Late at night, I'm listening to “This American Life” on RealAudio.
David Sedaris is telling the story of "Ashes" - about when they
discovered his mother had lung cancer. In one part he said "I love
you" as he got off the phone. Her response was: "I'm going to pretend
I didn't hear that"
To him, I love you meant- " I'd love to get off the phone with
It made me feel rather strange because there are two things I say when people
leave or I get off the phone with them.
"I love you" and "Please, Be careful."
My mind swam with- Purple Tiger - images, I kept thinking of the words
and how I used them.
I remember when it happened.
It was the summer right after my senior year in high school. I worked at a Hardee's
in Scottsburg, Indiana - my first job. It was here that I learned that I
would never be the kind of person who would be able to ever make it to a job on
time, it was here that I learned how to work alongside of people I didn't like,
it was here I learned how to grieve.
Sue was one of the managers. She was in her late forties with two kids and a
husband she didn't really care for too much. She was a dreamer and was able to
lighten a mood or give criticism without breaking you. I remember that she used
to talk about art and poetry with me; she would sit out front with a cup of
coffee and a smile and would talk about what she was like when she was younger.
She wasn't so different. She asked me once the significance of a painting
she'd received from a boy when she was a teen-ager. It was of a jungle and a
tiger; everything in the picture was shaded with purple save the tiger's
tongue - which was bright pink. She said she could close her eyes and see it
perfectly. The boy had been so in love with her and now he was gone. She missed
him a lot and said she always-wished things had been different.
I didn't know what the painting meant, really. As a pretentious
teenager I, of course, had an answer. I said that I thought the painting
signified passion and danger. Tigers were violent (Violent, violet?), but
the tongue could be used to clean and caress- rough sandpaper. The image
had stuck with me and as time passed we had talked about it over and over. She
never told anyone else about it.
She always had an odd smile whenever we would talk, as if somehow she
wasn't smiling at me but smiling at herself in satisfaction. She always
seemed interested in the things that I said - any of us said- and she validated our
dreams with her own. We were like her older children - just graduated.
I would hide my bitter nature from her - I don't think I ever said an angry
or spiteful word to her. Being around her made me embarrassed for being such an
asshole to people - I wanted her to only know the part of me that was good and
kind, creative and happy.
My girlfriend at the time, Tammy, came to my house one day around 4
o'clock. Her face was ashen and tight. I think I was on my floor drawing
something silly and expressive, just playing, and I looked up at her with
"Sit down on the bed." she told me.
I complied, confused and silent.
"Sue's dead." she said.
I was confused. I didn't know whom she meant. I knew she was a sentimental
person and I thought maybe it was some other Sue she might have known.
"I'm sorry." I said. "Did you know her well?"
She grabbed me by the arm. "Jared," she shook me. "Sue is
Sue was one of the janitors at school, a nice lady but I wasn’t close, why
would she be so insistent with this, Sue was nice, and I cared for her, but I
didn't know her, I didn't know that many women named Sue, Sue was... Sue was....
The only other Sue I knew was -
I gaped at her. "No, that's not right-” It wasn't Sue, OUR Sue. Sue
was working today and she was OK, and she was a part of MY life, and she
was OK- I had just left work a little while ago and she was
In my mind I saw a flash of Purple Tiger with a pink tongue and felt my
entire body tingle.
"She was on her way home and a drunk driver hit her car." Tammy’s
eyes were liquid.
"That can't happen." I said idiotically. “It’s daytime, no one’s
Tammy started to cry and I reached forward and held her. Her face pushed into
my chest and she crushed me with her arms.
It wasn’t right… she had to be wrong.
I was trying to get an image out of my head… Purple tiger... I
started to cry, then sobbed.
It was the first time I'd felt this kind of loss. Earlier that year I'd lost
a cousin to Leukemia, but he was distant and already absent from my life. This
was something new that I didn't understand. I didn't understand how to feel. Who
was I crying for? I cried so hard I thought I was going to pass out. I kept
flashing back to conversations and -
-And late night closing the store or
- Early mornings when I would drag in late, sleepy and
Purple tiger -
We left the house and went back to Hardee’s. As we drove back to the store
we listened to "The Dream of the Blue Turtles" and I felt vacant and
sick. Almost everyone who worked there had come in.
I saw a friend of mine, Lori, holding a scarf in her hand. She told me
that she had gone to retrieve it from the car wreckage. The paramedics
had pulled it from around Sue's neck as they tried to resuscitate her - and
We talked for a long time, business at the restaurant fell totally by the
wayside - we did what we could. It was an odd place to begin to grieve. I
learned what it meant to want to gather to remember someone, to share loss
and hold each other and cry on each other. Her face was in pictures on the wall,
she’d forgotten a jacket on a peg behind the office door- she left her
handwriting all over the calendar. We needed to be near all of that - being at
her house wouldn’t be the same for us - this was where we knew her. It
was odd to be here but we grasped at all of it. It was a terrible, strangely
I realized then that somehow the significance of the Purple Tiger meant
something else. It wasn’t a symbol of passion or violence anymore - if it ever
was. Sue had used the image to remember the boy from when she was young and now
I would use it to remember her. Somehow she planted that in my mind and it has
stayed with me -completely intact- since.
When we left we realized that none of us had ever told Sue just how much she
had meant to us and I realized that I couldn't let that happen again. As
everyone went away, back to the rest of their day and their week and their lives
we exchanged "I love you" and "Please, Be careful" and I
haven't stopped saying it since.