Was It Something I Said?

“I’ll never forget what you said.”

Yikes! It’s been several years since we worked together. Exactly what “I-meant-it-to-be-funny-but-it-came-out-awful” thing had I said?

My face goes still, but the small furry creature in my head (Lab rat? Gerbil? Please, please, don’t let it be a squirrel!) dashes frantically along the maze, looking for a way out.  

Clawed feet unable to get any purchase on the linoleum, the Unidentified Rodent fails to make the left turn and tumbles, ass over tea kettle, into the far wall. But all is not lost. Righting herself, she notices a sign over what could be an exit: “It was a joke. (Sorry!)”

Explanation and apology now in claw, er, hand, I open my mouth to speak, but my conversational partner is not waiting for a response. She is, in fact, still talking.

About how we had been coming up hard on some deadline or other, scrabbling as our own feet slipped on the linoleum. About how she had gotten a call saying a family member had been taken to the hospital in some crisis. About how she had been overwhelmed by the need to be in two places at once. About how, even as she had gathered her things to leave the office, she was also agonizing over the work she was walking out on.

“And you said” – Oh, God, I think, here it is, what did I say? – “You said, ‘You’re going where you need to be.’”

She pauses.

“I’ll never forget what you said.”

Oh.

I had said the right thing. Not a something-for-the-ages thing, not a Mother Teresa thing, not even an unexpected thing. I mean, what else was there to say?

But after all the months we had worked together back then—after all the funny, witty, and clever things I had undoubtedly said—this was the thing that she remembered. Maybe even the thing that she would never forget.

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21 Comments

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – Regrettably, what is sent as humour can bite on receipt. Not to mention an offhand or careless remark. Nor remarks cloaked in hunour but driven by resentment or jealousy or unresolved conflicts. So I appreciate your kind words but know that I have often uttered things less than kind. But what strikes me even more than that is that my pretty pedestrian and predictable response stuck with this woman.

  1. Jim Taylor

    On a previous occasion, different context, you commented that we tend to remember the exceptions, and forget the commonplace. I think that what today’s story illustrates is that the harsh or cruel things we say (even if they were intended as a joke at the time) are the exception; the norm is the kindly and well-intentioned word or act.
    Yes, you probably can be cutting at times — can’t we all? But your norm is surely to try to say the right thing, do the right thing, without even thinking about it.
    Jim

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim T – I hope you’re right (that Unidentified Rodent does get rushing around!). Not that it’s all/only about me and my squirrels – the learning, I think, is what Ralph noted: that we remember acts of kindness, maybe no matter how small. Not every witty or even wise statement survives, but every act of kindness does. Worth remembering (and acting on!).

      1. Boof! where did that come from? No, these pieces of advice were more mostly unrelated to bodily functions, although my fav in that department was: “Don’t wait” because it could apply to life in general.

        It has been a popular poster — and one that Isabel is in! — but perhaps should come with a warning for a downtown bar that put one in a toilet cubicle… a waiting patron wondered out loud what could be taking so long and the person inside said, “Just you wait, you’ll see.”

        1. Isabel Gibson

          Barbara – Well, I suspect it came from the juxtaposition of toilets and anything, I think. As for “being in” the poster, I feel the need to explain that I am “in” in the same sense as others who participated – by drawing a toilet (badly, in my case) and offering something I had learned. There was no photographic participation.

  2. Alison Uhrbach

    Isabel, I think you are a KIND person. Always have been, always will be. However, on the topic of drawing a toilet, I am a WHIZ at drawing toilets!! Seems it was something I did a lot of in my career! I used to get compliments on how well I could draw bathtubs and toilets- now, how can I turn THAT into a marketable skill??

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Alison – Dagnab it! If only I’d known about that skill, I could have used the “call a friend” option when challenged/invited by Barbara to draw said toilet. I have never been able to draw anything. Anything.

  3. Wade

    Isabel, as always we watched CBS Sunday Morning today (the best there is on television), as if that is a hard thing. A short story writer, George Saunders gave a commencement speech to Syracuse University graduates about kindness. And what to my wandering eyes should appear, please forgive the outright larceny, but your post on just that subject. Well done. If you’re interested here is a look: http://www.syracuse.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2013/08/george_saunders_commencement_speech.html
    Wade

  4. Kate

    It’s precisely those moments when it’s often really hard to know what the right thing to say is, or how not to say the wrong thing. Sounds like you spoke from your heart and with empathy, and she still remembers it. I find it reassuring, that with good intentions, you don’t need to say anything elaborate, just feel for the person and support them and that’ll be enough.
    Very nice aunt Isabel 🙂
    Kate

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Kate – Yes (hard though it is), the less said the better, in many cases! In looking for the right words I can overlook the actual value, which is just expressing the right feeling. You know, something complicated like, “I’m sorry” or “You’re doing the right thing.”

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