Here’s something I wrote three years ago. You may have seen it in the Stereogum comments section of the article reviewing REO Speedwagon’s “Keep On Loving You.”
Meanwhile on the punk side of town….
I lived in Sarasota, Florida for eighteen years.
If you take the John Ringling Causeway from downtown across Sarasota Bay, you’ll cross Bird Key. Brian Johnson from AC/DC lives there and you can wave at his house as you pass by. He probably won’t see you.
Then you’ll get to St. Armand’s Circle and its pricey boutiques and restaurants. Take the first right out of the Circle and continue towards Longboat Key, but turn right just before the drawbridge. There’s a boat dealership there next to a waterfront restaurant called the Salty Dog.
There’s also Mote Marine Laboratory. My wife worked there in the benthic department. She once discovered a previously unknown microscopic worm and got the honor of naming it.
She named it after a co-worker who had the last name Best. That’s right, it’s the Best Worm.
In 1992, there was an exchange student in her lab, a young woman from just outside London.
Four months into her six month internship, her housing arrangement fell through, so my wife offered her our spare room. We’ve been friends ever since.
“Primary” was the only single from The Cure’s 1981 album “Faith.” It got to #43 on the UK Singles chart. It uses two basses and no guitar, which is an unusual and interesting choice. The lyrics are about the transition from childhood to adolescence, and its video shows three little girls playing dress-up with adult clothes. One of them, the one missing a front tooth, is our friend from England. She was six.
I Skyped with her last week and got the details. The band wanted three little girls with long blonde hair. Someone at the studio had a daughter with long blonde hair and she had schoolmates with long blonde hair, one of whom was our friend.
A limo picked her up. Her mother is now surprised she let her 6-year-old go off alone for the day but thought nothing of it at the time, and off she went. The band was at the film studio, having done their footage earlier. There was a big leather-bound trunk with brass hinges, full of clothes, and there were identical handmade lace dresses for each girl. My friend was thrilled she got to keep it, even though she wasn’t the lace and ribbons kind of kid.
The director told them to play with the clothes and hats, and to dance around. They did about ten takes, while a smoke machine created fog and “Primary” played. The girls got a little tired of the song.
Towards the end, the director had them sit on the trunk and put on make-up. They put it on very carefully, with one girl paying special attention to her eyebrows, but that’s not what the band was hoping for. They wanted messy, childish, make-up. The girls didn’t want to be messy.
While one of them was precisely applying lipstick, the director or one of the crew tapped her arm and the lipstick drew a line across her cheek. She ran off crying and wouldn’t come back for ten minutes. That scene didn’t make it into the final cut.
In fact, very little of the footage was used. It’s possible that the girls didn’t understand the director’s instructions, or it didn’t look how the band wanted. Most of the video is shots of The Cure and their perfect lipstick.
After doing all the filming, everyone went into the control room to watch the replay. Our friend sat on Robert Smith’s knee. However, her favorite part of the whole day was going to Burger King for lunch.
We’ve seen her every few years since meeting her, either in Sarasota or London, and more recently Nashville. If we go to her continent or she comes to ours, we try to meet, so we’ve seen her once in Boston and once in Barcelona. She asked me to officiate her second wedding. It was on the beach of North Captiva Island. We were ankle deep in water, and the bride wore a blue bikini and a big hat.
On our trip to The Netherlands last October, we saw the hotel where Mama Leech worked in The Hague. A couple days later, our friend and her partner flew over from England and met us in Amsterdam.
The little girl playing dress-up with The Cure is now 45, runs her own marketing company, and has all her teeth.
Her name was Sarah.
And I may have underplayed how important she’s been to me, and vice versa.
When you live in the same house you get to know each other quickly, and she and I clicked like we had known each other in a previous life. She and my wife were workmates, but she and I were mates, in the British sense of the word.
I think I was a father figure for her at first, but over time we became equals. Either way, I was a confidant. For years, she’d call me to talk out her relationship issues or work concerns. And that was when overseas phone calls were expensive.
I valued her opinion, too. When I started working on a novel seriously – all writers have a novel in the works, you know – I sent her a draft of the first chapter.
She called with a couple suggestions and said she really liked the line, “Plans have a way of changing.”
We had a shared love of Monty Python and she introduced us to Blackadder and Red Dwarf. Her sense of humor ran a little dirty, and she was always delighted by words that are perfectly normal in the States but filthy in England. It tickled her when she saw a bottle of Knob’s Creek bourbon or when I told her that we toured a Frank Lloyd Wright house called Kentucky Knob.
As JJ mentioned recently, “knob” is British slang for a gentleman’s lower appendage. Speaking of, she once said, “Even on the most attractive man, it looks like the last chicken in the shop.” That may be an English expression or she may have made it up on the spot. Either way, it still makes me laugh.
She had a quick intelligence, which made her good at her job and in running her life. She had some emotional intelligence, too. She would sometimes cry over something stressful, let it out of her system, and then, in her words, “come over all German” and get to setting things right.
She lived with intention, deciding what was important and what wasn’t. She worked hard and she relaxed hard.
By working hard, she got herself to the point where she could afford to take a couple months off, rent a car, travel the American west with her partner Ben, and spend a week on Sanibel Island, too.
