25 September 2017

Surrounded by Greatness: Sarah

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Slender, tall, soft-spoken. Hair the sheen of dark chocolate, beautiful skin with a delightful bridge of freckles on her nose. Sparkling green eyes. A quiet smile, sometimes brilliant. Modest, inexpensive clothes but always a beautiful, functional outfit. Nowadays she always has a baby on her hip or a child by the hand.

We are cousins. But I hardly knew her until I turned 18 and roomed with cousins for my first year.

Fresh out of high school, I aspired to stand out in the crowd, to be noticed for something great--black coats, red boots, intense looks. Sarah stood out in our apartment without effort. She didn't say much, but she set an example. She didn't pursue outlandish clothing or hair or makeup styles. She smiled easily. She went where she was supposed to go when she was supposed to. She didn't use crass language. She spoke gently. Sometimes, as I studied in the bedroom across the hall, I heard the strains of a violin as she played hymns and other pieces. In the eight months we shared an apartment I only saw her upset once.

From Sarah's example I learned how important it was to drink lots of water every day. I also learned that it's ok to like french fries and cheesecake. I learned how to move like a princess. How to talk like a princess. How beautiful it is to dress conservatively and still be comfortable in one's own skin.

I walked in the mornings. Often I would blow in from the frigid Rexburg dark to find Sarah, hair wet, at the kitchen table, studying her scriptures while the rest of the apartment slept. We didn't converse much while we lived together. But we got along. She didn't know how much I watched her and decided to try to be like her.

One cold, pre-dawn morning I trudged up the stairs in my seven layers to find a note hanging from the front doorknob. "Dear Cassidy," it said, and then listed a bunch of qualities the writer appreciated about me--stuff I didn't think anyone noticed, stuff that just warmed the Idaho ice right out of me. It was signed "<3/." No name. I thought it might be another roommate who usually walked in the mornings with me but had wanted to sleep today. I held the note gently and walked through the door to find Sarah, hair wet, sitting under the kitchen light with her scriptures.

I kept that note in my college cookbook for years, and added it to my keepsakes after that. I've signed secret notes "<3/" ever since.

Sarah found her sweetheart the next semester, and she was gone even more. I missed her, though I was happy for her. I watched her romance and hoped that someday I might be a good enough girl, like Sarah, to find that kind of love.

I don't go to receptions as a habit. But I went to Sarah's.

Sarah started a family. A handful of moves, a handful of gorgeous children...beautiful pictures that I loved to see on her blog or her FB feed as the years went on. Sarah, with her queenly posture and her sweet, angelic smile, surrounded by husband and children.

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Then, suddenly, she lost her 20-month-old daughter to pneumonia.

I went to the funeral, unsure of what I'd see or of what to do when I saw Sarah. What do you say to a young mother so freakishly bereaved? What was Sarah experiencing?

She was the same Sarah in suffering as she had been in school. She didn't cry. She held her face bravely and even managed to smile at some people as they came to view little Ella and wish Sarah and her family well. She clung to her husband and kept her other three children close, but she stood Sarah-straight. Graceful and quiet as ever. A princess.

I didn't find a moment with her until we were at the grave site. Then I couldn't be nervous anymore, or worried about pretense. This was Sarah--as genuine and beautiful as any woman I've ever known. All I could feel was sisterly love for her and the desire to hug her and to tell her I loved her and was praying for her. She hugged me tightly--as if we were not only cousins, but friends--and clung to my hand for a minute. We held each other tightly, and I tried to share with her the love and admiration I had for her, to give her something. Then I moved back to my husband, and she moved to greet other well-wishers.

Have you ever stood that close to a princess?

I watched her throughout that afternoon in awe. She held it together, though I could see her grief. She didn't draw attention to herself--and just that fact commanded attention.

Since then she still posts beautiful pictures and soulful testimonies about families being forever. Always positive. Never questioning or complaining or upbraiding, though she acknowledges that she struggles. We don't mix much, both in our own spheres of busy.

But I still think of Sarah often. Of her hug in the cemetery. Of her graciousness in fair and foul weather. Of that note on the doorstep. Of french fries and cheesecake and water. Of quiet manners and gentle speech. Of the kind of confidence and selflessness that withers others' need for pretense with a look, a touch, a smile. Of how to be a princess.

I'm so happy I know Sarah. She is someone I wish I could introduce everyone to. She makes people better just by being in proximity to them. It's a gift. From a princess.

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