Chicken salad with grapes and pecans. Classic macaroni salad. Picnic egg salad with capers. Smoked salmon platter. Tuna, cucumber and tomato tea sandwiches. Three-layer cranberry jello mold with raspberries, mango and pineapple. Grand finale: showstopping cheesecake, strawberry shortcake and homemade brownies.
This was a mere sampling of the Thursday community lunch menu that Sadie meticulously planned out during our volunteer commitment that I described in last week’s blog, ensuring that everyone had something delicious to enjoy. Most memorable, though, was Sadie’s Sensational Sponge Cake. Yep, three simple ingredients – eggs, flour, and sugar – and it may be hard to believe that someone with a flair for the dramatic and a wardrobe full of rainbow colors and spike heels would select a signature dessert as plain as sponge cake. Even though Sadie had a panoramic colorful background and personality to match, she also enjoyed the simple pleasures of life.
Her attention to detail and passion for bringing people together also made the weekly lunches an experience that was akin to a holy one. Basically, for me this meant I filled the backstage roles that included bringing the paper goods, preparing the coffee, helping set up and clean up afterwards.
Incredibly, by year two of our commitment, Sadie’s friends, whom I also elaborated on in last week’s blog, ended up pitching in! (There was only one man in the group who was the exception. Unless he was noshing or drinking, he was asleep in the corner of the room.) Overall, though, it was an inspiring example of how collective action can make a difference and create lasting change. After a year of working with Sadie, my outlook on life had changed significantly. I looked at the world with newfound appreciation, understanding and faith. Prior to meeting Sadie, I had experienced spells of depression that left me feeling isolated and helpless. However, her influence in my life helped to lift the dark veil that had been looming over me for so long. With her kind words and unwavering support, she gave me the courage to face my struggles and find a way out of the darkness.
Then one fateful Thursday, darkness descended on us in a new way. I arrived at the commitment earlier than Sadie, which was unusual. As I was setting up, Sadie ran past her group of friends that accompanied her in her clown car and charged into the church hall with the energy of a frenzied bat, desperate to avoid the harsh light of day.
“Look! Look! I just saw this this morning.”
As she slowly lifted her pitch-black long hair, a sight of horror was revealed. Running down her neck were large lumps, but smaller than golf balls, that had been hidden beneath her locks. It was a shocking discovery that made it difficult to comprehend what could have caused them to appear. A feeling of dread suddenly came over me.
Somehow I discerned I was the only one she had, at least thus far, confided in about her discovery and before her friends and the lunchtime crowd arrived, I shrieked, “You have to go to the doctor. TODAY!”
Without any resistance, she nodded her head in agreement, and we performed our duties quieter than usual. Little did she know that the doctor would examine her that day and send her to an oncologist just a few hours later. I was devastated when I found out that my close friend had been diagnosed with cancer. Unfortunately, two weeks later, the news we received was heartbreaking — she had cancer in her lymph nodes and it wasn’t good. It was particularly sad because she not only had three adult daughters from her first marriage, but her youngest daughter, from her third marriage, was only eight years old, being too young to comprehend the extent of the illness.
By then, two other volunteers replaced us at the Thursday luncheons. I focused on work as well as preparations for my upcoming May wedding. It was ironic that after sharing all my sad stories about being single with Sadie, I had quickly met a nice man (so I thought at the time) and we were engaged shortly after. While Sadie underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment, she only wanted to hear about two things: my plans for my wedding a year from that time and all the people who beat the odds against cancer.
Although life had thrown her many injustices, she never once complained. Instead, she was grateful for the second chance to make a new life for herself, despite being pulled back down by another set of very different circumstances that were about to demolish her dreams for a second time.
Sadie and I never talked about her being healthy enough to attend my wedding. Deep inside, we knew it was not in the cards. The last time I saw her in the hospital was in April of the following year, one month before my wedding, and a day before she died.
When I walked into her room, I found her weak and pale, yet sitting up in her bed. Her signature mane of hair now gone; a stark contrast to the woman everyone had come to know and love. She wore a powder blue cap that made her look twenty years older than her forty-something years. She smiled warmly and greeted me with a whisper, “Hey! How ya doing? The beautiful bride to be.”
Holding back the tears, I could only let out a soft, “Hello.”
As I sat by her bedside, I sensed a cloud of warm air enveloping us as we held hands. She expressed her usual eagerness to hear about the wedding plans, and couldn’t wait to find out every detail – from the church to the reception, but most of all, she wanted to know what food would be served in the evening.
“We are having a beautiful array of food. Served to perfection. Nothing, though, compared to your lunches, Sadie. They were a true work of art. They were Holy.”
She flinched because it hurt to laugh. “We didn’t meet every Thursday to eat lunch. We came together to share something more important – love. Nothing’s more Holier than that.”
I stopped pushing the tears away and as I looked into Sadie’s eyes, I realized that no amount of words could ever express the depth of my gratitude for her presence in my life. “I love you, Sadie.”
After I exited her room and slowly moved down the hallway with my head full of memories and my stomach in knots from the pain, my mind suddenly filled with the craziest thought imaginable. In a split second, I made an abrupt three hundred and sixty degree turn and rushed back to her room.
“Sadie! I’m sorry to bother you.”
“It’s okay,” she barely murmured.
“Can I have your recipe for Sadie’s Sensational Sponge Cake?”
“Yeah. Sure. But come back tomorrow. I’ll give it to you then and you can write it down,” Sadie whispered before she drifted off to sleep.
The next day, as I already mentioned, Sadie died, a month before my wedding. Obviously, she never gave me her recipe for Sadie’s Sensational Sponge Cake. The consolation was that I received something far sweeter and more valuable than temporary bodily sustenance: her recipe for life.