Saturday, June 8, 2013

Sarah and Sarah: The End

(The middle is here.)

As Sarah and I became better friends, we started to share bits and pieces of our pasts, as people do. One of the most dramatic stories Sarah told me was of her at twenty, shopping in a department store with her mother when she suddenly, spectacularly, lost vision in both eyes while suffering a violent, unprecedented kind of headache. Doctors found a large tumor in her uterus, and soon after she underwent a complete hysterectomy.

There would be no biological children for Sarah, and she grieved that reality.

So when I myself became pregnant - too soon! I had a dissertation to finish! - I was hesitant about sharing the news with Sarah. I expected her to be genuinely happy for me, but I also knew that the information might awaken some of her own sleeping demons. Yet when I did finally spill the beans, Sarah was thrilled, and demonstrated that excitement time and time again during my pregnancy by asking me how this or that felt, by laughing when she put her hands on my belly as it ebbed and flowed in the later months, and by being the first to show up at the hospital when Ben was born.

After his birth, too, she was my most enthusiastic cheerleader. I won't lie: surrounded by graduate students, my mother 1,000 miles away, I felt alone, for certain, and even a bit ashamed. Serious graduate students - ones on the path to a faculty position - did not decide to start families at such a critical juncture in their nascent careers. Thus was Sarah's unconditional support of me a lifeline.

When Ben was an infant, he had a terrible stomach flu, so acute and long-lasting that we ended up taking him to the ER and having him rehydrated via IV. All his laundry and bedding, and ours too, was covered in vomit. We had no washing machine or dryer. We used a laundromat, which meant piling the laundry in the back of our car and driving it a few miles.

Daunted by the mountain of wet, disgusting laundry in my living room, exhausted from Ben's colic, and without my car (my husband and I were sharing the use of the car), I confided my sorry tale to Sarah. "Well, that's silly!," she exclaimed. "I'll be there in twenty minutes." She put me, Ben, and the laundry in her car, drove to her house, and did all the laundry there, which, you know, gross, especially when it's not even the soiled laundry of your own kid.

That's who Sarah was, though. That's who she was.


One day Sarah told me that she'd been tired and feeling mentally foggy. She was having blood tests done, but she expected the result to be nothing more than anemia.

Anemia would have been cause for celebration relative to Sarah's diagnosis. She had multiple myeloma. Of course I looked it up: death certain, a maximum of five to seven years of life post-diagnosis (and a painful life at that). I remember staring, dumbfounded, at the computer screen. My mother had been battling cancer, but my mother was sixty-two years old! Sarah was so young. I couldn't process it.

And then it was time for my little family to leave Chicago. My husband had been offered an assistant professor position in Pennsylvania. What could we do but go where the money was?

Sarah and I continued to talk on the phone, every other or third day. She wanted to hear all about Ben, and, later, baby Jack. I'd ask her how she was feeling, and she'd dissemble: "Oh, fine..." She did not want to talk about her health; she made that abundantly clear to me. The gate was locked on the language of cancer.

So it was a terrible shock when Buddy called me in April of 2003. Gently he revealed to me that Sarah was dying, that if I wanted to visit her it had better be soon.

But, but, but...

Jack was nursing still, and with a preschooler and baby I had a hard time imagining myself flying to Chicago. My husband and I discussed August as a potential window when I could fly out with the baby and leave Ben with him. He could take a week off of work.

July 5:  I called Sarah to wish her a happy birthday. I said, "Hi, Sarah." She returned, weakly, "Hi, Sarah," but did not laugh at our joke.

July 7:  Buddy called, sobbing.  Sarah had died.

Ten years later, it is among my deepest regrets that I did not drop everything but the baby and rush to see Sarah in April. The minutiae of my own life got in the way. I would do it differently, now that I understand that not everything is on a schedule, not everything can be predicted. I was in such denial. Not seeing Sarah, only hearing her voice, probably contributed to my myopia. Also: babies. Still, I made a mistake, and its consequences for me have been unrelenting. Most important, I never told Sarah how much I loved her, how much I'd miss her. I get that she probably knew those things, but my silence still matters greatly to me. And so I call this post "Sarah and Sarah: The End," and I grieve anew, for what was, and for what will never be.

Today my husband asked me why I wrote this. "Why would anyone care?," he wondered. "Is there some dramatic hook?" "I don't know," I snapped. "I needed to write it, for me. Whatever anyone gets from it, they get. There's no hook. It's just a story, of two friends, and a lovely, true friendship stolen by cancer. That's all it is." He looked perplexed.


