When Keith saw Sara Lovell performing as a cello soloist, she rekindled his love for the instrument and in starting cello lessons with the talented performer, he found a good friend. Since Sara died, he has been volunteering and fundraising to raise money in her memory.
“Would you like the good or bad news?” she asked. I asked for the good news. “I have many good friends”, she answered. I asked for the bad. “I have been diagnosed with breast cancer.”
When I was 17 my parents bought me a cello. I had a year’s lessons, left school and went to university before becoming a physics teacher. I carried on the cello, but made up my technique and didn’t take further lessons.
Nearly 40 years later, in 2006, I saw Sara Lovell performing as a cello soloist. I spoke to her in the corridor during the interval and said: “that was brilliant – I’ve never seen anyone play with such energy and enjoyment”. She smiled and thanked me.
In 2013, over 50 years since getting my first cello, I had my first lesson with Sara. This led to three-and-a-half years of being taught by her – often hard work, but always fun because she was a captivating cellist and inspirational teacher. People thought I would never practise. They were wrong, when I am home, I play every day – a legacy to Sara’s influence. I gained so much from her teaching. She made the cello alive and I will always be grateful for this. Besides being a brilliant teacher, she always retained a childlike enthusiasm for life.
In May 2013, Sara played in my village choir concert. She asked what I would like her to play and I said Kol Nidrei by Max Bruch – my favourite cello piece. Her performance was moving and the day after, Sara came with me to Sussex to help me choose a new cello – one by the same maker as hers.
Then things started to go wrong. A couple of weeks later, just after I returned from holiday, Sara rang. “Would you like the good or bad news?” she asked. I asked for the good news. “I have many good friends”, she answered. I asked for the bad. “I have been diagnosed with breast cancer.” I was deeply shocked.
She continued with my lessons in between chemotherapy, operations and radiotherapy. Sara still carried on playing in concerts when she could, also joining her friends to make up the trio in the Pump Room Restaurant in Bath.
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 UK meant to her.
The cancer seemed cured and she gave a superb performance with all proceeds donated to Penny Brohn UK. 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 UK. Even so, she kept playing. Most memorably a recital at Penny Brohn UK 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 UK. 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 UK 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.