I found it hard to ask how she was. I’d arrive at her house, she would open the door with “hello Keith, how are you?” After several visits, I had to say “Sara, listen. How are you?” She explained that I was her student and, in that relationship, the teacher was always well, and it was the student’s health that had to be considered. Sara then said, I’d now passed from student to good friend and I was allowed to ask.
I did what I could to help. I took her to chemo and radiotherapy – for some of these she needed to leave home before 7am – when her great friend and housemate, Viv, broke her arm and couldn’t drive. This was when I heard the name Penny Brohn UK. She described it as a beautiful, peaceful setting, where she could come to terms with her diagnosis. I learnt much more when I visited. Sara was a private person when it came to her illness and suffering, but I know she found friendship, solace and peace there. Her relationship with other visitors and staff helped not only her, but also every one she came in contact with. She was always positive, telling me how much Penny Brohn meant to her.
The cancer seemed cured and she gave a superb performance with all proceeds donated to Penny Brohn. I also heard her perform in memory of Sir Nicholas Winton in London. All seemed well. Sara even came to two of my fun physics talks.
But in summer 2016, we learnt the cancer had spread. It meant more chemo, scans and, I suppose on the good side, visits to Penny Brohn. Even so, she kept playing. Most memorably a recital at Penny Brohn where, although in pain, she again played Kol Nidrei amongst others. We didn’t know, but it was to be her last public performance.
I visited Sara in the oncology centre several times and when asked what she most wanted to do when she returned home, she simply replied: “Play the cello”. Then, came the call from Viv on 23 February to say: “I’m so sorry to tell you that Sara died at 8am.” We all miss her so much.
I had to do something in her memory and for the organisation she really valued and that gave her wonderful support and solace during the difficult times. The following day I contacted Penny Brohn UK. A few weeks later, sun shining, I was collecting at their Open Day. I was treated kindly, as if I was an old friend. I also ate lunch and thought, this was too easy – as a true memory to Sara – I have to do something more difficult.
That is why in May 2017 I joined 13,000 other runners at the Bristol 10km – something I’d not done for over 15 years. It was a great experience – with lots of cheering – which helped me finish in a reasonable time, and a chance to swap experiences with runners afterwards. Thanks to my family and friends, I managed to raise a fair amount for Penny Brohn. It gave me a feeling of belonging.
One of Sara’s last texts, only two weeks before she died, proclaimed that chemo was okay, only close monitoring was needed before she could come home and she was looking forward to walking. A positive outlook as always.
Sorry that this does not have a happy ending, but, in a way, it does. Penny Brohn is still here supporting others as they did Sara. She did live well with cancer, even caring for fellow patients whilst she was in hospital. Her courage, energy, enthusiasm for life and love of her cello is a fitting memory. I am just glad to have known her.