his unfurled fist against the sun and marvel at the way that each finger, every tender move, seems to sharpen the light in the entire, blinding, spinning-too-fast world. That first blue cry. The lip pushed up with anger. The stunned-rhapsodic eyes of a goal scored, the smear of boyhood defeat.

I want him to stay, and yet – yes, I want him to go. I want him to create his own room, his own space, the small monuments of becoming. I want to know that he doesn’t need me anymore.

I want him to stay. But more than anything in my mortal and electric being, I want him to go – knowing that life has been totally, righteously unleashed before him.

Go, my sweet, fierce son. Go.

With a Perspective, I’m Susan Dix Lyons.

Susan Dix Lyons is founder of an international healthcare nonprofit based in the North Bay.

I’m rolling the dough in the kitchen, listening to Pandora as my life moves around me: my husband talking on the phone to a colleague in the other room; the boys playing video games; my daughter’s dress-up heels clomping against the floor as she pushes her mini grocery cart down the hallway. I hear all of this and don’t hear it. I’m stretching and rolling the dough, hands bathed in flour, listening to the music. The tomato sauce is cooling on the stove-top. It’s Friday and it’s Pizza Night.

Fridays have changed.

Every now and then I have an urge to flee. To un-tether. Bust out. Not for good, but for a moment. To travel back to a Friday night when I was a girl, a woman, swiping my path through the world to all the lavish noise of freedom.

I have loved my life. I loved that life. But here’s the odd and fantastic truth: It’s Friday, I’m in my kitchen, and there is no other place more wildly wonderful than right here.

As a woman, this is the course traveled. We throw ourselves out there, trying to grab what life places before us — the things desired and the returning hope to be desired — and we arrive, if all goes incredibly well, with this:

Pizza Night.

A man on the phone in the other room, who — in a stroke of the heart’s mad genius — we were lucky enough to choose. Children downstairs and upstairs who exhaust us, drain and vex us, and fill us with more riotous love than we ever dreamed possible. Everything we didn’t really know we so entirely wanted.

I am no longer young. All of my massive yearnings have brought me to this place. I have a husband, two sons, and a daughter. I listen to music that is both new and old. I stir in ways no lesser than earlier days when my movements were bigger, less hinged. It’s Friday night.

I’m rolling out the dough while the music plays.

Life is so quietly, so commonly, complete.

With a Perspective, I’m Susan Dix Lyons.

Susan Dix Lyons lives in St. Helena.

I couldn’t find her. She was there. On the porch. I went inside to start dinner. Then 15, maybe 20, minutes later I went back out and she was gone.

I slipped on my shoes and patrolled the yard, raking every corner with my eyes. The panic began to swell in my chest, then my throat. I shouldn’t have left her alone.

A few months ago we found out that our dog has cancer, a tumor in her lung bigger than a fist that had started to spread throughout her body. We watched her decline like passengers in a boat that had sprung a leak, then another, patching her up while we all held on. Forced breathing. Loss of appetite. Limbs that would suddenly crumple like napkins beneath her. We knew where we were going with her. We were buying time.

But now she was gone.

I grabbed my car key and rolled through the neighborhood, windows down, calling and calling. Jordy!

A dog is more than a pet. She’s a breathing memorial to your family’s life together. She was there with her wide belly for your 5-year-old daughter to rest her head, absolute trust; with your boys in the days when they were weedy and wild, throwing sticks across the lake, splashing together above a muddy clam bed. At your husband’s feet after so many long days, her deep, happy sigh as he rubbed her neck and shoulders. Whatever moments happened between us or among us, she would always love us in the same way, always come when we called.

Until she couldn’t.

As I rolled down a side street, something moved up-ahead. And then I could see – her four legs, withering body. I popped the car into park and jumped out, wrapping my arms around her. “Don’t do that,” I whispered in her ear, then, “I’m sorry.”

And now she is gone. Yesterday we gathered around her, choking back tears as she drifted into sleep one last time. Our sweet, sweet girl – in the heart of our family forever found.

With a Perspective, I’m Susan Dix Lyons.

Susan Dix Lyons is founder of an international health care non-profit based in the North Bay.

