My family and I spent this Thanksgiving in Lower Arkansas. In the timber country down near the state line with Louisiana. It was not something we had planned to do. It was a last minute decision. Spur of the moment. It was Sara who brought us all together there. Sara, my wife’s niece. Sara the lost soul. Sara the black sheep. Sara the hopeless drug addict. Sara, one of the sweetest people I ever met.
Sara’s trouble started at college almost two decades ago. There a boyfriend introduced her to cocaine. She was hooked from the get-go. The craving was all-consuming. The boyfriend who set the budding nightmare in motion couldn’t deal with it, so he left. Sara gravitated to others who shared her new-found compulsion. She discovered other drugs; methamphetamine and crack. Somehow she kept it hidden from the family and also from a good man named Randall. He fell in love with her and they were married. Luckily Randall had money, and after Sara’s demons became common knowledge he spent it generously trying to help her. She went to a dozen treatment clinics all over the country. Some as prestigious as Mayo. She always got better, but it never lasted. Inevitably she would relapse. One day Sara sold her wedding ring for drug money. For Randall it was the final straw, and he divorced her. No one in the family blamed him. On the contrary, we were grateful he had tried so hard.
Sara moved back and forth between her mother’s house and her father’s. Both of them kicked her out at least once. She took drugs under their roofs. She ran up their credit cards. But neither could stay mad at her for long. One of them always took her back. Sara had that effect on people. Earlier this year her mother had her committed. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Medicines were prescribed. When she was released she went head over heels for Jesus. She spent hours reading her Bible. Her father said she talked out of her head.
Despite all the heartbreak she caused Sara was loving and she was loved. None of the terrible things she did were done with malice. The pain she brought on herself and her family was the byproduct of her illness. She was lost in the world. She was sick. It seemed no one, no matter how many degrees hung from their wall, could find the way to help her. She had no answers of her own. Then she found one, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
She was supposed to attend church with her mother and step-father. But she begged off. She told them she had cramps. She washed her clothes and cleaned her room. Then she went into the bathroom and turned on the shower. She undressed and stepped inside. No one knows how long she stood there while the water washed over her. No one knows if she was happy or sad, frightened or calm. No one knows if she smiled or cried. All we know for certain is that she aimed a pistol at her heart and pulled the trigger.
Her parents and her siblings were devastated, of course. So were we all, to a slightly lesser degree. We were shocked but not surprised. Tears flowed freely at the visitation on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving. Red eyes and sniffling noses were more common than not. The casket was near the front of the chapel. It was teal and had seashell handles. It was closed, and I was grateful for that. Randall came to pay his respects. Some of the longest embraces from Sara’s mother and her sisters were reserved for him. Randall has remarried, and his wife was welcomed with smiles and hugs. She supported him with quiet dignity through the visitation and the burial. It could not have been easy.
At the cemetery we stood in a half-circle under a clear blue sky and waited for the pastor to begin. He started by intoning the evils of sin. I thought, no, please don’t go there. Not here. Not now. Mercifully he changed course and kept to tradition. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We sang a prayer to the tune of Amazing Grace. It was a clumsy effort. And then it was over. As the mourners drifted down the hill to their cars I saw Randall at the casket under the canvas tent. He stood there alone with his head bowed. His wife waited with the rest of us, giving him time and space. I can’t imagine what thoughts went through his mind. They must have been profoundly sad.
With all the dismal ingredients in place and all the dark stars in alignment, it appeared this Thanksgiving was a slam dunk for the worst Thanksgiving ever. So much sorrow. So many tears. So many questions. How could anything good come of it? But strangely, something did. From this giant basket of bitter lemons that was foisted upon us, we still managed to make some lemonade.
It started on Thursday, when my wife insisted we would have a Thanksgiving meal together as a family, come hell or high water. So we did. We gathered at the Kozy Kitchen Cafe, ten of us at a long table. It was the first time I remember being anyplace other than at home or at a relatives on this, my favorite holiday. I thought it would be weird, eating Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant in a strange town. But it wasn’t. Thanksgiving is more about who you’re with than where you eat. I probably always suspected that, but I know for certain now. We feasted on fried turkey and fried chicken and vegetables cooked Southern style; cabbage and turnip greens, black eye peas, beans and ham, green beans and cornbread dressing with cranberry sauce. It was all delicious, especially when washed down with a glass of sweet tea.
Later we drove to my brother-in-law’s house, some thirty miles away. Around 8 o’clock, his courage bolstered by beer, Robert invited me out on the front porch. Robert is my youngest daughter’s boyfriend. He made nervous small talk for a few minutes. Then he came to the point. He said he planned to propose at Christmas. He asked for my blessing. I pretended to think it over. I asked him some serious, father-in-law type questions. I paused for dramatic effect. Then I gave him what he wanted. So he hugged me. Hard. Like a lot of young people these days, Robert’s a hugger. I’m not.
On Friday after the funeral we met for barbeque and Razorback football at Sara’s father’s house, and we did what we could to take his mind off of his broken heart. That night we went downtown, where we had a Mexican dinner on an outdoor deck among the Christmas lights that decorated the light poles and the County Courthouse across the street. Horse-drawn carriages trimmed in white lights went round and round the courthouse square. A loud and festive Christmas Train did likewise. This time it was just my family, and Robert, and as I looked down the table at our daughters and their chosen men and our grandchildren, I thought how lucky we were, my wife and I, that we could spend this time with them together in this place. For a few moments it was almost perfect, as the reason for our being there receded from my thoughts, and a warm feeling of pride and gratitude, augmented by a couple of outstanding margaritas, came over me.
We all parted ways on Saturday morning, back to our routines. There will be a period of grieving, and hopefully one of healing. My wife will check on her brother a couple of times a week for the foreseeable future, just to be sure he is okay.
If I could talk to Sara one last time I would tell her I hope she found what she was looking for. I would say I am happy her demons are vanquished, but I’m sorry the cost was so high. I would tell her we will all be okay, but she has left a hole in the world, especially for her mother and father and her brother and sisters. They will never be quite the same. And I would say to her that I hope, above all, she has finally found some peace. Vaya con Dios. You will be missed.