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.