I am not good at mourning. I never learned how to do it in a healthy, productive, hopeful way. And in recent years, as I have edged further away from agnosticism and into atheism, death has become an even more formidable mystery and misery to me. But tonight, as I stare at a clock that tells me I really should be in bed, and as I stare at a story that tells me it really should be better than it is, and as I stare at two bottles of pills that tell me I really should swallow one of each in order not to be an anxious mess tomorrow… I’m making the attempt.
My friend Sara Larson has passed away. She died of cancer. I want to pay her tribute, but I’m really not sure how. Mostly, I am angry. It’s a self-serving, childish anger. An anger at having had something stolen from me that was never really mine. An anger that the human animal is so poorly constructed, that we evolved in such a way that we can know and expect death, and can suffer its aftermath. I am angry that I will never see Sara again.
Up until the writing of this piece, here is how I have been dealing with this anger: I have been yelling at inanimate objects. I have been drinking too much coffee. I have been cataloguing all of the uncharitable things I ever said to or thought about Sara, real or imagined in retrospect, and self-flagellating with the end results. I have been smoking too many cigarettes, and hating myself for using a handful of the finite breaths I have left in order to kill myself. I’ve been crying a lot, while my wife holds my head in her lap and plays with my hair.
But I am determined to do this right. I have recorded my inability to grieve, and I think that’s important. It’s part of my relationship with Sara now. But it’s not the only part. Here are some of the others.
The first Indiana Horror Writers Retreat. Converse, Indiana. It’s the kind of small, isolated town that breeds weirdness, and we found plenty thereof in the Woodcarver’s Building (formerly, the Converse chapter of the Odd Fellows, formerly the Converse chapter of the Klan, wherein one can find a swastika made out of wooden feet and a theatrically creepy attic where great swaths of ceiling-meat curl down and in on themselves like snail shells). This was the first place I met Sara Larson. She was sweet, and sharp, and kind, and she had a biting wit that snuck up on you out of nowhere. She was wonderful. She read a lovely, funny story while we all curled up on couches beneath blankets and sipped wine. That night, Sara said something to me that cut through my considerable ego and made me confront my talent objectively and honestly. She said, “How does somebody become like Doug Warrick or Gary Braunbeck?” Now, you must understand something. At that point in my life, I was simultaneously afflicted with desperately low self-esteem and a constant superiority complex. But Sara used those two names in the same sentence, right next to one another, as though they belonged there, and for the first time in my short career as a short fiction writer, I could no longer pretend like I was hot shit while secretly believing I was simply shit. I had to determine, objectively and without bias, whether or not the comparison was deserved.
I never thanked Sara for that.
A thousand MoCons and a thousand Indiana Horror Writers Retreats. Indianapolis. I can’t remember the years, and I can’t remember the days, but I remember Sara, usually dressed in purple, slapping name-tags on us as we payed our way into the church basement, or carrying heavy folding tables in from her car to set of booths, or tugging herself away from the fun in order to make a much-needed emergency snack-run, or corralling the smokers back into the building so the next panel could begin, or sitting on Maurice’s lawn, smiling at everything, sucking in every word like a sponge, unafraid to call bullshit. That was Sara. I don’t think I realized until later (much later) how instrumental she had been in making those cons a success. And those weekends, those delicious, drunken, thoughtful weekends are some of my best memories. There is Sara, being instrumental once again not just in my life as a writer, but in my life as a functional human being.
A hospice room. A few weeks ago. Sara, looking tired, speaking slowly. A few of us had made the trip from the IHW Retreat, with the logic that if Sara couldn’t come to the fun, we’d bring the fun to her. We walked in while Sara was sleeping. She woke up, saw us all, and smiled. It took her a long time and a great deal of effort to speak, and I wasn’t sure she’d remember me. I said, “Hey, Sara. It’s me, Doug. Doug Warrick.”
She looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “I know who you are.”
We watched television with her for a long time. She would start sentences, and we would hang on every word no matter how slowly they came. She managed to be witty and kind and biting and sweet in a hospice bed. We took pictures with her. On our way out, I squeezed her shoulder. Everyone was telling her how much they loved her. I am not a person who uses that term freely. I am normally embarrassed to tell anyone that I love them. But, listening to the assembled guests (my friends, I realize now, my family), I realized how true it was. I did love Sara Larson. I do. I told her so. And she smiled and sighed and nodded.
And then it was time to go. Jason Sizemore ushered me to his car, allowing me to weep quietly on the way there.
I could go on. There are so many wonderful things to remember about Sara Larson, but if I am going to do this mourning thing right, then I am going to goddamn do it right, and what it all boils down to is this: I am so very lucky that I got to say goodbye to my friend. And I am so very sad that she is gone.
Rest in peace, Sara.
Better writers than I have written their own tributes to Sara, and I encourage you to read them.
Missing Mama Bear by Maurice Broaddus
And here’s Sara’s last published story, graciously hosted by Brian Hatcher. Remembering