Last Thursday I was up before the robins, in order to get Peter ready for a 5:30 a.m. departure for Washington DC with his classmates. After rousing our sleepy boy, I quickly scanned through my inbox. There was a message from my friend Sarah Broom, with the subject In memorium. I hoped to hell it was the title of a new poem but my heart was heavy as I opened the email. It had been sent by Sarah’s husband, Michael. Sarah had died.
As I hurried Peter out the door, I kept the news to myself. Already reeling from the Boston Marathon Patriot Day bombings, I felt an intense need to protect Peter from additional sadness and worry as he went off on what was intended to be a holiday.
After returning home, I crawled back into bed and fell right to sleep. When I awakened several hours later, I immediately recalled a dream: I’d been sitting on the floor of a closet that was not mine. Most of the clothing was gone, but there were some beautiful objects on the shelves, shrine-like in presentation and fashioned from polished brass and ivory colored lace or coral. The door to the closet opened, and a stranger asked me what I was doing there. I gestured to the space around me and said, “I am so lonely, and this reminds me of the forts we built as children.”
For the past few months, I had spent many a night imagining Sarah, Thao and myself running, climbing, jumping, flying. Young and strong again, with scabbed knees and cheeks flushed with pleasure. Invincible.
My special relationship with Sarah began almost five years ago. When I took my initial dose of crizotinib in 2008, I was the fourth person in the world with NSCLC and an ALK mutation to do so. Sarah, who lived in New Zealand, had directly preceded me on trial as number three. Through social media and a common acquaintance (number two in the trial, our friend Kevin), we began a dialogue.
Initially, our communication was infrequent. With time, emails segued into long telephone conversations. A little over a year and a half ago, Sarah came to Boston for treatment, and we were able to spend some actual time together. Although she soon returned home to New Zealand, our sessions over the phone continued with renewed intensity.
Sarah was brilliant; a poet with a doctorate in English from Oxford in addition to a master of arts in English from Leeds University. Hers had been a tough road: Only thirty five years old and pregnant with her third child when diagnosed with lung cancer, Sarah advocated fiercely for the sort of care not readily available in New Zealand. For more than five years she endured the side effects of multiple treatments and a hopelessly aggressive cancer, always with unfailing optimism, courage and devotion to her family.
In our lengthy chats we talked of the things most friends do: love, life, relationships. Books, creativity, our hopes and dreams. But we also discussed our illness and, of course, dying. In a way that was extraordinarily open and free from pretense.
I loved Sarah and felt intensely connected to her. I knew she was dying. In fact, the afternoon before I opened the email from Michael, I felt a certain shift in the universe and was certain that it had to do with Sarah.
I am devastated. However, my loss pales next to that of her family. Also, I know that Sarah had made peace with what was coming and that she is now free from suffering. She will live on in our hearts and in her own words, and although the earth may now be a bit dimmer, the sky is brighter still.
And when I walked out last night
it was cool, the coldest night this winter,
and when the stars asked me to join them
in the ache of their bareness, I let them
take me, and they carried me between them,
clusters of stars all along my body, and I arched right back and pointed my toes and fingertips,
and was as long as ever you could imagine
and they did not let me go.
by Sarah Broom