Sarah was thirty-eight when she discovered a lump in her breast; it was the size of a frozen pea. Several of her friends had found similar lumps which had turned out to be cysts. She didn’t want to make a fuss; perhaps she would mention it to the doctor next time she had to take one of the children.
A few weeks later the lump was the size of a golf ball and it was time to act. The GP sent her immediately for further investigation and Sarah was delivered shattering news; she had breast cancer.
After nine months of intensive chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy, just before Christmas, Sarah was given the wonderful news that the treatments had worked. Her hair was growing back and she was planning to rebuild her business as a child-minder in the New Year.
Christmas was the best the family had ever had. After a traumatic year, Sarah, her husband Mark and their children Sophie 11, Charlie 8 and Lucie 3 had much to celebrate but sadly their joy was short-lived. Two weeks later, Sarah started to feel unwell and returned to the hospital. The diagnosis revealed the most devastating news; the cancer was back and had spread throughout her body like fire. Her condition was terminal, her life expectancy only six to twelve months.
Tragically Sarah died seven weeks later, the day after her fortieth birthday, but what happened within that seven weeks was quite extraordinary.
Sarah’s resolve to beat the illness was unbending because she desperately wanted to live; she steadfastly refused to leave Mark to raise their children alone. She said she was prepared for any treatment, no matter how painful, “So I can see my babies grow up.”
Sarah, however, was a pragmatist at heart and as well as doing everything she possibly could to beat the terrible disease, she also began carefully planning her funeral so it wouldn’t be a burden on those left behind if the unthinkable should happen. The funeral was to be a celebration of the wonderful life Sarah had had, not one of mourning for the life she had been denied. Even when facing death, Sarah had the capacity to put the needs of others, especially children, before her own. The funeral was to have a party-like atmosphere so all the children she loved could not only attend but actively take part. Her instructions were quite clear; there will be no coffin, no black clothes and no tears; there will be joy and dancing. Her message was unequivocal; don’t be sad I am no longer here, be glad I once was.
The funeral took place on a warm spring day and her family carried out her wishes; the coffin was absent because Sarah felt it would have been a distressing sight for her children. The congregation entered as two of Sarah’s favourite songs played; At Last, by Etta James and Diamonds, by Rihanna. The local church was filled beyond capacity with family, friends, neighbours and colleagues, everyone dressed brightly as requested.
The vicar introduced Sophie, Sarah’s 11-year-old daughter, who stood alone in the pulpit and sang a solo “a cappella” version of the lullaby from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hush-a-bye Mountain. Sophie was completely composed and sang so exquisitely it was hard to believe she was performing at her mum’s funeral. They had talked about it together and Sophie hoped she would have the courage to perform as it was her mum’s favourite piece from Sophie’s choir. If anyone had previously managed to adhere to Sarah’s “no tears” rule, it was impossible now.
Five friends joined Sophie and took turns to read a delightful poem they had written together. One verse beautifully captured Sarah’s essence; “Sarah was always ready with a smile and a hug, she liked a milky coffee in her favourite mug”.
Two of Sarah’s closest friends read from some of the hundreds of cards and letters Mark had received expressing heart-felt sympathy. Of course, everyone speaks fondly of those who have died but with Sarah it was very easy to say good things because there was so much material to draw from.
A good friend had invited those closest to Sarah to record a favourite memory or story. It was edited to make a beautiful spoken biography, played alongside a montage of photographs Sarah had personally selected. All the testaments had one thing in common, they were full of superlatives; Sarah was the most courageous, most selfless, most considerate, most positive, most resilient person they had ever had the privilege to know.
Mark’s sister, a close friend of Sarah’s, delivered the eulogy. Taking her courage from that previously shown by her young niece she controlled her emotions until the final paragraph:
“They say only the good die young and it was never truer than in the case of Sarah. She wasn’t just good, she was the best. The best wife, the best mum, the best aunty, the best daughter and the best friend anyone could be lucky enough to have. I don’t know where you are right now Sarah but for sure you are where the good people go. Wherever you are, just like my house after your visit, it will be a lot cleaner and tidier than when you arrived, and of course, everyone around you will have a cup of tea. We love you Sarah.”
The vicar then invited the forty children in the congregation to get up and dance as the sound of “Gangnam Style” rang out. “This is a first in my church,” he said, “but Sarah assured me all the children love to dance to it.” She was right of course.
Amidst children’s laughter and dancing, the sadness of the occasion was temporarily suspended and bereft adults could not help but smile through their tears and join in the infectious clapping.
Afternoon tea was served in the church hall next door with hot dogs and ice-creams for the children. There was a children’s disco for more dancing and a craft table where children could make a farewell card for Sarah to attach to a helium balloon.
Sarah’s 8-year old nephew captured the mood of the children with his innocent message:
“Dear Aunty Sarah, I hope you are okay up there with the angels. We miss you down here on earth but I still practise my trumpet. I hope you can always get a cup of tea, love Matthew”.