Sarah by the Sea
Her wavy hair growing out from the latest color, smiling in the photograph, genuinely happy, standing in the water somewhere off the coast of Oregon. Her laugh tickles my ears and my heart.
Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Teen Years
Sarah had suffered with mental illness since her early teens, but it’s hard to know at that age, it could be just living through that freaking awkward stage of life. She tried everything in the book and a few things that specifically weren’t in the book! She couldn’t manage her emotion, and her body wasn’t cooperating, either.
Then we took her to Medical Health Professionals. Initially this gave us hope, but the number and variety of truly dangerous drugs that they pushed onto her frequently had side effects worse than the illness.
Sarah had a serious psychotic break that was frightening to behold. It fractured our small family. When she got out of the psych ward, she sold her car and moved to Portland, Oregon in 2017.
Two years passed, and Sarah kept in occasional contact, usually when she needed help obtaining something. But she was civil, and eventually she seemed to really mean the “I love you” at the end of the message.
We began sending small sweet things to each other. It was like she had found herself, and could acknowledge that some parts of her childhood had not thoroughly sucked.
A Fresh Beginning
In 2019, she had been sober for 4 years. She was working at a facility where people who are struggling go for help.
She had her first real boyfriend, who worked as a school teacher focused on emotionally disabled teens. Sarah had just been introduced to his son, the evening of August 31st, 2019. This was a big thing.
While awaiting her bus, she sent me a text. In it she told me that they had bonded over Harry Potter, which she grew up reading with me. She was happy, and she said, “Mom, I love you.”
My phone rang at 3:00 a.m. the following morning. Dread hardened in my stomach. The call was from her biological father, who, in sobbing gulps, told me that Sarah’s apartment building had been set on fire. “Our daughter is going to die, we have to go to Portland now.”
Portland, prior to September 1, 2019
Her apartment building wouldn’t have met Code if it had undergone any renovations since God was a boy. It hadn’t. But it was her first “own” place. She was 26, almost 27. Independent, and truly happy. A life of her creating.
Sarah had built a completely new life for herself starting from the bottom and pulling her way into the light. She was well-respected as a speaker in her recovery groups, and had been sober over four years at the time of the fire.
She was doing work she understood, and building a presence in her community. Sarah was appreciated and admired for her candor and empathy. She left all the bad baggage in Oklahoma.
I was very happy for her, and extraordinarily proud. My support had become stifling to her, and she couldn’t bear the scorn in our community any longer. It was one of the best decisions she ever made.
September 1, 2019,
After a cramped flight, a long layover, and another numbing flight, I arrived, sleepless in Portland, and got a ride to the lodgings I had reserved. I dropped hastily stuffed bags on the sofa and kicked off my shoes. Refreshed a bit then headed to the hospital.
The Legacy Oregon Burn Center, a world class facility treated severe, complicated burn cases on a daily basis When I walked into their lobby, it was full of people, about 25, and they were talking in low voices in small clusters. I heard snatches of conversation as I walked to the desk, “…said she was in her apartment…,” and “She’s in a coma. Medically induced coma.”
These were her people, her community. They were there to learn news of Sarah’s condition. My heart swelled with pride, and ached with fear.
When I identified myself to the staff at the desk, they told me they would see if I could come in, as they were continually working on her, trying to get her lungs to heal.
They used this amazing machine to vibrate her lungs, trying to get the dead tissue to release and come out.
If the lungs couldn’t slough off the dead tissue, they could not regenerate.
When I was taken to her room shortly after, I could not recognize the person in the bed. Sarah was swathed in white gauze over most of her body, except her feet.
She had so many tubes in her I couldn’t begin to discern what was going on. The staff, both nurses and doctors, were consummate professionals, and they were kind, smart, able people. They took care of families of patients as well as the patients.
A man in scrubs was very carefully molding a cast around her left hand, wrist, and forearm, when first I walked into her room. I said, “I’m her mother, Lezlie Christian.”
He looked at me fully then, calmly continuing to smooth the cast to support her destroyed hand.
“She will likely never have the use of this hand again,” he said.
Her face was severely swollen, and her eyes were so swollen that they couldn’t pry them apart to look at her pupils, because it would tear them off. They had gotten a brief glimpse when she was first brought in to their facility, and said the pupils reacted, but that was the last cognition she was able to display.
They had her in a medically induced coma because of the tremendous pain that would hinder their ability to try to heal her body.
Sarah’s nurses, in particular, were so kind. They told me that the lungs had to work before they could begin to focus on the burns, and they weren’t sure she would survive that.
So many people wanted to see Sarah that we had to limit it to parents, boyfriend, and best friend after the first night. The three of us took turns staying, her father, her boyfriend, and me, her Mom. We read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling, to her every day, and random people brought us snacks.
