We lost Sarah
WE LOST SARAH last Sunday. It was crushing. At one point, there were 13 of us in the Hamilton ICU waiting room, visiting Sarah briefly in pairs as she struggled for her life. We could stretch past the monitors, ventilator and over the IV lines to whisper in her ear, hold her hand, tell her we loved her – but nothing we could do, nor the best efforts of the doctors and nursing staff, could halt the downward spiral that began sometime after her first operation on Friday morning. By Sunday afternoon, she was gone.
That’s all I can bear to say about last weekend. I want to turn away from it as quickly as possible and go back to the Sarah we knew and loved before we lost her so abruptly.
Sarah was a huge and powerful personality. Anyone who met her felt it right away. She was charismatic, she was dramatic. And she was attractive. Her sister thought she’d grow up to be an actress.
Sarah was loud. She played her music loud. When she laughed – and she loved to laugh – it was a deep, throaty, infectious laugh.
She had spark. If you met her at a party, she would stand very close to you, look you directly in the eye and draw you in. She captivated people. Heads turned when she entered a room.
Not surprisingly, she loved to sing, and she always had music playing. She also loved to dance, and not just at parties or bars. She’d turn the music on at home – did I mention loud? – and dance around the family living room. Barbara will always cherish that memory, but many friends of hers had the same one.
Her early, best friend Judy Quinton says that Sarah would open her bedroom window and sing at the top of her lungs into the back alleyway when they were teenagers.
Sarah was fast. She talked fast. Her mind worked fast. And she would get irritated if you didn’t keep pace with her.
It wasn’t a reckless speed. She was also organized. She was a list maker, in the tidy handwriting that she learned in school.
I even happened to see a list she made last week, of things to pack for her stay in the hospital, right down to spare batteries for her MP3 player. Every item had a neat check mark beside it.
It might not surprise you that Sarah excelled as a waitress in her early 20s. She had everything it took to earn great tips: humour, charm, organization, efficiency, and of course, she was fast, like I said.
And finally, Sarah was loving. She always left notes, for the smallest things. “Love Sarah.” “Love Boo.” “Love Sarah-Beara.”
• • • • •
But I’m way ahead of myself. Let me go back to the beginning, to the stories that only her family will know.
Sarah Louise Martin was born in Windsor, England on November 3, 1971. The Martin family was already up and running when she came along, because Nichola was 12 and Simon was 11.
In fact, they lived on a street called Martin Close. That was a suitable name in more ways than one, because the street was also small C close. Their neighbours were their friends, most with kids the same generation as Nichola and Simon. Barbara and Brian’s best friends were Allan and Margaret Blazey, who had two girls named – you won’t believe this – Sara and Nicola! It was the sort of community where the kids referred to their parents’ friends as “Auntie” and “Uncle”.
So into this fully formed, “close” community dropped Sarah. It was an event, and not just for the Martins. The whole street anticipated this new, youngest member of the family, half a generation behind all the other kids.
Why am I spending so much time setting the scene here? Because it seems key to Sarah’s personality. Sarah was always around older people, right from the get-go, and she had to be loud, intelligent and quick if anyone was going to listen to her. She was of course naturally social, but she was also born into a milieu where sociability was the key to being accepted.
Nichola and Simon were raised in cloth diapers, but Sarah was part of the new, paper-clad generation. As she went from baby to toddler, Sarah was inseparable from her “dina”, and here I have to translate for you North Americans – duvet is the word most of you would recognize. It was her security blanket and she dragged it everywhere as she sucked her thumb. This strange phrase won’t mean anything to the rest of you, but it will to her family: “yukka dina Sarah, yukka dina.”
Eventually, the dina lost its feathers, and finally Barbara had to cut the remaining shards of cloth into little strips, and ration them out to Sarah one by one as they disintegrated into nothingness.
Sarah was a robust toddler marching around in her BabyGrow – translation again – sleeper. Before long, Sarah was out and about on her tricycle, riding fast, visiting the neighbours and meeting new people. When the family went on holidays, Sarah would quickly gather a new group of children on the beach somewhere, chatting and leading the game.
• • • • •
Just before she turned five, the world shifted abruptly for Sarah, and for the rest of her family. They emigrated to Canada – in fact, all of Brian’s family did over the course of two years.
You might think that Windsor would have something in common with Stratford, Ontario – you know, the Shakespeare theatre, lots of posh accents around town. But it didn’t provide much comfort to the Martins. Stratford was a wasteland, an empty High Street on a Saturday, a culturally and climatically foreign territory. They were in shock.
