Monday, February 6, 2012

A eulogy for Susan and Bob

My friends Susan Poff and Bob Kamin were murdered on the 26th of January.

It's a horrific tale, and I expect it to become more horrific as details come to light. It's too much more than enough to say that their fifteen year old son, adopted when he was six, has confessed responsibility for their deaths. I'm not going to describe any more than that. The first article that appeared in the SF Chronicle is a place to begin for those who need to know more. Caveat lector: as in any press coverage, and especially press coverage of lurid events, there's more to the story than has been reported, and some of what has been reported is flat-out wrong.

As a part of Susan's collective household of some 14 years' duration, until 1996, I gave one of the eulogies following Susan's and Bob's memorial mass on Friday. Susan and I were housemates, friends, and comrades for nearly thirty years, beginning in 1982; I knew Bob since the two of them met, in the mid-1990s.

Susan was one of the best people I have ever known. The only reason I don't say exactly that about Bob is because I didn't know him as deeply as I knew Susan. Listening to his surviving family, close friends, and colleagues on Friday made clear to all present that Bob had a heart of gold, a deep and compassionate intellect, an honest man's humility, and wisdom that would require a lesser person lifetimes to accrue.

Susan's and Bob's lives will be celebrated on Thursday, 9 February at 2pm, at Glide Memorial Church (330 Ellis Street) in San Francisco.

To honor and remember Susan and Bob, this is what I said on Friday:

I met Susan in the summer of 1982, when I moved into a house full of people I didn't know. Vera too, lived on Ward Street, and Joanie soon joined us, then Michael. With a few detours here and there, the five of us made our home together until 1996.

When I moved into that first of our houses, on Ward Street, I took the room where Beth and Glen had been living. Jon lived in the upstairs flat next-door, which became our household's second abode; now Jon extends our family into the Loire Valley.

Karen moved into the downstairs flat, and became a part of us. I met Eric -- who lives in London now but has been in touch all week and is here in mind and heart -- and he too joined our burgeoning clan.

Jon and Joanie brought little Emma into our family when she was a puppy. During the year Susan and Joanie spent in New York, Emma hobbled along with them on her three little legs.

Many others of you lived with us for part of that time. You have been friends, neighbors, comrades -- all of us part of an extended family these past thirty years. I won't try to name each of you who are part of we.

Our chosen family blended with our birth families. Susan's brother David stayed with us on weekends when he was in the Maritime Academy; my brother David stayed with us for a summer. Joanie's cousin Eric lived with us on Valle Vista Avenue. Michael's brother Eamon and his cousin Kevin lived with us on 54th Street.

Susan and Joanie and Vera were high school classmates, at Bishop Montgomery in Torrance. Years later, Susan's brother David and Joanie's brother Steve were partners in the Torrance Police Department.

Our family's ties were complicated -- long before Facebook made it a relationship status.

Like any family, our bonds remained strong over the years since we last shared a home. These bonds, like the bonds of any family, are fundamental relationships in our lives. This was powerfully true for Susan.

Had last week's incomprehensible tragedy been averted, Joanie and her husband Jeff would have moved into the house on Athol Avenue later this year, and a part of our family would have reunited under a single roof.

* * *

In the family we made together, Susan was the sister who would move heaven and earth to help any one of us. And she didn't stop there. A friend of a friend; comrades in the many struggles for social justice to which she lent herself, body and soul; the many, many women, men, and children who relied on her work as a medical caregiver.

All of you know this. Everyone who knew Susan knew her compassion, her dedication, her loyalty.

I only met Josh Bamberger outside the church this afternoon, before the mass; Susan worked for Josh in San Francisco's Department of Public Health. Among the quotes from Susan's friends, family, and colleagues in the press this week, Dr. Bamberger's words in the Oakland Tribune rang truest to me. He said,

"I've never met anyone who lived with as little ambivalence about making the world a better place. She was one of the most loving, heartfelt, solid and wise persons who ever cared for people living in poverty."

* * *

Susan wanted to raise children. For a time our household made plans to have and raise children together, but that didn't happen. When Susan and Bob were unable to conceive, and decided to adopt, they resolved together to give a chance to some child who otherwise would have none.

That's the kind of person Susan was. That's the kind of people Susan and Bob were.

It is the tragedy that defines our staggering loss of last week that Susan and Bob tried to save a child whose darkest depths they never guessed at -- no one did, none of us. A child, it seems now, who was broken beyond our understanding.

* * *

I had the privilege of Susan's friendship for nearly thirty years. I knew Bob for little more than half that time, but I share his heritage, and that goes back a long way.

Susan and Bob both lived their lives in the spirit of Tikkun Olam, a Hebrew phrase that means "repairing the world." Each of them sought in so many ways to repair the world. To heal the sick and comfort the afflicted: these were the guiding principles of each of their lives, and of their life together.

In a prayer called the Aleinu, a prayer some attribute to the biblical Joshua, we express this hope: L'takken olam b'malkhut Shaddai, "to perfect the world under God's sovereignty."

For Susan and for Bob the goal was, perhaps, less utopian than that. Less about perfection, and more about bringing their compassionate humanity into every place they lived and loved.

* * *

Each of us here today mourns Susan's and Bob's absence. Each of us feels a void Susan and Bob filled.

Yet we have also been enriched by each of them. And that enrichment ... that's ours to keep. Ours to keep, and ours to pass along.

We each have their example to set before ourselves, their example of lives lived well and righteously.

The light of Susan's and Bob's lives will burn bright and long for those who bear their spirits forward.


  1. Thank you for the eulogy - it captured the spirits of Susan and Bob wonderfully, of these two wonderful human beings.

    I remember them fondly and I have written a little memory of Susan as well:

    An Exception - Another Favorite Work from De Young Museum, San Francisco

  2. Though I heard your eulogy on Friday, reading it here brings tears to my eyes. I can't imagine the pain. Wrote a small obit for her in UltraViolet ( coming out this week; hope I managed to do justice.

  3. Such a beautiful eulogy. It's so tragic and I'm so very sorry.

  4. thank you, Steve. I've forwarded this to friends who could not attend the service. Although David P. was a tough act to follow, your words were powerfully moving and meaningful. xxoo Vera (wish we could have used this pic at the service!)

  5. hey steve-

    i just heard the horrific news about sue and her husband yesterday...

    you wrote a wonderful tribute.

    sue was barely in my life, but i thought i'd share a story about her. she and her family grew-up just a few blocks from me. in fact we both went to the same high school. she was a year older and her younger brother steve and i were the same year. one september night in 1976 when i was in 9th grade my buddy tom and i were riding bikes around with nothing much to do when tom said; 'let's go to the poff's house!' i was like; 'what for?' we were jocks and steve was a good guy and all, but not in our 'click' at school. my friend tom said; 'don't you know steve's older sister sue?' i said i did not. so off we went. we showed-up at the poff home unannounced and pretty much barged right in. i distinctly remember 2 things from that night; listening to simon and garfunkel and meeting/seeing sue for the first time. she was a real beauty and so very kind and cool. funny how you can remember 1 night from 35 years ago. she was pretty special even back then.

    i don't think i ever really spoke with her again thru our remaining years together in school. my final memory of her was when i went to the class of 79's graduation and sue winning several academic awards and going off to berkeley. i didn't realize that not only was she a 'fox' and cool, but was super smart too. i had missed the boat!

    you mention several jewish passages in your eulogy. i come from a greek background. we have a expression when someone passes;

    'may their memory be eternal.'

    thanks for letting me share.

  6. I hat that this happened to such a nice person as Susan.