She knew that sometimes life is short and there’s no point in putting off travel until retirement. Do it now, because plans have a way of changing.
It’s not often you get to watch, in small periods, someone grow and change over 30 years. Sarah went from a teenager to a twenty-something party girl to a twice married, twice divorced woman (so maybe my relationship advice isn’t great.)
She rose from an entry level marketing assistant to an executive to a successful entrepreneur. It was easy to see all those steps during our short visits every two to five years. We watched her mature, though she would object to that word.
People change emotionally, mentally, and on a cellular level, too.
Our bodies are made of millions of cells that constantly replace each other. You’re quite literally not the person you used to be.
Most of the time the new cells are replicas of the ones they replace. Sometimes though, they’re slight variations. Most variants aren’t viable and die off. Other times, they replicate themselves and keep replicating and don’t stop.
That’s called “cancer.”
In May of 2022, Sarah and Ben rented a condo on Sanibel, so we drove down and spent a few days with them.
She loved Sanibel, in part because her parents had had a timeshare there, so she had been there often as a kid. That’s how she knew about Mote Marine.
As an adult, she rented condos there for a week or two at a time.
No trip to America was complete without visiting Sanibel.
On this visit, she complained about having trouble digesting food and not having an appetite, but she’d had similar complaints for a few years. We thought it was related to her gluten intolerance.
A month later, she called to say she’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It had spread to her liver and possibly elsewhere. They were going to do more tests.
She had chemo and radiation. Surgery wasn’t an option because the tumors were too involved in her organs. Recently, she’d been on a lot of painkillers, giving herself morphine as needed.
Her sense of humor stayed more or less intact. I teased her that it was good she always wore her hair short because it would be back to normal in no time. It’s not much of a joke but she liked the irreverence of it.
Ben was great through all of this. He stopped working so he could stay home and take care of her, and did so with a calm sense of purpose.
He was rock steady, doing what had to be done, all the while knowing the inevitable was coming.
May we all have someone like him in our last days.
In March of this year, my wife and I went to France for a week and then flew to England to see them.
The morning after we got there, my wife didn’t feel well and we both took Covid tests. Sure enough, we had picked it up somewhere in our travels. For the rest of our visit, we stayed on the far side of the room from our friends. We used antiseptic wipes to clean where we ate and sat. No hugging allowed.
Plans have a way of changing.
We had gone there to give her hugs. She probably needed them more than she’d admit. She was, after all, British. Fortunately, we didn’t give them Covid.
When it was just me and her in the room, I asked if she was scared of dying. She said, “No, I just don’t want to suffer.” I think that’s all any of us want.
I also asked what she thinks happens after we die and her immediate response was, “Nothing.” Then she had a bit of a rant about how religions may preach this, that or the other, but no one knows and they shouldn’t use the promise of an afterlife to control people in this one.
I told her about the Hindu concept of a single consciousness, and how my Comparative Religion professor explained it as one ocean and that we’re each little waves rising up out of it.
When we die, we return to the universal consciousness like a wave falling back into the sea. We may be a person or a wave for a while, but we’re part of the whole.
She liked that idea.
I texted her every couple days. She talked about the unfairness of it all. That’s the thing about cancer. It doesn’t care what else you have going on or what kind of person you are. It just picks you and says, “You’re mine now.”
And she complained that most people pulled away. She understood that it’s awkward. No one knows what to say to someone with numbered days. She said a good friend of hers would come over, and they’d talk a little – but mostly just sit together. And she appreciated it greatly.
If you know someone with a potentially fatal disease, don’t change anything between you, except maybe get together a little more often.
She felt OK on some days. Other days were rough.
The hard days got more frequent. Her text replies got shorter and less funny.
On a recent Saturday morning, Ben called. She had gone in for a procedure to insert a stent to get more blood flowing to her intestines. It should have been fairly easy but the surgeon said the cancer was worse than he was expecting.
She didn’t recover. Her kidneys shut down and her liver struggled. She would be lucid for only half a minute at a time. She didn’t want to suffer, but she did.
Ben was upset but stoic and circumspect. I told him it shouldn’t be this way, and that she and I had often talked about life and death and we both expected me, being a generation older, to die first.
He said that while we were in Sanibel last year, before the diagnosis, she got emotional and told him that she realized that she’d probably see me only five or six more times.
I’d like to think I’ll live longer than that but her math was probably right. Anyway, I’m touched that she thought about it. Be sure to appreciate every time you see a friend.
Plans have a way of changing.
A few days later, three weeks after her 49th birthday, Ben texted that she had just passed away. It was a year and a day after she called me with her diagnosis.
Everyone deals with grief in their own way. I wanted to sit and think, about pretty much everything I’ve said here. My wife wanted to talk, about life, afterlife, and the possibility of reincarnation.
We decided to do something in her honor, so we went out for English fish and chips. On the way, I saw the lights at a railroad crossing ahead start blinking, so I took a side street to avoid the tracks.
It’s not a way I know well, and we found ourselves at a stop sign.
On the corner of Knobview Drive.
And we laughed. “Sarah would have loved that,” I said.
“Maybe she made us turn this way,” my wife said. “Maybe she’s sending you a sign that she’s OK.”
If that’s the case, it’s good to know she still has her sense of humor.