I’m driving the 101 north as a soft rain falls on my windshield. I read the exit signs mechanically, searching for distraction. Bayshore Boulevard. Cow Palace. Candlestick Park.

I’ve just dropped my oldest son at the airport after his first holiday home from college, and everything is draped in grey. The road. The sky. The bay. They all fade into each other, one vanishing horizon.

I don’t want him to go.

There. I said it.

I don’t want to watch from behind as his steps take him away from me. I don’t want to lose the blast of his too-loud voice. I don’t want to walk into his room and find that everything is noiseless and still. The plaid comforter on his bed. The LEGO starship on his dresser. the Sports Illustrated and loose socks. I don’t want to forget his face as he looked up at me, way up, so long ago, and said, “Hold me, Mama.”

I don’t. Want. That. I want to go back to the beginning and take every step with him again, only this time I won’t miss a single thing, a beat, an expression. I will hold his unfurled fist against the sun and marvel at the way that each finger, every tender move, seems to sharpen the light in the entire, blinding, spinning-too-fast world. That first blue cry. The lip pushed up with anger. The stunned-rhapsodic eyes of a goal scored, the smear of boyhood defeat.

I want him to stay, and yet – yes, I want him to go. I want him to create his own room, his own space, the small monuments of becoming. I want to know that he doesn’t need me anymore.

I want him to stay. But more than anything in my mortal and electric being, I want him to go – knowing that life has been totally, righteously unleashed before him.

Go, my sweet, fierce son. Go.

With a Perspective, I’m Susan Dix Lyons.

Susan Dix Lyons is founder of an international healthcare nonprofit based in the North Bay.

He is 17. He is far and near. Hot and cold. Steady and rocked, skin to skin, unreachable. When he smiles, white light erupts in every corner of the universe. He is my son.

These days, he needs me less. It's his last year in high school. I watch him from the sidelines, learning how to be the mother of an almost-man. I watch him move among his friends, I watch as he shoots baskets in the driveway – dunk, slam, swoosh – over and over and over and over. I watch my son as he silently moves forward, both uncertain and bold.

And in the morning, before he wakes, I make him lunch.

In our still-dark home, the colors and textures tell stories. My hands move with each memory, measuring time to the whole of a young life so huge in my heart.

Tuna with chopped red onions, scooped like ice cream above a bed of spring greens. Diced bell peppers, the colors of his boyhood trucks, red always his favorite as he crawled vrooming on his knees. Diced avocado, summer bright like the smears of grass on his baseball pants. Salt and pepper, olive oil, a squeeze of lemon. How he used to bite right into the wedge, screwing up his face to shudder before laughing, the smell of fresh citrus stamped on his small fingers. I mix blueberries and raspberries. He loved the small, wild ones frozen, once eating so many he cried as he rolled on the floor, his belly a storm.  Almonds, macadamias, cashews, tossed like marbles. He was always good with his hands, precise.

I cut and chop in the quiet of the kitchen, before the day breaks, happy to be with him alone again, like he was, my first baby. My perfect, miraculous boy.

At the end of the day he walks into the kitchen, throws down his backpack, opens the frig to grab a drink.

"That lunch you made me, Mama?" he says, turning towards me a little.

I look up, catch his eye. "Yeah?" I say.

"It was the bomb," he says.

And that's all I need.

With a Perspective, I'm Susan Dix Lyons.

Susan Dix Lyonsis founder of an international nonprofit based in Angwin.

I couldn't stop thinking about him. He was sitting on a bench outside of Whole Foods, wearing a grey T-shirt and striped beanie, his guitar case stretched flat by his side. He had hair the color of Wheaties that grew past his ears and a beard that needed a trim. His blue eyes seemed sorry.

"Can I talk with you?" I asked him, shifting my bag on my shoulder. I smiled and held out my hand. "I'm Susan."

Looking a little startled, he said yes and cleared a space for me beside him. It was a beautiful morning – windless blue skies, light-sweater-cool.

His name was David. He was 24 years old. A former skater and foster kid, he was sitting out the winter in this small North Bay community before heading east, maybe to the Florida Keys. He told me a story about his grandpa, and said he had a cavity that badly needed to be fixed. He was homeless.

