Sunday, February 20, 2011

How one woman's death irrevocably changed my life

How do we become us? Do we emulate the people we see on TV, magazines and books, or do we take after the people around us?

I remember seeing her across the aisle at church. She was so beautiful, with a smiling face and long dark curly hair. She wasn’t super skinny or overweight.  She seemed to like sweaters. Her happiness seemed infectious, and I wanted to know her  but at 12 was far too shy to walk up to someone. Aside from the sign of peace, I’m not sure we ever actually spoke.  Luckily I knew her mom, a French/English teacher at the local high school. I knew her name was Sarah, just like my best friend from NY before we had to move to Indiana. It seemed like the hand of providence reached down and guided me to be interested in her.
One day, my parents were discussing sending a card to someone because someone had died. “What? who? tell me!” I demanded, and they reluctantly told me it was Sylvia’s daughter Sarah, killed in a car crash the night before.  
I was devastated. I had heard the sirens, and hadn’t said a prayer, or anything; I’d just ignored them. I vowed from that day forth to say the Lord Prayer whenever I heard the sirens go off. And I did, for the next 7 years.  
I learned later that Sarah had fallen asleep at the wheel driving home from her father’s house in a nearby town. She had been up late the night before reading Emily Dickinson in Spanish.    Through a newspaper article about her, I learned of her aspirations to go to Harvard, her amazing poetry, her recent travel to Spain, and her Speech team accomplishments
Without even realizing I shaped my life around attempting to follow in Sarah’s footsteps.  When I got into high school I took Spanish (although I had my own reasons for wanting to take Spanish), and while in college traveled abroad to Spain.  I joined the speech team and tried out for some plays. I am apparently an awful actor, but  I was really good at speech.  To be precise, I was amazing at Impromptu speeches. I have no idea where this talent came from (oddly enough something else Sarah excelled at) but I was a state finalist 4 years running, and placed 9th in state my senior year.  I was so nervous before each speech that I nearly threw up, but when I was in front of that room, I had poise and precision that seemed electric.  Standing in front of those classrooms was the one time in my life when I felt in control and felt self assured.  I have no idea where this self confidence came from since I had 30 seconds to make something up and talk for 5 minutes. For those 5 minutes I wasn’t judged on my weight, my hair or my clothing but the content of my brain, and talking was something I was good at.  I never saw Sarah speak, but I imagine she had the same type of poise and confidence.
While I never dreamed of going to Harvard, my self confidence (and grades) certainly didn’t travel that far; I did dream of going to an east coast school. When my aunt talked to my mom and brought up her Alma Mater, Trinity, I decided to apply and was accepted.  Trinity was the only school I applied to. I have no idea how I knew I would get in, or why I only applied to one school.  
Church and music was another area that I seemed to emulate Sarah in.  At her wake, there were pictures, most likely her senior picture, that had a verse “how can I keep from singing” at the bottom. For years, simply thinking of that song would bring tears to my eyes. I loved that song before her death, and treasured it after.  I was very involved with my churches choir even after I went to college, heck even after I stopped professing to be a Christian. Music is a balm that sooths the soul.
In a strange twist of fate, I ended up living with Sylvia after my parents moved to Ohio and I stayed behind to finish school. We had become close, through school and church events, and I longed for a stable relationship.  My family was...tumultuous for lack of a better word. I didn’t get along with my parents, and I’m not sure they cared to get along with me.  “Depressed teenager, just ignore them!” seemed to be their motto and so I was left to my own devises most of the time. I had a wonderful time living with Sylvia before going off to college, and it seems to have brought me closure.
Teenagers are emotional beings. It is a time of great emotion and hormonal changes. We all know this, we all went through it.  When Sarah died I was just started to go through all of these changes and was reaching out, grasping at anything I could hold on to, anything healthy that I could just have for me.  I chose Sarah, her memory and her dreams.  My parents discouraged me from picking Sarah as my confirmation name, but I chose it anyways.  See, Sarah’s have been good to me. Sarah gave me something healthy, warm and fuzzy to wrap around myself.  The memories I have of her are good. It is incredibly sad that her life was lost so young, but in her death I managed to find a way to live through her memory.  I hope I give that memory the justice that it deserves.


  1. We all hope that we leave something of value behind for the rest of the world when we are gone, that we touch lives in a way that persists beyond ourselves. It's hard to see a point to life otherwise.

    I think Sarah would be touched to know that you emulated her in spirit and cared enough to use her memory as a guiding light in your own life, even though she never really knew you.

  2. Eileen, I clicked on this just thinking "oh, this looks like an insightful post from Eileen" and had no idea who the subject was going to be. I had no idea Sarah's life, and death, had touched you so. I have tears streaming down my face, partially thinking about how much I miss my sweet sister, but also to find out how much she lives on in other people. I can't tell you how much this means to me. Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Em, I don't think I really realized how much her death had affected me until I decided to write this. I'm just glad that I chose such a positive and wonderful person to attempt to emulate. I sent a copy to your mum...not to make her cry, but because I didn't think it was fair to post something about her child without a heads up. I didn't know you read my blog, or I would have sent you a copy as well. You comment made me cry, so we can now cry together.

  4. "She seemed to like sweaters." lol

    Eileen, what a lovely essay! I just want to echo Emmy and say I didn't realize how Sarah had inspired you. When she died I sank deep into my own sense of loss and it is illuminating even now to hear what an impact my sister had on others. Having never been musical myself or pushed past the throw-up feeling with impromptu speaking, I must commend your wonderful talent, courage, and accomplishment. I wish you could have been with me one of the few times I saw Sarah speak - in a large classroom at IU, performing Kipling, I think. Her poise and confidence knocked the wind out of me. I felt so proud.

    Katie W.

  5. I find your site via Emily. I stayed with Sylvia's family for about half a year during my senior year. Sarah was the sweetest girl I ever know. In fact, I've decided that if I ever have a daughter I'd name her Sarah, for she is the most beautiful and loving person, and I always think that she has been watching over me in heaven. And yes, I am forever grateful that she has made me a better person, when I was an unpleasant grouchy weirdo teenager with wild mood swing. Thank you for sharing such a loving memory of her. I am pleasantly surprised to read about Sarah from you, after all the years, and I realize just how much I still miss her. Thank you!!!

  6. Charles,
    I like to think that Sylvia (and all these ways I've honored Sarah's memory) took me in as a grouchy, depressed teenager and sent me to college a much better and more confident person.
    Thank you. Funny that you mention Kipling since your mom gave me 'how the elephant got it's trunk' to preform as a humor piece lol.


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