Thinking of Emily


A month or so ago, the blogger Laird Sapir posted a challenge for writers. To enter, you had to write, preferably off the top of your head, a three-sentence story based on a prompt she chose at random by hitting Wikipedia’s ‘random article’ button. The prompt had to be used in one of the three sentences. Her random prompt: Think of Laura.

I read about the challenge, thought briefly about my cousin Laura, then thought about my Grandmother whose name isn’t Laura, and then dismissed the idea of entering the contest. I know how important it is as a writer to put your work out in front of others but the “preferably off the top of your head” part of the challenge made me feel nauseous. I’m shy enough about sharing polished stories I’ve written. There was no way I was going to let others see what comes out without considerable forethought and careful editing. I closed the blog post and played a game of Words With Friends (FYI: all discomfort can be relieved by playing Words With Friends).

I discovered that I was wrong. After finishing my WWF games (yes I play with several people at once), I still felt odd and knew that I had to go back to Laird’s post. Something was brewing inside and while I didn’t have the ability to articulate what it was, I did have the ability to type the words “Think of Laura” on the top of the page and start writing. Thus began one of those moments that all writers dream about. I started to type, the words rolled off my fingers faster than I could think them, and when I came up for air, I was joyfully and painfully surprised by what I had written.

Eighteen years ago, we received a call that my 27 year old sister-in-law (Emily), who’d been traveling abroad with her younger brother (my husband’s siblings), had become very ill and was being transported by a medical plane to Singapore from Nepal. They’d already amputated her leg in a Nepalese hospital (where my brother-in-law had to hold a flashlight for the doctors so they could see what they were doing) and they were sending her to a better equipped medical facility for further treatment.

As soon as we were able, we (my in-laws, my husband, and myself) boarded a plane from Boston to Singapore. It is a long flight under any conditions but the anxiety of not knowing what was going on with Emily made it unbearable. When we arrived, my brother-in-law met us at the airport and a business associate of my husband’s drove all of us directly to the hospital.

I still can’t describe what we saw when we got there, but suffice it to say, the body in the bed, hooked up to all of those machines, did not look at all like Emily. Our silence upon seeing her was broken only by a cry I will never forget that came from deep inside my mother-in-law. “Em-i-lia.” Then she went and sat beside her daughter, who had slipped into a coma during the plane ride.

That night we went back to the hotel and forced ourselves to eat at the restaurant. I remember somebody asking me to order because the restaurant served Chinese food and I ate Chinese food with my family almost every Sunday of my youth.

Most of what happened after that is a blur. Emily’s boyfriend/fiance and his mother flew in from England. My husband got food poisoning. The doctors told us Emily was in sepsis, that all of her systems were shutting down. The businessman took us out to see some botanical gardens. The waiters at our hotel thought my brother-in-law looked like Jesus (he did). Days passed. The tests results came in and the brain function of this once thoughtful, intelligent young woman was beyond repair. She was taken off the machines that were keeping her barely alive. My brother-in-law went back to the hospital after we went to sleep and was with her when she died. I can’t even write this down without sobbing.

One day, I will tell this story in more depth. It is still too raw, 18 years after it happened. But I think my mind is finally trying to put together all the random pieces from those shattered days in Singapore. I think that because when I wrote down the words, “Think of Laura”, my fingers typed this:

On our first night there, after twenty hours of sleepless travel and a long day of seeing and not believing that it could be, they asked me to order because I’m not a blood relative and I once said we ate Chinese food every Sunday when I was a girl. It was a round table, five of us instead of six, and we told jokes and laughed but not one of us could hear or see or cry. I told the waitress to bring more beer and several plates of food and to keep coming because for a short respite that really wasn’t one at all, every single one of us needed not to think of Laura.

When I heard that I had won the challenge, I reread what I had written and I cried. I haven’t read it again until today when I decided to write about it. Guess what I am doing right now. Good thing everybody else in the house is asleep.

I only hope that when I post my writer’s challenge (the winner hosts the next round of Laird’s writing challenge) next week that my random Wikipedia words inspire another writer to find a part of him or herself that has been lost for a long time and dredge it up to share with people they may or may not know.

In pain there is release.


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30 thoughts on “Thinking of Emily

  1. When I read your entry on Laird’s blog, I knew you had to win, because it’s such an amazing piece of writing. It makes it even more special that it means so much to you. (I recall you saying on fb that you were shaking after it.) Thank you for sharing this tragic story. What an awful thing to happen.

    1. Thank you Ellen. I had forgotten about the shaking but you’re right. I’m always thrown by how I have no control over my physical response (shaking, crying) to something highly emotional.

