"Give a Piece a Chance." — Books. Blog. Pie Classes. And a Pinch of Activism.

A Letter to my Friend Sue McGuiness Wall (1962 – 2012)

Sue and her daughters with their piping hot apple pies.
American Gothic House, August, 11, 2011

Dear Sue,

I just got back from your funeral. It was a full house at the Catholic church you attended. You were attending today alright. Just not in the way you would have liked. You would have approved of the service. Your students were there in matching T-shirts taking up several rows. Your whole family was there, your parents and siblings, and god knows how many other relatives and friends of all ages. Your girls sat in the front pew. They were very brave and they looked beautiful. You did a really good job raising them and though you left early you can be assured you gave them a strong and solid foundation on which to continue building. Everyone was so sad at your farewell, I think Kleenex stock went up today as a result.

I drove up from Eldon, which as you know since you had come down to see me last summer, is a two-hour drive. Six months ago when you came down with your two teen daughters to bake pie in the American Gothic House you were beaming and energetic. And though I knew you were still fighting back the cancer I thought nothing could keep you down. I remember you telling me how you had originally gone to the doctor about a sprained ankle or something and came out with a diagnosis for ovarian cancer. Oh man! But this cancer wasn’t going to get YOU, by god. Not you. Not fierce and fiery Sue. I was sure, with your determination, that remission was the only possible outcome. I was so impressed with your positive attitude, moved by it, inspired by it. If I were in your position I can only imagine how much I would be complaining and crying and carrying on. But not you. You made chemo look like a cakewalk. I used to get your emails with your doctor’s reports. You never wavered in your hope, your optimism, your humor. “More chemo?” you would say. “Bring it on!” Your display of strength and grace is something that will always stick with me. I wish you knew what an impact you’ve had on me, how deeply your warm, strong spirit has touched and influenced my life.

I thought about you as I made my way north for your service, about how of all the things, you probably won’t miss Iowa’s winter weather. It was 19 degrees today, bordering on bitter cold. But the roads were clear (thank goodness, because I wouldn’t have been able to make the drive otherwise — I never did get snow tires on my Mini Cooper). The sky was blue and the sun was shining brightly, which made me think you had a clear view from wherever you are now. Some call it heaven. Some say you are in a parallel universe. Some say you become energy that can move anywhere. I wish I knew. I wish we could still talk and email each other. If there really is some other world “up there” then I hope you’ll go find Marcus. Give him a hug from me and then ask him to take you on a motorcycle ride. There’s nothing nicer than feeling the wind in your face. (Well, to me there was nothing nicer than feeling the wind in my face while having my arms wrapped around my husband’s gorgeous body.)

Speaking of gorgeous husbands, I finally met yours. He was standing in the chapel, the small one off the main church, where you were –how do I say this respectfully – on display. I had just gotten done talking to you, saying goodbye, telling you how disappointed I was that you couldn’t stick around. I leaned over to sniff the roses that adorned you and when I turned around I spotted a very handsome, fit gentleman who stepped toward me. I figured it was Brad. It was. Before I could introduce myself he said, “You’re the pie lady.” I had to laugh. He started right in on how good those pies were you and your daughters made last August. I was nervous and didn’t quite know what to say, even though I know from losing Marcus that the only thing to say is “I’m sorry for your loss.” But we managed to talk about a few other things – besides pie, I mean – and he said running is helping him. I said I wished I could still exercise the way I used to but that instead of producing endorphins, running only dredges up suppressed grief. I told him he could send the girls down to my place this summer to help with my pie stand. He said thanks but he’s going to take some time off and focus on family, and stay busy.

It shouldn’t have surprised me that your husband possesses similar strength, grace and optimism to yours. You guys even look alike. I’m not sure how his clothes came up in the conversation, but he pointed out that you had picked out the suit he was wearing. That broke my heart to think of you having that conversation with him, that you knew you might not make it and how you might have prepared for it, and even picked out his clothes for the funeral. Two things of note here, Sue: one, you have excellent taste (in both clothes and men) and two, your husband actually did what you asked! I think you must have had a very good marriage. I also think he must be a very good dad and will love and protect your daughters with all his heart.

