Life was ever more precious when Susan Donelan wrote a letter two years ago to say that, absent a miracle, an aggressive case of inflammatory breast cancer would curtail her future -- at least the part she could spend with family and friends.
``I've been thinking quite a lot about what life after death might be like and I do not fear it," she wrote. ``I'm convinced that what we are experiencing now on earth, as glorious as it can be, is really just the tip of the iceberg of what we will ultimately experience. I think we go on to a higher, more amazing plane of existence. We also live on in the minds and hearts of those who have loved us."
In the time remaining, Dr. Donelan underwent treatment after treatment, traveled with relatives, and led her own cancer support group. Even as her condition worsened, she used optimism and hope as beacons to brighten the lives of others who were ill.
On Oct. 1, she was 51 and a patient at Brigham and Women's Hospital when her physicians told her ``they could do nothing else," said her husband, Jim Boggs, and within hours the journey she had begun three years earlier had ended.
``When she did pass, she was very calm, very sedate," he said. ``She just slipped away, and that's what she wanted."
Dr. Donelan, an assistant dean for administration at Boston College's Connell School of Nursing, had lived in Wayland when she was abruptly drawn into the community of those diagnosed with cancer. As always, those close to her said, she was more concerned about others than herself.
``So, my main wish for all of you I love is that you too can reach a level of acceptance about my situation," she wrote to her friends and family members on Sept. 5, 2004. ``Go ahead and cry, scream, rage, be depressed, feel whatever you feel. It's all normal and OK (I've been there, done that) and the more you can get this stuff out (and don't be afraid to do it in front of me), the easier it will be to get to acceptance."
Susan Ellen Donelan was born in Dorchester, the third daughter of William and Norma (Wolf) Donelan, who now live in Fort Myers, Fla. The family lived for years in Williamstown, where Susan was prom queen her senior year at Mount Greylock Regional High School, graduating in 1973.
Four years later she graduated summa cum laude from North Adams State College and went on to Boston College, where she received a master's in sociology in 1979, and a doctorate in higher education administration in 1997. Dr. Donelan was academic dean at Bay State Junior College in Boston before becoming associate director of the alumni association at Boston College. In 1987 she was named assistant dean at the college's nursing school.
Beyond the job titles, though, her vocation was helping others -- siblings, nieces and nephews, friends, colleagues, and students at the school. The list and the ways she found to be kind never seemed to end.
``I think she always cared about others more than herself," said her sister Patty Fortier of Washington, Mass . ``She was always there for me."
When her sister's son Adam was diagnosed with cancer at age 5, Dr. Donelan opened her house so the Fortiers would not have to commute as frequently from Western Massachusetts to hospitals in Boston for the two years until he died.
And when Susan's youngest brother, Jim, was adjusting to city life after moving to Boston, she brought him to BC football games to watch Doug Flutie play.
``She sacrificed to put me first and make sure I was happy," said her brother, who now lives in Spokane, Wash. ``She was happy because she made somebody else that way."
Eschewing attention, Dr. Donelan shied from the academic title that came with a doctorate.
``You couldn't convince her that she was as good as she was," said another brother, Bill Donelan of Sanford, Fla.
``She always saw herself as ordinary," Jim said. ``She never wanted to be called doctor. It was, `Hey, call me Susan.' She didn't want to stand out."
But stand out she did, even more so once she was diagnosed.
``She was always finding the hope and the good in everybody, in every situation, but especially during the cancer," said Deborah Adams Cassidy of Canton, a friend and former colleague at Boston College.
``The humor that this girl could keep," said Ruth Chobit of East Dennis, a friend who runs a wellness support group at Boston College. ``She was just so inspirational for so many people. She never gave up."
Jim Boggs, an architect, met Dr. Donelan when he was designing work areas at the college. One day, he learned that she was moving into an office he was creating.
``I walked in and I saw her and in some respects I was done," he said. ``It's kind of corny to say love at first sight, but she was that way."
On Sept. 16 they celebrated their 14th anniversary, in her room at Brigham and Women's.
More than a year ago, she took a leave from Boston College to spend six months with her family. She went to Hawaii and Arizona, to her parents' home in Florida, and with her husband to Maine, Jamaica, Italy, and Paris, where they arrived after dark and dined under the Eiffel Tower.
``We walked Paris at night," he said. ``We did the Susan Donelan tour."
Since the diagnosis, Dr. Donelan and her husband made more than 2,200 refrigerator magnets with her favorite inspirational quote, which is often credited to Souza:
Dance as though no one is watching you
Love as though you have never been hurt before
Sing as though no one can hear you
Live as though heaven is on earth
``I was so blessed to have her in my life," her husband said.
In addition to her husband, parents, sister, and two brothers, Dr. Donelan leaves a stepson, Justin Boggs of Rochester, N.Y.; another sister, Kathleen of Adams; and three other brothers, David of Canterbury, N.H., Thomas of Boston, and Robert of Atlanta.
A memorial gathering will be announced.