Celebrating Suhith

Jim Luken

It was quite a celebration. Live music and singing. Great Middle-eastern food. Incredible stories. Lots of laughter…and more than a few tears.

125 people gathered at Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church’s social hall on Sunday evening (Aug. 25) to celebrate the life of Suhith Wickrema, a committed social worker, an activist on behalf of many issues, a loving parent, and a beloved friend. Dozens of friends and family members gave Suhith a send-off that none of us will forget. Oddly only the final speaker mentioned where Suhith Wickrema was going. That speaker was Suhith himself. He spoke briefly and without a shred of anxiety about his own imminent death.

Basking in the affection of his two stepdaughters and his four grandchildren, Suhith said, “It’s not a 49 year-old man who is dying. It’s a 49 year old grandfather.” And he asked, rhetorically, “Who would not enjoy all the love and affection I’m getting as I am dying?”

Suhith is going through the final stages of an ongoing cancer that had forced him into a wheel chair ten years ago. Throughout the two-hour party he lay, almost supine, in a reclined chair, as speaker after speaker expressed his or her love, respect and admiration for their friend and role model.

Several dozen spoke. This reporter will do his best to mention most of them. If I happened to miss your kind words for this incredible man, please try to understand.

Sister Alice Gerdeman, of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, who worked with Suhith for over 20 years on social justice issues, set the tone for the evening: “Suhith,” she said, “I want you to know that you are worthy of this celebration.”

Sonny Williams, Vietnam vet, former inmate, long-time activist: “I just want to thank him for his work in the prison system, and for helping to keep people out of those hell-holes.” Suhith was a long-time director of Justice Watch, which works to help prisoners as they are released from the (in)justice system.

Suhith spent most of the past ten years as a social worker at the Jobs and Family Services (JFS) Center on Central Parkway. One of his co-workers, Anissa Cardwel talked about how Suhith had taught her the importance of kindness in all circumstances. She quoted him. “It’s easy to be kind to to those who act kindly to you. The test is being nice to someone who isn’t nice to you.” Anissa promised to try to follow his words and his example.

Linda Newman, his long-time activist friend “He has the rare quality of empathy that is missing in so many.”

Lorry Swain, another long-time activist who worked with Suhith in fighting the death-penalty, thanked him for his skill in counseling people with drug addictions. She told him she was grateful for his teaching her the real story of the political problems that beset Sri Lanka for so many years. “I’ve known you to be a good feminist friend, and a brother who fought for justice.”

Paulette Meier, singer and activist, said of Suhith, “He’s been the brother I never had.” She spoke of how he would often find a way to speak difficult truths. “Once he said to me, ‘Come on, Paulette, we, humans weren’t meant to be happy.’” The audience laughed. She concluded, “Suhith has always inspired me to keep on keeping on, no matter what.”

Paulette proved she had learned the lesson by singing an a capella song for him. The audience joined in the refrain: “People like you help people like me go on.” Indeed!

The Reverend Howard McBride described how Suhith would come to each one of his birthday parties for many years. In a stirring thank you, McBride sang (in a magnificent tenor voice) a few verses of the Negro spiritual, “He’s the Joy of My Salvation.”

Occupy activist Barb Boylan told the story of how she and Suhith were at a community meeting trying to talk those gathered into voting against the construction of a proposed new jail (the levy was defeated, twice). Most of the folks were hard-core, law-and-order, pro-jail. Suhith had shut them up by asking how many of them wanted the “prison-industrial-complex” running their jail system in Hamilton County.

A Jobs and Family Services co-worker, Tracy Cowans, told of how Suhith was always trying to protect the children that their office found themselves dealing with. When they were about to place a child in a situation that Suhith believed would have a negative impact, he would inevitably produce a piece of related research, with the line, “Research says…” Then he would make them read the research.

Tracy said he had another line about at-risk children that made the entire office laugh. “You hatch ‘em. We snatch ‘em,” Suhith would say. A big laugh from the audience ensued.

The night’s emcee, Josh Spring, from the Homeless Coalition, described Suhith Wickrema as having a “positive stubborness. He is one of those people with a voice that will speak, no matter what.”

