I had the privilege of speaking at Nonda Surratt’s memorial service this past Friday. While she would have appreciated the wicked humor of it being April Fool’s Day, nevertheless it was truly one of the saddest days of not only my life, but of so many others.
This is her eulogy.
“The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof.” So wrote Richard Bach in his best-selling book, “Illusions”.
And so it is that as we grow and begin to make our way through the big world that lies beyond our parents’ home, if we are lucky enough and wise enough to keep our eyes and our hearts open, we come across family members we never knew existed. In my life, Nonda was one of them. As with so many of her adult friends in the latter part of her life, we met because I had found a baby squirrel. And like most of her closest wildlife rehabilitation friends we spent countless hours and sent probably thousands of emails talking about squirrels. But somewhere along the way there came a moment when we moved beyond being colleagues, moved beyond even being good friends and became family.
And so I finally had a big sister. And I finally learned so many things that only a big sister can teach; not the least being that I wasn’t a liberal or even what I fondly call an “old school Democrat” but was instead a staunch Conservative. I swear that her getting me to see that was one of her proudest moments in our relationship because she never failed to take great delight in reminding me (and others, should the occasion arise) of the day she finally got me to “come out of the closet”. We burned hours and hours of phone time talking politics and we even started a little political blog together during the last presidential campaign. While occasionally penning a piece for the site, Nonda more often did what she did best – work behind the scenes to direct me to a particular subject and thereby allowed me to learn for myself that once again she was “spot on” in her common-sense conservative assessment of this or that situation.
I can still hear her voice; especially that distinctive, warning tone when she’d sharply say my name in order to pull me up short or, admittedly more often, used right before telling me to simply shut up and listen to her . And then there was “the look”; rather like Dr. Spock sans raised eyebrow to indicate you’d reached the very rare but also very temporary moment of one-upping her. Like when I was given the task of picking her up some wine at the store when we were at a conference and I announced with great glee I’d found cleverly managed to find a bottle named after her. “Smoking Loon” merlot….
Nonda was fearless in all the right ways and that was perhaps the one trait that endeared her to so many. She was never afraid to state her opinion or to offer her knowledge or to offer her shoulder and she instinctively knew all the right words to comfort. It is a lesson many of us could better take to heart; I know it has been a big one in my own life. I would like to share with you some of the many, many words that continue to be received from those throughout the wildlife rehabilitation community:
“Nonda was a master. She forgot more about rehab in her life than I will ever know. All the squirrels of the world are hanging their tails a little lower today in sorrow.”
“I would call her and ask really dumb questions and she never got mad at me. I already knew the answers, just wanted confirmation. I am going to miss her so much.”
“The last two years at MWRA I really respected and appreciated her contributions.”
“The rehab community has suffered a great loss. Altho I never met Nonda in person, I have exchanged numerous emails and shared a few very long phone conversations with Nonda when I was experiencing squirrel emergencies. She was always such a wealth of information on anything relating to squirrels. I nicknamed her Nonda Know~It~All!! Sympathies to her family and all who were fortunate to have her in their life. “
“Nonda was such a help to many, including me, many, many years ago when we first started, squirrels being her expertise. Feisty and dedicated to educating those who were new and green she always had time for us and took great pains to explain detail.”
“She has always been there for everyone that needed help with anything and if she did not know the answer, she would find it!”
“She had a very special gift in so many areas and I for one don’t know how any of us are going to move on. However, our work here is still ongoing and we must know that for every baby we help, we are sending a piece of Nonda with that baby when it gets released.”
“I was never reluctant to call her with a rehab problem and did so many, many, many times over the years. I thought of Nonda behind a big desk with a plaque that said “The buck stops here.” And yet she was never arrogant. There were times when she would say ‘Let me run this by PJ or Barb or Sarah or Anita’. She didn’t consider herself the last word although a whole lot of us did.”
“What a loss to the rehab community.”
“Nonda was a pillar of our community.”
And so she was. That tiny little bundle of energy had enormous reach and profound influence and leaves behind a grand legacy, one that will truly carry on for generations to come.
On my last visit with her, Nonda told me that one of her goals was to be a “better person”. We had long had no secrets between us so I knew exactly what she meant but, to be honest, this woman was one of the most giving souls I have ever known; it should be obvious by the one statement being made over and over now: “She was always there when I needed her.” If I could tell her one thing right now it would be simply to remind her that the old saying is true – only the good die young.
I will leave you with my favorite quote of Nonda’s and one that I now remember when I think about my time with her: “Their love and trust makes so much of the world seem like petty bullshit. For a way too short while we lived with the fairy dust, the magic; we were and are truly blessed.”
Gently on, Nonda; gently on….