I was there doing work on the health needs of the small community where he lived. At the Stanford d.school, where I'm a fellow, we learn and practice human-centered design, creating things and experiences for people only after we spend time getting to know them and understand their needs. It's a methodology that works, but here I am with David, and I'm beginning to lose myself. I'm taking notes, and listening, doing all the right things — but every line in my heart begins to blur as he shares his story.

I have a purpose. I'm here to learn, but the simple act of reaching out can split your soul wide open. It's raw and precious, and leaves you feeling both wonderful and desolate, alive with hope and pain.

At night, when the temperature falls and I hear the spiking of rain on the roof above me, I open my eyes and stare into the spaces I can't see. Where is he? Is he cold? Are his socks wet? Have I, too, left him behind?

I carry him in my emptiness like a son.

With a Perspective, I'm Susan Dix Lyons.

Susan Dix Lyons is founder of a nonprofit health organization in Nicaragua and a fellow at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford.

Susan Dix Lyons

He is 17. He is far and near. Hot and cold. Steady and rocked, skin to skin, unreachable. When he smiles, white light erupts in every corner of the universe. He is my son.

These days, he needs me less. It's his last year in high school. I watch him from the sidelines, learning how to be the mother of an almost-man. I watch him move among his friends, I watch as he shoots baskets in the driveway – dunk, slam, swoosh – over and over and over and over. I watch my son as he silently moves forward, both uncertain and bold.

And in the morning, before he wakes, I make him lunch.

In our still-dark home, the colors and textures tell stories. My hands move with each memory, measuring time to the whole of a young life so huge in my heart.

Tuna with chopped red onions, scooped like ice cream above a bed of spring greens. Diced bell peppers, the colors of his boyhood trucks, red always his favorite as he crawled vrooming on his knees. Diced avocado, summer bright like the smears of grass on his baseball pants. Salt and pepper, olive oil, a squeeze of lemon. How he used to bite right into the wedge, screwing up his face to shudder before laughing, the smell of fresh citrus stamped on his small fingers. I mix blueberries and raspberries. He loved the small, wild ones frozen, once eating so many he cried as he rolled on the floor, his belly a storm.  Almonds, macadamias, cashews, tossed like marbles. He was always good with his hands, precise.

I cut and chop in the quiet of the kitchen, before the day breaks, happy to be with him alone again, like he was, my first baby. My perfect, miraculous boy.

At the end of the day he walks into the kitchen, throws down his backpack, opens the frig to grab a drink.

"That lunch you made me, Mama?" he says, turning towards me a little.

I look up, catch his eye. "Yeah?" I say.

"It was the bomb," he says.

And that's all I need.

With a Perspective, I'm Susan Dix Lyons.

Susan Dix Lyonsis founder of an international nonprofit based in Angwin.

He came to cut our trees, sky-tall pines and redwoods that shoot into the blue, crusted limbs like broken teeth waiting to tear loose. I shook my head when I saw him, his gray beard flecked with dust and wood chips. He drove a broken-down truck and dragged along a chipper that looked like the saddest caboose you ever saw.

"Where'd you find him?" I asked my husband. "He's old." I imagined him hiking up the trunks along our hillside, his body already bashed by time.

"He's good," my husband said.

I watched, pretending not to watch. I poked around outside the house as he snaked his harness around his waist and straddled the trees. "Look at him," I said to my sons. "Look how high he goes."

One day I lingered as he came down. "What's it like," I asked, "being so high?"

He paused and looked at me straight, eyes as clear as a mountain creek. "You feel alive up there," he answered. His jumpsuit was smeared with sap. He wore a cap.

"I get that," I said. "I bet it feels good."

He worked throughout the week, coming to the door for his check at the end. I thanked him and paused, saying his name. "Why do you do it?" I asked.

And the man who cut our trees told me a story that went like this: When he was a younger man, one day his first wife came to him and said that she was leaving. And he decided that was it. He was done. He got a job trucking logs, driving from Weott up through Oregon, and while he drove he came up with a plan, the spot in the Klamath River where he would drive his truck and end it all. And then, his ex-wife called.