Luckily, they had a secret weapson – Sarah Martin – anxious to make friends and adapt to this new group of strangers, like she’d always done. She made the transition with astonishing speed. According to Simon, she had switched her accent in a matter of hours.
Less than a month after arriving in Stratford, Sarah began kindergarten. Barbara had walked Nichola and Simon to school in Windsor until they were 10, but Sarah would have none of that. She pushed her mother back and marched independently over to her new school. She was fearless, loving the challenge of meeting and understanding new people.
Through that first winter, Sarah dragged loads of friends home – or disappeared for hours into their homes – while the rest of the family sat at the front window wondering when the foreign snow would turn to familiar rain. This little Sarah introduced Canadian culture to the Martin family.
But there was something about coming to Canada that nobody could really foresee. It meant that Sarah was raised in a society with a subtly different culture and values than the one they’d left. This had far-reaching consequences.
It meant, for instance, that we can’t do the hymn that Brian, Barbara, Nichola and Simon wanted to sing a little later on in this service – “And did those feet, in ancient times, walk upon England’s mountains green … ”
Why not? Because it drove Sarah crazy when Nichola and Simon would march around the house singing Jerusalem. In fact, any talk of England or Wales reminded Sarah that a big life happened before she was ever around – and Sarah didn’t like to miss out on anything.
It meant that whenever the family started reminiscing about the old country around the table, Sarah would have one of three reactions:
- she would claim that she was in fact present at events that occurred in the 1960s, or
- she would argue the events never really happened, or
- she would leave the room in tears
This didn’t last very long, because within two years, Nichola and Simon were gone – Nichola left the country entirely to travel, and Simon moved out as well. At the same time, the Martins moved to Toronto, so the transition was complete, and Sarah became an only child in a family that supposedly had three children.
The upside for Sarah, of course, was that she now had her parents all to herself – or to look at it another way, she now had “only” two parents, like most kids, instead of four!
She still saw the others of course. Nichola remembers one summer looking after Sarah, because – here’s another difference in the Canadian era of the Martin family history – Barbara was now working full-time, something she didn’t do while raising her first two children.
Nichola recalls looking after Sarah and a skinny, pale-faced child named Andrea. Nic was afraid that Sarah would dominate Andrea, and sure enough, Sarah turned on her one day and Andrea stopped coming!
Nichola describes Sarah as a tough little girl at that age, not a tomboy mind you, but not pretty-pretty either – and yet, in Nic’s words, “she grew up into a stunningly beautiful woman.”
The other benefit to living in Toronto for Sarah was Saturdays with her father, while her mum was working at the hair salon. That’s one of his fond memories of Sarah: taking her to theatres, or to the Ex.
• • • • •
When Sarah was 12 her parents sent her to England on her own for a summer vacation – I don’t mean completely alone, she was staying with her Auntie Val, Barbara’s sister – but she traveled alone. Barb still remembers her striding confidently off, with permed hair, her Fame outfit, and her roller skates.
Auntie Val was dumbfounded when Sarah arrived. You have to understand. Val is a tiny Welsh woman. And in her mind, Sarah was a little girl, of course. Now she had this almost-woman on her doorstep, towering over her – especially when Sarah put on those roller skates.
The physical Sarah really was turning into the adult that she’d always acted like since she was a small child.
Simon remembers when this occurred to him. He walked into the Keele Street house one day to find Sarah and Judy sitting at the kitchen table, with identical Boy George-inspired hair and makeup.
The little girl that he’d been able to tease and pinch and needle for so long was gone. To him, it was an expression of independence and growing up.
Throughout high school, Judy and Sarah were inseparable. They called each other Shara and Jupee. They dressed the same, did their hair the same, and took classes together. They went to their first stadium rock concert at the CNE together – the Thompson Twins. (For those of you not raised in the 1980s, that’s a band, not some sort of nickname for Judy and Sarah.)
What really drew them together was laughter and comedy, says Judy. Sarah loved to laugh, and she made Judy laugh too. They both had a crush on Martin Short of SCTV, not because he was particularly good looking, but because he was so hilarious.
They’d watch horror movies together, then get on the subway, sit apart from each other and talk to their fingers, like a character in the movie Redrum, just to freak the other passengers out!
After graduating from high school, Sarah took a gap year – do I have to translate? – then went to U. of T., studying Politics and Sociology. Both of her older siblings say that Sarah was the natural one of the family when it came to university – that’s not faint praise when your brother has two bachelors degrees and your sister a BA and an MSc. She steamed through in four years – no dropping courses or taking extra years. She had a quick mind, was an excellent writer, and combined with that organizational bent I mentioned earlier.
• • • • •
I’m going to shift gears here.