  2. Oh, Sara, my heart goes out to you and your family. Emily’s experience is the nightmare we all hide from in those ethereal moments between full wakefulness and semi-consciousness. How dreadful and painful for all of you! I’m glad the contest brought this ordeal to the surface for you to share, because it seems that fresh air in that broken part of your heart is sorely needed. Open wide the windows – the air flowing in just might help the rest of us expunge the ghost memories we all wrestle with in the secret chambers of our soul. Well done and deeply touching, my friend.

    1. Thanks Jodi! Nightmare is a perfect word to describe that time, but as we all realize over time, we have to face our nightmares if we want them to stop causing us so much pain.

  3. Absolutely touching. Tragically sad and beautiful all at the same time.
    A job well done Sara. Bravo to you. How wonderful and therapeutic to communicate with written words and to experience the release.
    I sit here with tears in my eyes as I think about my best friend who was thrown from her horse and killed in front of my young little eyes in the 9th grade. Years later I finally went to therapy and allowed the healing and release to happen. It’s hard to believe that the most beautiful things in life come out of tragedy.
    Thank you for sharing. Congrats to you!!!!!!!

    1. We all have these tragic moments that rise to the surface when others reveal their own pain. It is therapeutic to share our family’s story although it will take me a long, long time to work through the emotions related to Emily’s life and death. Thanks for sharing your story about your friend. To watch someone you love die unexpectedly (or even expectedly) before your eyes is trauma of the first class.

  4. What a incredibly touching account, Sara. Sometimes writing is a cathartic experience and you’ve shared how you have begun to heal from this traumatic experience. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you Laird. It is funny how a challenge as playful as the WikiRandom one is brought me to something I’ve needed to access for a long time. We all help each other unknowingly sometimes. Now you know how you’ve helped me.

  5. Beautifully written, Sara. So sorry about your family’s tragic loss. I, too, am always surprised at how and when my seemingly buried emotions come to the surface and burst forward. I hope writing this brings you some comfort and a brief interlude of peace.

    1. Thanks Tami. I feel as though I’ve entered a new place in my life these last few months with all the unexpected self-exploration that has come out of my experience with WANA and blogging. I feel peace but also dis-ease, which is okay because it helps me in so many ways to not be complacent.

  6. Wow – that was powerful! I remember meeting Emily at your wedding, and how sweet and kind she was. What a horrible, tragic loss!

    1. I’m so glad when my old friends remember meeting Emily. She was so important to me, especially during those early years with Sam. She welcomed me into their family long before I knew I was going to become a part of them. So the love and kindness helps balance out some of the horrible and tragic.

  7. Yes! But I do recall your entry in Laird’s contest and thinking then, as I do now, that it was remarkably haunting and beautiful. Now, reading this incredible and amazing post and knowing the true story behind your words, I am again struck by the true depths of emotion that were packed into those three lines. A truly gorgeous tribute to Emily.

  8. Sara,
    Those top-of-the-head writing moments can often lead to the best writing – it’s the rawest and the truest, even though we can polish it better later, the real nut comes out in those first lines. Glad to see you are writing so much. I have never heard those descriptions of Emily’s last hours, and all of you seeing her in the hospital. I just remember Wayne and I being on our big international trip, checking in with my mother pre-email and cell phones, from pay phones in random cities, and getting the Emily updates. I can’t remember where we were — Turkey maybe?– when she told me she had not made it. I sat in front of the bank of Turkish pay phones and cried and cried. Hugs to you all. She was a gem. xoxo, Sarah

    1. It’s all so surreal, isn’t it? I still can’t believe it has been so long, but I look at my girls and remember that they only know her from photos and stories. And they’ll both be in high school next year. Our families need to find a time to catch up. Xmas cards only say so much. 🙂

  9. Sara,
    I have been looking forward, for a long time, for a chance to read what you have written. Today was my chance and I am also deeply moved by your experience. You took your readers back with you to that room where a precious, loved young woman was fighting for her life. Thank you for opening your heart to us. You are an excellent writer, just as I knew you would be. Congratulations, Sara.

  10. Your touching and gut-wrenching story has opened the flood gates for you and pushed your writing out. I’m so sorry for your terrible loss to have been the subject/source but maybe by continued writing, you can ease the awful pain you still feel and we can all be the beneficiaries of your strong and compelling writing. In that way you can honor Emily.

  11. I have a friend whose daughter, also an Emily, recently died while traveling in Thailand with her English boyfriend/fiancé and the circumstances of their joyful trip turned tragic in a story similar enough. You and I had lost touch when Emily died, but I remember Karen telling me and the tragedy struck me to my bones and stayed with me, so much so, that when that sweet young woman died this past June, my immediate thought was of you and Sam and his family whom I do not know, but whose grief still seemed palpable to me. I am so sorry for your loss, Sara.

    1. Thanks Joanne. I’m sorry to hear about your friend’s daughter. How odd that she was also an Emily with an English boyfriend/fiance traveling in that part of the world. Makes me want to hug my children and never let go.

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