My friend Sara Sunshine Wakefield died last week. Even after I get the first e-mail, “Cause of death is not known, but it sounds like it was health related,” the place in my brain that stores “believable factoids,” spits this news back out. Must be a mistake. If you took a random sample of ten 35-year old Americans, Sara would win, hands down, the most likely to live to ninety. She was young and strong and fit and resilient in a way that allowed her to continually reinvent herself, each incarnation more inspiring than the last.
I actually click out of e-mail to check the weather report for my upcoming backpacking trip, trying to shake this impossible news from my mind like a dog after a swim.
Sara and I were apprentices together in the late 90’s at Hummingbird Herbals. We chopped pungent finger-thick roots in the herb shop kitchen and plucked sunny arnica flowers together in the forest. She had a black dog named Bear who went everywhere with her, and more smiles per hour than the average extremely happy person.
Sara Sunshine, 1977 – 2013.
I remember her winter wedding: her midwestern Mama toting trays of hardy homemade casseroles from the kitchen; Sara’s baby daughter in frilly white; the way Sara herself MC-ed the toasts, manning the mic—tipsy on the enormity of her own wedding—adding to people’s hilarious stories about her, supplying forgotten details, and having the best time of anyone.
Because I am the poster child for “moves slow,” I was usually two steps behind Sara’s latest reinvention of herself. While I was still excited for the natural foods store she and a friend opened in Mancos (because there wasn’t any store that sold organic food, Sara just up and started her own), she had sold her share and begun grad school. While I was still enamored over her urban homestead in Mancos (she was the first person I knew to have chickens), she was divorcing and selling her house. While I celebrated her as a free-spirit wild child, she was running the Durango Manna Soup Kitchen, as Executive Director thankyouverymuch. Her frequent “moving on” was not of laziness or dissatisfaction, rather, it seemed her calling to pour her heart into creating amazing things, before moving on to bless something new.
After getting the news, I leave the next day on a backpacking trip with some friends, because as I told some Mama-friends recently, “Girls backpacking trips are the new thing! Leave those babies with the Daddys!”
The mountains are so breathtaking it’s almost painful. My heart is scarcely sufficient to truly take it in. I want to sweep the whole landscape into my hands and stash it in my pocket. Even the biting flies, the lightning shaking the sky, and damp boots are the small hardships that make the sun’s sudden appearance akin to a biblical miracle. The mountain weather changes faster than you can have an opinion about it. The monsoons have begun and the ground is swollen with water. Rain-fed creeks fling themselves dramatically over waterfalls. The plants exhale greenness.
I think of Sara as I walk, as I fall asleep under my tarp, first thing in the morning. I can still hear her voice perfectly. In my memory she is grabbing my shoulder, nodding and laughing, taking life’s hard knocks and burying them in a compost pile called, “that was yesterday.”
Oh, just a little hail not melting at 11,500.
Here in the mountains there is no ambivalence, no sentimentality. There’s nothing to evaluate, nowhere that my small human opinion matters. Rain falls, seeds crack open, roots stretch, flowers burst, pollinators visit, new seeds form, drop and wait for winter. Animals kill and eat and die. Every living thing has its niche, living on the spectrum: face value. The patches of yellow arnica—some in full glowing bloom, others already turned to wispy seeds—are both unapologetically themselves.
I can’t make sense of Sara’s death, it just feels all wrong. I keep thinking there must be some mean and grumpy recluse in say, Chickasha, Oklahoma, we should be able to substitute for her; a quick and easy exchange, no questions asked. I dedicated this backpacking trip to Sara, but wasn’t really sure what that meant. To me, afterlife is how the molecules that were Sara merge with the Universe, or how we share Sara’s stories with her daughter, which feels like a bum deal compared to having your actual mother. After walking a few days, I know that I dedicate this trip to those of us who remain, that we may remember to follow our hearts, to cultivate inner and outer peace, and to be grateful for our lives on this planet today.
In gratitude for the teacher she was.
Cause of death appears to be non-viral meningitis and pneumonia.