When I first got to know the Martins, Sarah was 9 – and very much the bubbly, bouncy, and also tempermental person that many other people described to me. I did some things with her that no one else mentioned – we played music together – songs from Sarah’s Cat Stevens book, her on flute, me on guitar.
When Nichola and I began living together, she says that Sarah was shocked to realize that when she came to visit overnight, she couldn’t sleep in the same room as her older sister.
I’m a quieter person, and I found a quieter side of Sarah – and that was the mutable part of Sarah at work, changing to suit the different people she met. I had three sisters of my own, so it was strange to gain another one. My own baby sister was born ten years to the day before Sarah, so now I had a baby-baby sister, and I found her charming, if a little temperamental.
I remember my first visits to the larger Martin clan in Stratford – we’re talking twice-yearly gatherings of 40–50 people – pretty foreboding for an introvert from a reserved culture. Sarah was my guide to this new land of large personalities – she knew them all well because she was one of them, but she also understood where I was coming from. That was the empathetic, listening, understanding side of Sarah.
• • • • •
When I was asked to do this eulogy, I had to go looking for a part of Sarah that I didn’t know, because I felt I’ve lost Sarah over the last ten years, imperceptibly at first, and then faster and faster. Of course I knew she was struggling. We talked about it occasionally, and I had constant updates from Barbara and Brian, who she was always in touch with.
She worked at London Life for six months, then had to leave. She worked at CDI and then CTC, selling software training, which lasted a little longer, but came to the same conclusion.
I thought Sarah would be great in sales – it was like waitressing, writ large – but it never quite happened. At one level I understood, but on another I was mystified.
I certainly couldn’t understand some of the decisions she took – to move rashly to Vancouver, and then back again for instance. As she marched through her 20s, I began to ache for the potential I knew she had, but wasn’t realizing.
• • • • •
The last four years have been very difficult for Sarah, and for her family. Her doctors and psychiatrists had names for what she was struggling with, but that didn’t make it any easier for us to accept what we saw as self-destructive behavior.
I now think that part of Sarah will always be a mystery to us, and unfortunately her sudden death from a hospital-acquired infection brought that into painfully sharp relief. There are so many why questions, and almost no answers for any of them.
I don’t want to say that struggle was the only way to define Sarah’s life, however. The loving happy Sarah was always there. She loved her four nephews dearly – Christian, Jonathan, Zachary and Thomas – and bragged about them to her friends. She loved her brother and sister, and her sister-in-law Sharon – the one who, by chance, frequently arrived at family gatherings in an identical outfit to Sarah’s own!
Sarah was lucky to have friends who stuck by her even when it was hard on them. Judy and Sarah were estranged for about six years through their 20s – she thinks they were so alike they had to separate for awhile – but got back together in their 30s and decided they were incomplete without each other. Gillian Hutchison and Sarah were also soul mates, even though it could be difficult for Sarah when she compared her life to Gillian’s.
Also, Sarah bought a little dog four years ago – a Shih Tzu she named Biskit – who was a delight to her. Brian used to worry about what would happen to Sarah when Biskit died – one of those cruel ironies that life throws at you.
• • • • •
Everybody says that the key to Sarah is music, so I decided to listen to some of the compilation CDs she’d given to Barbara and Brian over the years, to see if they contained clues about what she was thinking.
She titled one of these CDs, “Songs I Really Like.” Maybe my emotional state wasn’t so hot on Monday, the morning after we lost Sarah. But I was reduced to tears just by the title of the first song: It’s Not Easy to Be Me, by John Ondrasik. You may not know it. It’s recent, not an ’80s classic.
On the surface, the song is about Superman, but it’s also about carrying the burden of expectations that you can’t meet. Here are some of the lyrics:
I can’t stand to fly
I’m not that naive
I’m just out to find
The better part of me
Wish that I could cry
Fall upon my knees
Find some way to lie
About a home I’ll never see
I’m more than a bird
I’m more than a plane
I’m more than a pretty face
Beside a train
And it’s not easy … to be, me
• • • • •
Her friend Gillian believes that Sarah hoped she would overcome the things that tormented her. Sarah’s dreams at 34 were different than the dreams she had at 24, but she still hoped for a better life.
Both Gillian and Sarah’s partner John Rolland say that Sarah was happy last week as her surgery approached, and that they heard her laughing like the old Sarah.
Sarah understood the seriousness of her surgery last Friday. She was prepared and courageous and brave, and maybe knew what was up, at some deep level.
It was not always easy to be Sarah, but she was always the best Sarah that she could be.
• • • • •
Sarah … Boo … Sarah-Beara … Shara … Sare …
We love you simply for who you are, and not for what you could have, or might have been.