I was thinking about Sue the other day and also thinking how we often deify the dead - turning them into saints without fault. And though Sue had many outstanding qualities, she, like the rest of us, was not perfect. So, in wishing not to do her or the world a disservice, I decided I should remember not only what made her great, but also what made her humanly imperfect.
I remember being in her kitchen one day in my early twenties. It was winter, and I was wearing jeans and a pair of short, black boots I’d just bought. I loved those boots. I sat in a chair facing the armchair she sat in, and I crossed my legs and leaned back in my chair as we chatted. She looked down at my boots and said, “My god, those are the ugliest things I’ve ever seen,” and gave a perfunctory chuckle. Then she moved onto whatever was next in her head, my ugly boots forgotten... forgotten by her but not by me. I was offended. How dare she say something like that! Can’t she just keep that stuff to herself? At the time, I angrily wondered if she thought she had the right to say things like that just because she was getting on in years and old people get to do whatever they like.
I hadn’t thought about this in years, but now I want to couple it with a seemingly unrelated story. Since Sue died, several people have earnestly mentioned to me how she always made them feel welcome and how talking with Sue about things always made them feel better. Then I realized something. There have been countless times in my life when I did not comfort a suffering friend, when I did not approach the new person at the party because I was afraid I’d say the wrong thing. Sue was never afraid to strike up a conversation, about the weather or your latest mental breakdown. No topic was taboo, and because of that, she sometimes offended, but also because of that, she often provided solace and comfort to people when no other dared. So as I thought about it, I realized for all the things I’ve learned from Sue - from how to make strawberry jam to how to be a good writer - the thing from her I most want to carry with me as I move through life is this: Never be afraid to say the wrong thing. Say something. Say anything, whether the person is in obvious pain or simply a little uncomfortable in unfamiliar company. And, if you, however well-intentioned, accidentally offend them, don't be too hard on yourself.
I’m going to end with a quote, because Sue loved them. This one by Hunter S. Thompson describes in a broader sense the importance of daring to say the wrong thing. The first time I heard this quote, it was many years ago from Sue herself. This is one she both loved and lived. It’s another lesson I carry with me:
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!
-Hunter S. Thompson