I realized recently that this will be the first holiday season I can’t finagle a Waffle House intermission from family time in Kentucky to catch up with my high school BFF over greasy omelettes and weak coffee. It’s been four months with Sarah gone, but it still doesn’t feel real, and might not until our annual rendezvous window comes and goes without one.
Sarah harmlessly poked fun of me in the past several years for turning into a cityfied hippie, as I made a return to rootsier music after a rather unfortunate (but very much shared) pop-punk/emo stint in high school, then some indier-than-thou college radio snobbery. She found it hilarious my husband Yancey and I would travel to Phish shows and festivals hither and yon and call those vacation days. But no matter the sonic backdrop, she always appreciated that I made space and time for connecting people in the community to their right to vote. She applauded our HeadCount volunteerism from afar, and took special interest as our roster multiplied to include so many diverse partner artists. Her early 2016 visit to Nashville to volunteer for a Kurt Vile show served as a gateway, and solidified my hunch that Sarah was a damn natural at canvassing music venues. She held court with potential registrants, walking them through the forms and adding chit-chatty levity to what was inarguably a tense Election Year climate. I was so proud.
And then, low and behold, having caught the HeadCount “bug” here, the former punk princess lent her skills at the Dead & Co. show back north in Cincinnati some months later. She was transformed. Her fiance and I reveled in the fact she’d come around, suddenly listening to the tunes with a more appreciative ear, having recognized the sense of community among Deadheads of all ages and walks of life while communing with fans on the lawn. The spirit of togetherness over two sets and a few hours, she observed, bested any personal or political differences we may have “in real life.” Needless to say, I felt gratified in not only recruiting a new kick-ass HeadCount volunteer, but by the possibility of converting her to a fan of this fabulous American songbook, the music of the Grateful Dead one more thing we could share as adults.
We talked about all sorts of things in our 20-year friendship, which turned long-distance when I moved away on her 18th birthday. (On mine, earlier that year, we met Ben Folds on the street and geeked out appropriately.) It didn’t matter what music we were jamming to apart, really, because music both propelled us and anchored us, and it always had. Like a core value, not a mere interest or hobby. In adolescence we strummed open chords on crappy acoustic guitars and parodied popular songs by translating half the words to French. (“Temp Apres Temp” was tres amusant.) I didn’t realize she’d kept up performing, though Sarah was also a brilliant visual artist, until the morning of her memorial service, when a friend of hers sent me some MP3s: Sarah doing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” and “The Boxer” and (yep) “Time After Time”…in English, this time. She sang beautifully! I can only imagine how she would’ve continued to share her gifts — with friends, family, colleagues, and with concert-goers at HeadCount events – had her 32 years on planet Earth doubled or tripled.
Sarah suffered the disease of drug addiction, which did not define her life but did contribute to her untimely and unexpected death in August that shocked us all. She was a joyful, exuberant person who wanted to find, and help others find, that joy in everyday places and things. She had an amazing wit, an embarrassingly loud and resonant laugh, and yet a seriousness about philosophy, morality and the intersections of who we are that meant we went DEEP, always. (We simply couldn’t swing 5-minute phone calls; an hour+ was par for the course.) Sarah was a force of nature, with a depth that astounded, a sense of humor that elevated, and generally a spirit that wouldn’t quit, despite the physical and psychological darkness that dogged her for many years, undetected by most in her sphere. Oh, how I wish I’d known more, had been there more. But looking forward (what else can I do?) I want to keep my eyes peeled, now, for subtle signs of suffering in those I love – indications that “taking the edge off” of a crazy day, a busy life, has morphed into something more consuming, beyond one’s control. Always remembering that none of us can tackle the tough stuff solo, no matter how strong and stoic we appear in long-distance texts, or over Christmas break waffles.
My heart is broken with this personal loss, and yet a dull ache had struck me for many months previous to Sarah’s passing: I just don’t know what’s going to happen to our country. In January, last I saw Sarah, we shed tears together over the state of our union. So many people anguishing, and more policy positions seeming to divide us than unite us in these United States. There’s so much to do, we bemoaned, and so little time out of work hours to tend to it! But she did, while she could. And so I can’t stagnate. I must go and do and be the person I’m capable of being. Individuals like Sarah illuminate our togetherness and that which we can share, including passion for art, music, learning, participating in democracy, and caring for each other all the while. When cynicism edges in – what difference can I make? – I’m seeing her face, now. I’m hearing her sweet voice, and making connection in her honor. “Are you registered to vote at your current address?”
“Walking down that long, lonesome road, gal
Where I’m bound, I can’t tell
Goodbye’s too good a word, gal
So I’ll just say fare thee well”
— Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright