I first met Sara B. in senior high–grade 11, to be exact. She was one of two last-minute additions to the new International Baccalaureate Program in its second year. (Most) seventeen of us, the pre-IB contingent, were added in Grade 10, the year before, to the (then) Grades 11-and-12-only establishment, and we were all pretty much new faces to each other in a very old high school with a distinguished pre-World War I heritage.
I looked on these two new students with a degree of amusement, thinking that they were a bit late to the game and a massive amount of catchup on their parts was required. Of course, this was way, way before I discovered that they were both equipped with an exceptionally keen intelligence and wit, and could debate the socks off students two academic years ahead of them — very eloquently too, I might add.
In two short years, Sara B. became responsible for my introduction to the wonderful world of Elfquest comics, which I still read today, as well as the expanded Wendy and Richard Pini universe. Because of her, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, and the worlds of fantasy writers Anne McCaffrey and Guy Gavriel Kay also joined my list of books. She also had a hand (literally) in improving my drawing skills. We both loved to doodle horses, unicorns, pegasii, and dragons–and to the mythical category, I learned to sketch myself as an Pinian elf, complete with pointed ears, four fingers on each hand, and a total distrust of humans.
Often we indulged in these artistic pursuits over lunch and sometimes even in class. Strangely enough, our arts (English, History) teachers didn’t really seem to mind — so long as it didn’t cut into our classes too much and our homework got done on time. Our being part of a pilot accelerated academic program may have had something to do with challenging conventional methods of teaching and learning — but whatever laxness was condoned in the classroom was more than made up for with the deluge of homework assignments doled out during the holidays by our less-understanding science teachers.
Sara B., on a dare of mine, learned to write with her opposite (left) hand. Not the scrawls that I can manage (ironic, considering that I was born a lefty), but beautiful calligraphy, and quite quickly, too. She applied her newfound ambidextrousness to a novel about elves that she had started writing. One which I was privileged to share and ask about, but not to comment too much about; even then I knew that an aspiring writer’s ego could be a fragile thing that a what-if comment could shred easily.
We quickly developed a comfortable association. I hesitate to use the word friendship, because she kept a distance between herself and others. The only daughter of two university science professors–with whom she shared a very close relationship with, even in public–Sara B. was a genius in her own right.
The combination of her intelligence and arrogance sometimes brought her into conflict with her peers as well as our teachers. She did not suffer fools gladly, and we did clash at times, too, when she felt that my outbursts of silliness were an unwanted bucket of cold water on her bad days. She did not surprise me with her gruff exterior, biting tongue and ascerbic wit, but she did surprise me with her rare displays of sympathy for others. She never struck me as a particularly generous or forgiving spirit. But she did lend me her very common-sensical advice when I asked for it, her cornucopia of comic books to read–and when I spilled water on some of them, she could have been, deservedly, more upset with me than she was. I know I could never be as accommodating–then or now.
Sara B. also had one more thing that set her apart from her peers: she suffered from cystic fibrosis. The simple acts of smelling flowers, petting animals, or hugging others without worrying what they could do to her lungs — things that we generally take for granted — are denied to CF sufferers. She grew up with a greater understanding of her mortality than a teenager should. But although I was privy to her many ongoing battles with CF at school, she never asked for sympathy or even exemptions from activities like Phys Ed. Instead, she always presented a brave face to others–even as her coughing fits worsened.
Despite all our interactions in school, we never really socialized outside of it. I can’t even remember the gist of our few phone conversations, and we gradually lost contact with each other just before the start of our university years. From then on, I got reports of her academic and medical progress secondhand through her mutual fellow IB students. That her university major was in Theoretical Physics came as no surprise to me; anything less would have shortchanged her intellect.
Then one day I learned that Sara B. had undergone double lung transplant surgery successfully. Of course, she would be on a massive regime of immuno-suppressant pills for the rest of her life, but now she could enjoy things that could have previously and fatally compromise her respiratory system. She could finally breathe without coughing.
Tragically, it was a walk through the forests she loved that extinguished her candle. She had not even reached her mid-twenties. I felt an indescribable emptiness upon learning this, and my first thoughts were ones of injustice and the ultimate denial, and a huge potential unfulfilled. The world would never know of the contributions that she could have made to society. She was the first polymath I met, an individual who could traverse the halls of science as easily as the realms of art, and debate the merits of one while doing the other at the same time. Yet looking back at it now, I realize that although genetics dealt Sara B. a bad first hand, she made the most of her short existence, doing the things she loved on as big a scale as she could imagine, and as often as she wanted. And maybe that’s what counts.