Melissa Kaye said...

You have every reason to write this, I completely understand. At the least it could be cathartic for you, but also someone who has been in a similar situation can completely relate. It doesn't even have to be a situation related to death or dying ... it could be a situation about regrets. Nice job.

Emily said...

You can tell your husband that I read all 3 installments with great interest. You make any story worth reading, but this one was especially meaningful.

Patois42 said...

If there was only one belief I could instill in my children, it is the one you sum up so perfectly. "I would do it differently, now that I understand that not everything is on a schedule, not everything can be predicted."

As always, you are able to tell a story that leaves me aching.

Anonymous said...

Love you and your friend.
Poor husbands...all they want to do is love and be supportive, but we can't hear that.


alejna said...

Ditto what Emily said. Meaningful stories don't always have a hook. I found this story deeply moving.

I am so sorry for your loss, and the regret you continue to feel. I think that many of us have such regrets as adults. I know I have my share. But I'd also like to think that my regrets have helped to mold my actions, hopefully for the better.

V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios said...

My husband is a good guy and supportive in many ways, but my writing side is as mysterious to him as his engineering side is to me. I tell myself it's even more special when your husband supports the things you do that he doesn't understand the importance of.

I feel your regret and also the limits of the place you were in your life when Sarah was dying. I thought dealing with becoming a mother and my first child was a huge adjustment, until we added the second child and I realized what it really meant to be overwhelmed.

As Alejna says, the things we fail to do the first time around are what prod us to get it right later. You know my story--I have regrets too.

Thank you for sharing your story.

Janet said...

You had to write it. And I get it completely.

Magpie said...

I get it. And writing it out is a way of processing your regret.


Mary Gilmour said...

We want to read it because we are your friends. Tell the man that. From me.
And one of the reasons we are friends is that we do this - share our losses and guilt and fears. When you do it, it is beautiful and compelling and you know I share your pain. And why.
Just sent you a Scrabble request, btw, and the reason for asking about the bone density - low bone density is one of the causes of things that hurt more than they should.

Blog Antagonist said...

Well of course you had to write it. People who don't write don't understand that it's catharsis. Writers write about everything because that's the way we process and make sense of life. It's like therapy. My husband didn't understand why I wrote the piece about my son cutting either. But my son, who writes, totally got it. In fact, HIS therapist suggested it as a coping tool when he's tempted to cut again. So if a professional recommends writing as a coping tool, there has to be some merit behind it I'm thinking. Also, wanted to let you know that I have many of the same regrets about my mother's death. I hope writing this piece helped you find some small measure of peace.

Ozma said...

Oh I am sorry. It helps so much to say goodbye. But the time spent with the person is what really matters.

So sad. I am sorry she is not here.

Rima said...

Oh, Sarah. In some sense, I know how you feel. One of my closest friends died of cancer this spring, and I dearly wish I had visited her more often before she passed. She was in Pittsburgh - only two hours away. I did get to tell her that I loved her, but we never had the chance to have the honest conversation that I would have liked to have. But I realize now that I was the one who needed it, not her. Peace to you, my friend.

Helen said...

When I read about your husbands comments, it reminded me of how men and women shop (yes, it's a stereotype, but like many stereotypes, there's a big nugget of truth) - men like to start out with the goal of finding something specific and then, when they do, the journey is done. Most women set out with a general idea of what they might find, but they enjoy finding surprises along the way... in fact, the whole shopping experience can be pleasant and successful if the originally searched for item is never found. Because, in the end, that wasn't very important.

Christine said...

You wrote this because we care. We all have woman, sisters who we love with a fierceness. We have all lost people without the benefit of a proper good-bye. This was so important for me to read as a dear friend died in March. The hospital is 3 blocks from my house, but I couldn't go because I was terribly ill with a flu and fever. They, of course, don't want people ill like I was to enter the ICU. But maybe I should have downed some cold medicine and sneaked in. Maybe I should have gone anyway. Maybe. I'm sorry for the loss of your other Sarah. i know even now the pain is fresh. xo

Elizabeth Dahl said...

I suspect that many phone calls will be made, belated cards sent, and lunches scheduled because of this post. Her purpose in your life was fulfilled many times over. This memory reminds us that love is stronger than death.