The outpouring of grief that has followed the death of Sara Douglass (Sara Mary Warneke), who died on Tuesday morning has surprised no-one – except, had she lived to see the effect of her passing, Sara herself.
How do I know? Having been Sara’s close friend and confidant for twenty years – and having followed in her career-footsteps (from academic to author; as she did for many others, she both inspired and encouraged me) and being in the process of recovering from cancer myself – I’ve spent the last nine months caring for Sara, along with my husband, Stephen. We shifted to Tasmania at the beginning of the year and have been privileged to share the best and worst of times with the woman who called me her soul-sister.
Though Sara was an intensely private person, when Stephanie Smith, Sara’s editor and good friend at Harper Collins, asked me if I could write an obituary, revealing something of Sara’s last weeks, I agreed. Sara had a deep affection for her readers and fans and loved connecting with them through cyberspace – through the early years of her message board and its various discussions, to her blog and websites (her homepage and the Nonsuch garden) and FaceBook. So, without disrespecting her privacy and with a heavy heart, let me briefly invite you into Sara’s, Stephen’s and my world – a world that with her death, for us at least, has been cast adrift and irrevocably shattered.
Her final weeks were not easy; even the seemingly simple act of showering tired her for an entire day. Nonetheless, Sara maintained her wonderful sense of humour and acerbic wit, and her curiousity and concern for others. She managed to edit and see the publication of what is now her final novel, the magnificent The Devil’s Diadem and even saw (though didn’t read) the advance readers’ copies of her collection of short stories, The Hall of Lost Footsteps, which is being published in November by Ticonderoga Publications.
Accompanying her to every medical appointment, ensuring she had meals, clean clothes and well-fed cats, Stephen and I spent as much time as we could with Sara and did what we could for Sara. And typically of her, she was incredibly undemanding and often apologised (for what, we still don’t know!). I don’t know how many times she thanked us. We didn’t feel (and still don’t) that we deserved her thanks … we loved her and still do love her and it was a joy to see and be with her, as others who know her can attest.
While she sometimes appeared aloof, it was often because she didn’t hear what was said – Sara was quite deaf and relied on hearing aids – but distant she was not. On the contrary, she was one of the most loving and affectionate people I know who would embrace you in the warmest of hugs and squeeze you tight. I will miss those hugs more than I can say.
Visited by a few dear girlfriends (she was selective about who she let into her life) who travelled to Tasmania to see her, she very much enjoyed their company, but was also glad to be by herself again. She was a very solitary person who lived in her imagination as much as she did in the real world. I think she would be overwhelmed by what people are expressing on various forums now; she would be laughing in her unrestrained and contagious way and shaking her head in bewilderment.
Her final days were, by her choice, in a palliative care ward in Hobart. Despite what she wrote in her forthright and amazing blog, ‘The Silence of the Dying’, Sara chose not to die at home. After two weeks in hospital and then just over two in palliative care, she made the decision, despite everything being set in place (care teams organised, doctor ready, and I was to move in with her), not to return. I think it was emotionally too hard for her – the distancing from her old life had begun. The palliative care ward was comfortable, the ambience was warm, the staff caring, frank and compassionate: just like Sara. There was a garden on the balcony outside her window.
At first she felt guilty that she experienced relief at her decision not to go back home, but we quickly assuaged that and told her it was both normal and perfectly all right to feel such things.
After that, she seemed to find inner peace.
Then, she died.
She died as she lived – on her own terms, in her own time. Her death was quick.
She looked peaceful, serene even, her alabaster skin glowing, her hair softly framing her face. It’s an image that will live in my mind forever.
In accordance with Sara’s wishes, there’s no funeral or formal celebration of her life. She wanted ‘no fuss’. That is so Sara! As I promised, I’m following these wishes – it’s the least I can do.
Sara will be cremated on the 29 September at 10 a.m. There will be three people present. I will read from both BattleAxe (the part where StarDrifter sings the Star Song) and from page 511 of The Devil’s Diadem to the end. I will also read selections from the various tributes that family, friends and fans have left. I will make sure you’re all there with Stephen and me as we say another goodbye.
Then, as the sun sets on Friday the 30th of September, I will spread her ashes over her beloved garden with her cats and a bottle of bubbly as witnesses. I ask that, wherever you are in the world – real and virtual – you raise a glass or pause, and for just a moment, help us send Sara on the first steps in the eternal dance of stars.
I know she’s poised to soar and once she departs, she’ll twinkle brightly forever – in our hearts, minds and every time someone picks up her books and reads her astounding and beautiful words.
Editors Note: Karen Brooks had been Sara’s friend for over 20 years and with her husband Stephen was her carer for the 9 months before she passed away.