Every time the staff worked on her, they not only explained to whomever was in the room what was going on, they also talked to Sarah, with a tone of confidence that she might could hear, or at the least not be bothered by.
Late the night of the 4th, my ex-husband, Sarah’s biological father, and I had one of the most civil conversations we had ever had. We agreed on what we believed to be the facts under consideration. Sarah’s body wasn’t responding to the treatment. Her lungs were as stubborn as she was, her body fought against the treatment.
We agreed that night that if they couldn’t make this work, she needed to be allowed to slip away into the long dark night. She was not working her respiratory system, her digestive system, and she had been pumped full of fluid to keep her skin from completely coming apart. She was traumatized by the collapse of the ceiling upon her, in flames. She shielded herself with her left hand.
When I walked into the burn center the next morning, the 5th of September, 2019, I saw them wheeling my daughter out of the room and starting to hook her up to this huge, daunting machine.
“Wait!” I yelled at them. “We haven’t been consulted on this new treatment yet, don’t move her until we are given more information.” There was only a short moment of confusion as they stopped the prep work for the “last hope” treatment.
The director of the Burn Center pulled the nurses and doctors that had been working with Sarah into a conference room. Her father and I were there, and I think I remember the boyfriend being there, but I cannot be certain. A very intelligent, eager young man explained how his formidable machine worked: It would support Sarah’s respiratory and digestive needs, while drawing out her blood, sending it through the machine, having it cleaned of impurities, and re-oxygenated. It is then put back into her body.
“What are her chances if you use this treatment?” I wanted to know what they were about to do to my girl.
“Because of her age, we give her a 20% chance of living.” This from the enthusiastic machine operator. “But then there’s the issue of the burns.”
“No. Absolutely not. You say she might not ever recover cognitive function, because her brain would be deprived of adequate oxygen, along with her organs. She might be on life support indefinitely, assuming she survives the burn treatment. Is this what you are saying to me?” I wanted to be perfectly clear.
“Yes, Ma’am, that’s pretty much it.” The young man looked down, realizing that we were not going to put her through any more dehumanizing, traumatizing events.
Sarah’s life had been hard, but she had found her path and had known happiness and joy. Many people never experience those feelings. Her boyfriend will no longer speak to me because of the decision we made.
The director of the center pulled me aside as everyone drifted away to their various tasks. “Mrs. Christian, you have made a good decision. In your place, I might well do the same thing. Don’t feel guilty.” He squeezed my hand with both of his, and the team went in to begin removing life support from Sarah.
They explained how they would do it, in what order, so that Sarah would never be conscious again, and never again feel the pain. She would go to sleep gently.
I stayed at her side, holding the bandaged right hand gently, and stroking her brow.
Sarah was my only surviving baby. I wasn’t about to let her go without being beside her as far as I could go. Conscious destruction of life support is a hard decision to make, but I’m old now, I’ve seen Death several times, no, many times. Sometimes I imagined he might be coming for me. While this would not be unwelcome, I remain married to a very kind and patient man, and he I would miss. My dogs are precious to me, my boon companions.
All of my ancestors are dead. Both of my parents, and now my daughter, are also dead.
The Portland Police Department, Detective Unit, has been pursuing forensic evidence for a solid year. A year today, as a matter of fact. A detective I’ve spoken with has repeatedly told me, kindly, that he knows that I know he cannot give me any details, but that he feels “confident” that they will file charges, but that they have no eye witness.
Tonight we make spicy tuna sushi at home, and drink a silly fizzy pink wine with flowers on the bottle, and eat real butter shortbread for dessert. We are celebrating the life of an extraordinary young woman, cut short by a mean, small-minded, soulless individual who burned her apartment building to the ground.
My heart flutters every time I look at the picture of Sarah with the flower behind her ear, by the sea. That is how I remember her. That is how she lives in my heart and soul and mind.
*Post Script: Sarah’s name was the only name used. At one time in dialogue, I identify myself as Mrs. Christian, but as almost all of the people who came to the hospital to visit my daughter were anonymous, it seemed appropriate that the only name used be hers. You know, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gambling Anonymous, etc.
But I want them to know this tribute is for their viewing in particular, as they were her closest friends. She grew because she was surrounded by people earnestly engaged in improving their understanding of how to relate to life. And I wanted to honor my daughter for surviving so much difficulty, coming out on top, then being relentlessly pursued by am unknown maleficent force that took her away from all of us. A virtual toast, with sparkling water: “To Sarah!”
Post-post-script: Lezlie Christian, author. High School teacher 10 years, after about 25 years as a PI, working predominantly criminal defense cases, received M.A. in Professional Writing in 2016, been teaching and trying to figure out how to get published since then.
Peace! Hope all are well.