Oh, and speaking of funeral clothes, you looked very pretty in your grey sweater set and your sparkly hoop earrings. Your head was bald. I was glad they didn’t try to disguise you with a wig. Bald suits you. Not everyone can pull off the look but with your freckled complexion it worked. Last time I saw you your hair was just growing back for the second time, coming in soft and fuzzy and a little grey. Of course it was very disappointing – to say the least – to see you just lying there and unable to have a conversation. I really wanted to see you smile. Your smile was one of your greatest traits (of many.) The picture they used on the funeral program showed your impish grin. The shot really captured your essence and I kept staring at your picture throughout the service. Seeing your smiling face in that picture didn’t help stop the tears or make me forget you were in that casket just a few feet away—au contraire—but it did remind me of what a force of life you were. By the way, the priest got a few laughs when he described you as stubborn. That made me a little proud. If you ask me, stubbornness is an essential quality and I liked how yours was acknowledged in a loving way.

You and your crazy curly
red hair — and striped socks.
Ah, high school.
Those were the days.

I know we weren’t that close in high school. Friends, yes, but you know how in our small parochial school we all split off into our little cliches. But when I returned to Iowa in August of 2010, you came to see me judging pies at the Iowa State Fair. You charged through the crowd in your yellow slicker (it must have been raining that day) and I recognized you and your bright red hair immediately. You wrapped your arms around me in a powerful embrace and you flashed that signature smile of yours. You made me feel so welcome, so special, and in that instant we were connected in a way we hadn’t been in our teen years. We didn’t get to see each other that often in the past year and a half since I moved back to Iowa, but I liked how we kept in touch through emails and phone calls. And then, of course, through the pie lesson. That was such a great day, last August. I still have the adorable apron you brought me, the blue and white checkered one with the jewels sewn around the bib. It’s my favorite and I will always cherish it because it will always make me think of you rolling pie dough in my kitchen that day, laughing, talking, sharing stories, so full of life.

Ah life. Why do I still have one and you don’t? Well, maybe you do. Yes, definitely you do. Just in another form now. That energy of yours could never die. It continues. It permeates. It remains. It reminds us to stay strong. Like you.

When I got home from your funeral – when I got done bawling my eyes out – oh, and I’m very sorry I didn’t stay for the burial or the lunch afterward. I could feel the grief building and I didn’t know how long I could contain it. I wanted to talk to your parents and your girls. But I knew and respected my limits. The last funeral I went to was Marcus’s. I knew it was going to be tough to go to yours. It was. It seems very wrong that the last two funerals I attended were for people – good people – in their forties. I hope the next funeral I go to is for someone who lived to 105. That would be cause for celebration, not tears. Anyway, I was saying, when I got home from your funeral I read through our exchange of emails and came across this one from exactly one year ago to the day. Here’s what you wrote:

“Last weekend I participated in a retreat at church to tell my ‘story’ and the importance of having such an amazing community of people to rely on. While I was there, I purchased a daily devotional book entitled Heaven Calling. I had to laugh at the devotional for yesterday (chemo day). It was entitled ‘Mission Impossible?’ and I’d like to share an excerpt with you: ‘I know you child—your strengths and weaknesses. I also know your beliefs about what you can or cannot do. As a father has compassion for his children, I have compassion for you. Yet I wouldn’t be a good Father if I didn’t know when to stretch your limits. Precious one, trust me to know what you can and cannot do. Whatever task I call you to, I will give you exactly what you need to do it.’

Then you added:

“From one strong woman to another, sometimes it sucks being this strong, but at day’s end I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

No, Sue. As one strong (and stubborn) woman to another, I’m sure you wouldn’t. I am so grateful to have known you, to have learned from you, to have been infected by your contagious smile. Good luck on your new journey, my friend. I look forward to seeing you again. Until then, I send you all my love and gratitude.


PS: Brad said you were an avid reader of my blog, so I thought it only fitting to write this blog post for you. Miss you, girl!