In truth, I hardly know her. We met 10 years ago, at one of the bi-annual writing residencies required to complete our low-residency MFA program. We didn’t attend the same workshops; Sara was studying fiction, and I was focused on creative nonfiction. Our paths only crossed occasionally in the cafeteria, at the required evening readings, during sunny moments on the campus lawn, or in a large-windowed lounge furnished with stained cushioned chairs and low, scratched-up tables, where students relaxed quietly between classes.
Our residencies took place on a New England campus heavy with thick trees, a late 19th-century building, castle-like, at its center. Birds chirped from evergreens and thick-branched maples. In the summers, students drifted to classes in shorts and T-shirts; during winter, we trudged through heavy snow.
Most students looked forward to interacting with other writers and the supportive faculty members at these twice-yearly gatherings. I was not one of those students. I’m a naturally shy person who blossoms into confidence only on stage or in the presence of people I know well. I am allergic to small talk and the concept of schmoozing; I get anxious when I’m forced to talk to our plumber. At the time, I also suffered from a strong disbelief that I belonged among “real writers.” I was a journalist whose writing was good, but formulaic and wanting in literary craft. A fan of classic literature, I lacked knowledge about the contemporary literary landscape and was insecure in the presence of published authors. Once, Dennis Lehane sat next to me in the cafeteria so he could share his lunch hour with a colleague across the table. I didn’t speak a word the entire time; a salad has never received so much scrutiny.
I stayed, and kept returning, because what I was learning about writing was so much greater than the level of my discomfort. My writing improved leaps and bounds within a year (although it still suffers from the occasional cliché, apparently). Still, while other students made friends and laughed through their days, I walked alone outside, or hid in the library, or, being close to home, left campus during any hours when my schedule was free. There were many days, however, when I couldn’t leave. And it was on some of those more difficult days that I was saved, more than once, by Sara and Erika.
They had attended the same college in Oregon and shared the same fiction mentor. Erika, the youngest, was a west-coast native who traveled across the country to attend the program. Sara, in her thirties then, lived in Florida and worked as a teacher. To be honest, I’m not even sure if I have these facts right; we didn’t spend much time talking about our backgrounds or getting to know each other.
Sara had unusual fire-red hair, cut short and combed over in a jaunty punk style. Erika had an easy, friendly smile. I envied their camaraderie. I knew no one in the program except the mother of a friend who graduated soon after my first residency.
I have this strange way of remembering things only emotionally. I don’t recall how many times I interacted with this pair, or if we ever shared a dinner or lunch in those years. But I remember them in my gut. I recall one moment when I was walking into (or out) of a building, the stress and frustration from a three-hour workshop etched all over my face. They beckoned me to their table, maybe it was a picnic table, I don’t know. But they insisted I sit down and tell them what was happening, and I spilled all my stress out to these women I barely knew. I don’t remember what they said, only how they said it – with kindness, humor, and a steadfast support that has stayed with me ever since.
It happened again at an AWP conference several years after we graduated. I was nervous about approaching a university press editor who was considering my first book-length manuscript. I had been told to stop by her booth and say hello, and the idea was about as appealing as a spoonful of marmite. I had tried, but seeing her surrounded by people at the booth, had high-tailed it out of there. I was descending into a large hall afterwards on a long escalator when I spotted Sara and Erika near the bottom. Seeing my face (again), they asked me what was going on. I told them. They calmed me down, made me laugh, and managed to turn me around and get me back onto the escalator going up.
Maybe that would have been the end of our friendship if not for my love-hate relationship with Facebook. I can’t stand much of what social media entails, especially the addictive time suck it can be. But its one saving grace is the ability to foster certain connections that otherwise would fade and disappear. I became “friends” with Sara and Erika online, and over the years I’ve seen their posts and learned more about their lives.
Sara married Amy and moved to Washington state, where she and Erika see each other more often these days. She shares my love for animals. She has cheered every success I’ve had as a writer and enjoyed my online photos of wildlife and my cats. She has a wry sense of humor and an off-beat sense of style. And for the past year plus a few months, she has been fighting stage four breast cancer.
I was determined, when I started writing this, not to focus on that last bit. That is Sara’s story. My story is about Sara’s life, not her illness. It is about how a person whom you might only meet a few times can show up at just the right moments and nudge you forward. It is about noticing, across the miles and the weirdness of cyberspace, that someone you don’t know well is always there, always supporting you, always “getting” you. It is about wanting, with all you’ve got, to return that support. And it’s about coming to a place you never expected (who does?), where clicking “like” on a friend’s news about landing an agent for their novel or buying a new house is no longer enough.
It is about the moment when you realize the only thing you can do for them is write.
So, I’m writing. I’m shouting out what world needs to know: Sara exists, and she has a heart as big as a canyon and is contributing to the world by working in public health. She is joking about her chemo and rescuing homeless cats. She is going to the market with her visiting Dad. And she is still, to this day, supporting everything I do.
For months, words have seemed useless. But today, I have at least these few. Red hair grown and lost and grown and lost and grown again, Sara is still like a bolt of lightning cracking down, lighting the darkness for a few split seconds wherever she appears.
She’s as spunky as they come. She’s funny as hell.
She is Sara, whom I hardly know.