Four days after my son-in-law, Rob Susil, re-entered Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he would die of an aggressive sarcoma on Feb. 5, the Church marked the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord and read the Gospel of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary—that a “sword will pierce through your own soul” (Lk 2:35). That image of a sword, often described as a sword of sorrow, is the first of the traditional “seven dolors” of Our Lady of Sorrows, commemorated throughout the Church on Sept. 15, the day after the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. Yet if Our Lady is the first of disciples and the model of Christian discipleship, then the sword of sorrow must pass through each disciple’s life, too, configuring us more closely to the Son from whose pierced side flowed blood, water and the Church.
All of us who loved and esteemed Rob Susil have been pierced by that sword in recent weeks. He and my daughter, Gwyneth, had fought gallantly against his sarcoma since it was diagnosed in March 2008, with the able assistance of the entire Hopkins medical family, of which Rob, as a specialist in radiation oncology completing his Hopkins residency, was a valuable and beloved member. There are, however, things that even the best medicine cannot do, at even the greatest medical centers in the world. So those who loved Rob and shared his deep Catholic faith prayed for a miracle, and were joined in that prayer by people all over the world. The miracle did not come; we know, however, that those prayers opened channels of grace and healing of which we are unaware, but for which we are grateful.
When Rob and Gwyneth first started seeing each other seriously, and after we were introduced, my wife said, “So, what do you think of Rob?” “Think?” I replied. “Smart, handsome, funny, 110 percent Catholic, loves Gwyneth, and likely to have an income. He’s straight out of son-in-law Central Casting.” He was so much more, though.
Rob was a brilliant young scientist, who held M.D. and Ph.D. degrees—and who didn’t tell me that he had co-authored numerous scholarly articles until I saw the galley proofs of a forthcoming one when I was helping him and my daughter move into their first apartment. He had a great appetite for learning; weakened by chemotherapy and anemia, he was nevertheless maintaining his research program, and the day before his last hospitalization, I was planning to drive him to Philadelphia so he could work on an academic paper with a colleague. He was an extraordinarily committed husband and father: he and my daughter shared one of the great marriages I have been privileged to witness, packing a superabundance of love, devotion and mutual support into five and a half years, and his joy in being “Daddy” to William was itself a joy to behold. And he was a man of faith, whose faith sustained his good humor, his clear-mindedness, and his determination during an illness about which he, a consummate young professional, knew all too much. That faith was matched by Gwyneth’s; more than one friend, in the week before Rob died, described Gwyneth’s strength and dignity as that of a biblical heroine. I am a suspect witness, of course, but I could not agree more.
When I put Gwyneth’s hand into Rob’s at the foot of the altar at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in Bethesda, Md., on Aug. 16, 2004, the day of their wedding, I was able to get out three brief sentences before my throat tightened up and my eyes became misty: “You two are great. Be great for each other. Let Christ be great in you.” Gwyneth and Rob were all of that, and more, as they finished medical school together, did residencies together, brought William into the world together, and felt the sword of sorrow pierce their souls together. All of that good lives on, I am certain—as I am certain that I shall pray for the divine assistance through my son-in-law’s intercession in the future.