Three weeks ago I went to the memorial service for a young woman named Sarah who died way too young. She was 23 or 24, became ill with a brain tumor last fall, and died this spring. I have known her mother for twenty years, and though we have not been close in many years, Julie (my wife) and I still count her as a dear friend, the sort you pick right up with even after several years of not seeing one another. I knew her daughter Sarah as a little girl, back in the days before I was a mother, but I never knew her well. She went to the same high school where my daughter is now a rising sophomore, studied art in college, was, by all accounts, an amazing photographer and printmaker. This is not surprising, since her mother is also a gifted artist and one of the finest art teachers I’ve ever met. At her memorial service, I learned more about Sarah than I had known in her life – that she was funny, talented, passionate, relentlessly alive. That she sucked the marrow out of life. I took note that among the many friends of her family who spoke at her service, three were men, and dads – her parents’ friends, her friends’ parents. But the men, the dads. For some reason, that really moved me. One of them said the one word he would use to describe Sarah was nice, and I thought, Oh, Lord, but then he went on, a little awkwardly but totally heartfelt, and made nice seem like very finest quality a young woman could possibly have. I believed him, that she was nice, and I wished I had known her better.
A lot of people spoke, and everyone spoke about Sarah’s art. How talented she was, how alive she was, how irrepressible was her impulse to create. I went to the funeral with a new friend of mine, a Philadelphia writer who started out as a teacher and mentor and then suddenly became my friend. As it turns out, because Philadelphia is really just a big small town, she also knows Sarah’s family, especially Sarah’s grandparents, very well. Sarah was at her daughter’s third birthday party. My friend and I sat next to each other in the back row in the sun in the garden of Morris Arboretum and handed one another Kleenex and alternately patted one another’s back while the other one cried.
I’ve been to many, many funerals and memorial services, and this was definitely among the most brutal.
But while I was listening to Sarah’s friends and family speak about her as an artist, while I was sitting next to my friend who, like me, came into her own as an artist in her middle age, I had another “Jackson Pollack Moment.” I felt filled with regret at this life lost way too soon, at this artist gone, her hands stilled, her remarkable passion for life and friendship and family and love and beauty now quieted. I felt a little sorry for myself that I won’t get a chance to know her. What I felt for her parents, her siblings, her grandparents, cousins, aunts – I can’t even touch that, it’s so awful and raw. But I also felt this sort of – I don’t know how else to say it, and it seems almost wrong in the circumstances, which were so unutterably sad – but I also felt this incredible uplifting — of art, of beauty, of life, and of me, as part of all of it, as an artist. I thought again what an honor it is to be part of a great cloud of witnesses that included Sarah, to still be floating in the current that she was so alive in for far too short a time. And I thought about how wrong it is to pass torches this way, from the young to the old – it is supposed to be the other way around – Sarah should have been at my memorial service, thinking I sounded like a neat lady and she was sorry she hadn’t known me better but that she would take inspiration from my love for art and beauty and words and creation. It isn’t fair at all, or even sensible in any sort of way that most any of us can wrap our heads around, that instead I feel myself taking some bit of the light of Sarah’s bright torch to carry on – but it is what it is. Fair or not, it seems like what I’ve got, and as I sat there weeping in the sun with my middle-aged artist-friend I thought again what an incredible miracle it is that I get to spend the second half of my life making art. And I will think of Sarah often as I do it.
You can see some of Sarah’s art here.