"Our son won't listen to me," she said. "He needs you."

So the man who cuts trees decided not to drive into the river, and when he let go of that plan he discovered that he wasn't afraid of things anymore. He just wanted to feel alive.

I looked at him after he told me the story, grateful. "That's a good story," I said. He nodded.

With a Perspective, I'm Susan Dix Lyons.

Susan Dix Lyons is the founder of an international nonprofit basid in Angwin.

I walk down the aisle of the ferry and see that only middle seats are left. It's OK. There's one in front that has a wide view of the sky. I can see the green-grey waters stirring ahead. It'll work.

I've just boarded from the San Francisco Ferry Building after a long and happy lunch with an old friend. I'm expecting a business call. I sit down, open my iPad with its wireless keyboard, place my phone on my thigh. I glance around. Most of the passengers are either gazing into or talking on their phones. I catch pieces of their lives.

"No, no, I'm OK. I'm just coming down with a cold."

"Will you actually make a profit after all this?"

"Well, do you want to get together this weekend?"

And then to my left, I recognize a man from my town just as he recognizes me. We say hi, and he moves in to a seat beside me as he places his computer bag on the floor. I ask if he's coming back from work; he asks me what I was doing in the city. Then I look down at my devices, poised for a ring or vibration.

And then, I realize: I don't really know this man. I've lived in the same town with him for probably a decade and all that I know is who he's married to and where he goes to church. I look back at my phone, then over to him. "What do you do?" I ask.

He smiles as he answers. He's warm and open. I discover he works in my industry, as a consultant. "No way!" I say. "We're supposed to make a decision today on that." He offers advice.

He talks. And he shares. And I ask. And we learn. Outside, beyond the summer-cold waters of the bay we pass brown hills and the industrial white blocks of the Rodeo Refinery. The blue sky is slashed with white.  A mother clutches a bag of taffy, a bearded man sits with his head slumped dead-asleep on his chest, a child shrieks.

We enter the narrowing throat of the Mare Island Strait towards our destination, toward our separate lives. I look at my phone, then up again. I remind myself to always, always look up.

With a Perspective, I'm Susan Dix Lyons.

Susan Dix Lyons is the founder of a medical clinic in Nicaragua. She lives in St. Helena.

A number of years ago I started an organization that made it necessary for me to spend a lot of time asking people for money. To be honest, I didn't think very deeply about what that would involve, or if I was even suited for the job of asking people for money, but I was sure I would figure it out. After all, I had a really good idea. You do what you have to do.

But pretty quickly I grew tired of asking. I sort of started to hate it. No, I did hate it. I became The Asker. I saw it in people's eyes when I approached — their minds firing up with reasons they hadn't responded to my last appeal, dodging me behind the apple display in the produce aisle. I was branded. And I realized that despite the virtue of my cause, to some people I would always be The Person You Avoid in the Produce Aisle.

And that's OK, because I also discovered something else. And this discovery was life-affirming and awesome: While not everyone said yes – while in fact many people said no – everywhere along my path someone did. Someone stepped forward unexpectedly, connecting in a way that was so pure it made me drunk with hope and gratitude.

There was the Swedish woman who stumbled across our website, sharing her tale of living in a static caravan in the UK. The banjo-strumming schoolteacher who found a "lucky 20" in his pocket and stuck it in the mail. The environmental health officer from Alberta, Canada, feeling blessed by the birth of his daughter. The supply chain professional who turned me on to a great book. The lady from the Feline Rescue, who wrote about doing aid work in Central America years ago.

They all shared their stories. They all reached out to connect, getting nothing in return. And their stories became my stories. They became like an elixir, restoring me to strength.

And I kind of tumbled into love with each of them because they reminded me of why I ask in the first place. Not for the money, but for the idea behind it. The belief that every person matters. To see in each face a story, a life so bright and deserving that the only word you hear is yes.

With a Perspective, I'm Susan Dix Lyons.

Susan Dix Lyons is the founder of an international nonprofit in Angwin that has built a prototype sustainably designed health clinic in rural Nicaragua.