Another JFS co-worker, Dawn Durbach, told of how, in their office at work, Suhith was pretty much “surrounded by women,” a circumstance that he handled beautifully. “He always had the best advice. And he was always there for me and my children,” she said.

Activist Sherry Barron, who—along with her husband, Dan LaBotz—was one of the hosts for the celebration, described how Suhith had helped her grown son with a movie he had made. Then she showed a five-minute clip from that movie, in which Wickrema played a petulant bureaucrat in an unemployment office. “He knows what it is to be a bureaucrat,” Barron quipped. Suhith did a credible job as a film actor. ”When the clip ended, a chant went up from part of the crowd. “Oscar! Oscar!”

At this point, Crystal Young and Detra Colvin presented Wickrema with an award certificate from the AFSCME (American Federal State County and Municipal Employees) Union. Suhith said afterward that he was “especially touched” that the women had come with this certificate. “Last year,” he explained, “I had opposed them and made an effort to start a new independent union. I was so moved by their presence.

One of the most powerful moments of this unforgettable night was the testament of Suhith’s ex-wife, Linda Thomas. “Even though the marriage didn’t work out,” Thomas said, “you can’t help but remain friends with someone like Suhith.” Her two daughters, Dee and Angela, she said, still regard him as “Dad.” Dee and Angela spoke lovingly of their dad as well as his 13-year old grandson, D’jwaun ended his thoughtful sentiments saying “I appreciate you papa”.

Several activist friends from the Occupy movement talked about their arrests alongside Wickrema in Piatt Park in October 2011. Suhith was arrested with seventy-some others for failing to leave the park when police ordered them out. The police had carried him out of his wheel chair and onto the bus.

Suhith’s older brother Amittha from Chicago added a funny tidbit related to his brother’s arrest. “After his recent critical period at The Christ Hospital, Suhith told me that ‘The grits I had in jail were better than the grits at Christ.’” Amittha went on to say how much he had learned from his younger brother. “I hope I continue to learn from him about life…and everything.”

Activist and former politician, Brian Gary told a story about Suhith that surprised most everyone. He said that he and Suhith had been involved in a real estate venture. “He’s a great humanist,” Gary remarked, “but not such a great capitalist.” This brought a roar from the crowd. “I don’t think socialists make good businessmen.”

A representative from Community Shares then presented the guest of honor with a very prestigious award that is not given out every year: The Maurice McCrackin Human Rights Award. (McCrackin was a Presbyterian minister and hardcore activist in Cincinnati and the nation until his death in 1997 at the age of 92. “Mac” and Suhith had been buddies). The presenter described Wickrema as “a constant and vigilant advocate for the community.”

Suhith’s oldest brother, Harith, talked about the gentleness that he had observed in Suhith’s treatment of the health-care workers in the hospital. This despite the fact that his brother was often in very much pain and discomfort.

 Rasanjali, the younger of two sisters, of the Wickrema family shared a story about her brother when he was about 13 years old and said how Suhith was a social critique at an early age and spoke his mind. She observed this unfold one day while Suhith was watching his father engage in the customary negotiation during a purchase from a vendor. Suhith spoke his mind respectfully and she noted how her father was very impressed that Suhith critiqued an age-old practice–bargaining with vendors for a few cents—and with Suhith’s logic. Suthih understood that for a poor person 25 cents had a far greater value than for a rich person!

Wickrema’s oldest sister, Niranjali, who had come all the way from her home in the Netherlands, talked lovingly about her brother. She said that the two of them would have long conversations on Skype about the meaning of life and all manner of other things. She loved getting the perspective of her little brother. She said she was so grateful to be able to stand at his side at this momentous time.

Suhith himself had the final word. Several people lifted him into his wheel chair. He took the mic and talked about the lack of trauma during his idyllic childhood. And then he concluded. “I may be only 49 years old, but I’ve had a full life. I pretty much accomplished what I had to do,” he said.

How many of us will be able to make such a statement in the closing hours of our own lives? Suhith Wickrema, You are an inspiration to all of us.