Since we moved to North Carolina’s Piedmont in 1990, I have loved the way westward. I stop where I am enveloped, where the ridges of each and every mountain enfold and embrace me. Greens there are touched with gold, infused with blue.
As I drove up the ridge to my destination, Chimney Rock rose in the distance. Fields rolled up and away before me. In my mind’s eye I held the picture of a small creek with a plank stretching across the water. I saw a young woman walking across it, flowers in her hand: Sarah.
It was only a picture. That day, I was driving to that creek to officiate Sarah’s funeral, where her ashes would be scattered in the creek she had played in as a child. Sarah died last January, at the age of 24.
To teach is to love. Students grow and delight you; they invent and recreate. They reimagine the world with you. They give you hope.
Sarah McCurry took each and every class for her Judaic Studies minor with me. It was a surprising choice of study; she came from rural mountains of North Carolina. She was not Jewish; no one in her family was. She came from rural, white, hard-scrabble farmers. When I went to her family home, I saw first-hand the kind of poverty she knew growing up.
Sarah was a “wildfire,” her boyfriend Eric once told me.
In eighth grade she came home from middle school to tell her mother that she was going to apply to a local college program that would let her complete her high school degree and get an associate’s degree all at once. Her mother didn’t believe such a thing could exist (or that Sarah could manage such a thing), but her daughter brought home the paperwork, got into the program, and finished everything in three years.
Sarah was one of the hungriest students I’ve ever had – hungry for learning, for discovering, for the world. She wanted to travel, and she did. She wanted to know the world and understand it. She wanted to figure people out, the meaning of life, decipher her own soul.
That determination would make her face her fear of heights and – literally – crawl up Grandfather’s Mountain, clinging to the earth. True to form, once she arrived at the summit, she stood up and posed for a picture as if it had all been a breeze and she had never had any fear to conquer or no panic to overcome.
I sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” for her. Her nieces sung “Amazing Grace,” we recited Psalm 23, and I read “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke.
As I spoke of Sarah, the water burbling and bubbling behind me, the lacy green of trees overhead, my tears fell on my guitar, on my hands, on the paper as I read.
The loss of Sarah cannot be measured by those who knew her.
At the end of the service, I held up a plain jar. Sarah had used it to carry flowers down to the creek with her the previous summer. She had laid the flowers there in memory of her aunt Susie, who had died of colon cancer six months before Sarah was diagnosed with the same disease.
Sarah had left the jar at the creek, and though this past winter the creek had several times overflowed its banks, Sarah’s mother, Sheila, and Eric found it when they came to clean up the area for the funeral.
I brought out a small box. In it were uncut gemstones from the Blue Ridge mountains. There was pinkish rose quartz and lilac amethyst and green fluoride. Green was Sarah’s favorite color.
I went from person to person, asking them to choose a stone to drop into the jar. They would be Sarah’s sparkles – natural, as she had been. I gave the jar to Sheila and Eric.
I keep seeing the picture Eric showed me of Sarah clinging to the earth as she climbed the rocky face of Grandfather Mountain, clinging so that she would not fall. Then I see her walking across that plank, sure she would not fall.
I pray: No more fear, no more panic, Sarah, but only peace. Peace in the green you loved.