Last June, writer and director Nora Ephron passed away at the age of 71. What was remarkable to me was the immediate and public response to her passing. Within hours her friends had composed heartwarming, heartbreaking tributes to Nora. Most of these friends didn’t have any preparation time to write these obituaries: In classic Nora Ephron style, very few people—not even her closest friends—knew she was sick.
What stood out to me in particular was that the bulk of these accolades didn’t focus on her tremendous talents as a writer or director. Rather, the tributes relayed stories about how Nora was an incredible friend. Everyone spoke of how she attended to the details of a friendship, recognizing the little moments as well at the big ones. She was aware of the ebb and flow, the nuance of friendship—and it all came naturally to her.
In a piece for Time magazine, Tom Hanks shared a typical Nora Ephron present to celebrate a film wrap:
“For a wrap gift, she would send you a note saying something like, ‘A man is going to come to your house to plant an orange tree—or apple or pomegranate or whatever—and you will eat its fruit for the rest of your days.’ Rita and I chose orange, and the fruit has been lovely, sweet and abundant, just as Nora promised—a constant and perfect reminder of the woman we loved so much.”
Other entertainment luminaries, writer, director and actress Lena Dunham and actress Rita Wilson among them, shared stories about how Nora offered the perfect advice on romance—an ideal mix of praise and admonishment—as well as advice about where to get the best cheese in Manhattan.
The morning after Nora Ephron passed away, I was speaking with my godmother, Susie, on the phone, sharing some of these anecdotes with her. Susie is one of the most important people in my life. She is my guiding force, the mentor who offers me the most direct advice when she knows I need it and the person who celebrates my accomplishments big and small with unbridled passion and enthusiasm.
In moments when I want to mull over or understand life’s challenging issues, I often seek out Susie’s opinions. Her guidance and advice are sometimes traditional, but they are often unconventional and unique in how they frame basic life issues.
I wondered to Susie, “How could you possibly replace someone like Nora? Or even close to it? How could you possibly replace someone who gave you the perfect recipe for sweet rolls, while telling you the secret to maintaining a long relationship?”
Susie responded with this bit of wisdom: “The best way to process loss, when you miss someone so much you can’t stand it, is to become more like them.”
What did she mean by that? What does it mean to “become more like” the person you’ve lost?
To explain, Susie told me about her best friend, Pam, who passed away just over a decade ago, and her dear friend Amy, who died suddenly in 2008. Both were, understandably, integral parts of Susie’s life.
Susie misses these cherished friends often and whenever she does, she works to embody the qualities that made her love them. It helps her feel closer to them, while honoring the two women she loved so much. Both Pam and Amy shared the same, rare quality: They were, as Susie says, “fiercely up front.” They didn’t have time to pretend, to linger; they got it done and moved on.
“They live on in me when I speak the truth,” Susie explained during our phone call. “Both of them were fearless and that is a seriously valuable quality that I inherited from them. I really do think about them often when I am feeling slow to defend ideas.”
Being more like the person you miss–taking on his or her best qualities–is the best way to work through his or her passing. It helps keep the person close to you while allowing you to move on. Some people have an antiquated notion that when you move on, you have to shut the door and not live with the person whom you miss so much. Being more like the person who is gone turns that idea on its head while still allowing for a healthy future.
As I wrapped up my conversation with Susie, I remembered something my mother used to tell me all the time as I was growing up: “Don’t send flowers to my funeral.” (An alternative to this is “don’t lay flowers on my grave.”)
Her point was simple: Don’t spend time (and money, in this case) caring for me when I’m gone, do it now. As a kid, I understood what she meant, but I really understand it as an adult. It’s why I hate walking away angry from an exchange with a friend, and I’m always sure to hug people before I leave them.
It’s why I also don’t like eulogies and tributes (despite the wonderful tributes to Nora). I feel that way about the Susies in my life in particular. Their support and love of me is so incredible, so unconditional, I don’t want to wait to share these stories, and, in learning from Susie’s lesson about loss, I don’t want to wait until people pass away to emulate the traits I most love and admire. I want to honor those I revere in my life now and help them continue to live and thrive. And it is especially the case with Susie, who has already taught me—like Nora Ephron did with her friends, the secrets of living a rich and amazing life.
I have so many crazy, amazing stories about Susie and what she’s done for me. I have stories of being woken up at midnight to sit on the swings in her backyard to listen to the frogs. “We just have to do this,” Susie said as she urged me to come downstairs at her home in the country.
I have stories of buying Sour Patch Kids at 3:00 AM in Washington, D.C., because “OMG they are so good,” she would say with the passion one would normally reserve for anything other than drugstore candy.
And then there are the amazing e-mails that still make me laugh and put everything into perspective. After a big CEO denied that climate change existed, she sent me a note that said, “He is such a narcissist!!! I just ate three bowls of cereal. Luv you.”
But my experiences with Susie aren’t just fun and whimsical. I have stories of her never giving up on me, of urging me on to love and take care of myself. When I worked in the political arena, I clocked nearly twenty-one hours every day, sleeping two or three hours a night. Even though I would tell Susie I was fine, she would push me to take better care of myself. She was like a broken record; it was a good thing, too, because she probably saved my life.
I will always remember the two greatest gifts Susie has ever given me: She has never, ever held back the truth and she has strengthened my gratitude for all that I’ve been given.
What’s so comforting about Susie’s love is the feeling that someone has your back, that you have a champion. When you share good news with Susie, she’ll let you know how proud she is of you. Most people would leave it at that. But then three or four days later, she’ll follow up with an e-mail that says, “OMG. You are going to be so amazing. I am so proud of you.”
With Susie, good news doesn’t die down—she keeps it alive.
Susie lives in northern California; I live in Los Angeles. We e-mail every day and talk a few times a week on the phone. But I don’t see her enough. I miss Susie so much.
And so I’m going to take her advice and show how much I miss her by embracing all the qualities I love about her. I don’t want to wait until the day comes when Susie passes on to become more like her. I want to be more like her now, to honor her and to honor myself.
In paying tribute to Susie now, I’m going to spend my time focused on being forthright; I’m going to use only what I need and not anything more. I’m going to worry about the details when they matter and “FTF” (fuck the facts), as Susie says, when they don’t matter. And occasionally (I can’t change everything), I’m going to do things like sit on the swings in the rain.
And I will miss her a little less.
Just a little.
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