The saddest, sunniest day. A prayer for Sara.

How can a day so beautiful be filled with so much sadness?

I was running around this morning, hanging birthday banners and preparing water balloons for field day games. The storms from last night had cleared, and the sunshine was bright and strong. With Nate's fifth birthday party just minutes away, I went online to order pizza and check my email.

Then I read the message. Sara was gone, passing away in her sleep last night after a long, valiant fight with cancer. I wanted to cry. I couldn't speak. It was five minutes before my son's fifth birthday party.

Pause. Orchestrate water balloon toss with excited children. Refill Diet Cokes. Answer the door for the pizza. Sing "Happy Birthday" to my beautiful boy with icing on his nose.

The wrapping flew in the air, and between the tearing open of robots and air hockey games, tiny giggles (OK, and one fight over Legos). When everyone left I put Saran Wrap over the brownies, wiped up the ice cream from the polka dot table cloth I'd stressed over (along with the matching decor), and walked outside and called Todd. "I'm so angry. I'm just so angry," I said.

***

On my first day at work at the magazine, I was so nervous. The day of my interview Sara had met me downstairs and taken me up a maze of stairs. So the day I started, I had no idea how to get to our offices. My worry was dissipated when I saw Sara, who embraced me at the front desk and said, "I'm a hugger, hope you don't mind!" She walked me to my desk, where fresh flowers were waiting. She was no ordinary boss.

We had a connection instantly, starting with our first meeting. We talked about things most important to us: writing, storytelling, and yes, cancer. Sara was open about what she had been through -- surviving several diagnoses. She had been photographed for "A Tribe Of Warrior Women," a photo book by Melissa Springer. The book documented women with breast cancer, telling each of their stories in beautiful black and white images.

I knew Sara from these because the images hung at my office at the UAB Cancer Center.

She told me she had read my stories from the time I was a young newspaper reporter covering health care. I felt like she was an old friend, right from the start.

And she was.

***

Sara was my colleague. We went to meetings, and retreats, and once, on a story where we painted in a garden while being photographed. She loved her job. And she was unmistakable in the office, her long, red hair flowing behind her when she walked in the halls, greeting everyone. She had a genuine interest in how her colleagues were doing, asking for their kids and parents by name.

We had some tough times. But we were friends. There was laughter.

One December, during another colleague's retirement party, I pulled Sara and Allison (another colleague in our small department) aside, handing them each a paper sleeve. Inside, ceramic butterflies, fired and painted by a local artist, which I'd found during a photo shoot. I foldded a butterfly into each of their hands, and we pulled each other close.

***

Tonight I pulled myself out of bed, still wearing clothes from the birthday party. Allison and I had talked -- I called her, mortified that she'd learned the news from Facebook. It was unreal, we agreed.

I had a bit of bronchitis it seemed, and my voice was fading. But I needed to get in the car and drive to church, to Palm Sunday vigil. The priest asked us to be seated for the reading of The Passion. "The Passion isn't meant to be read, but experienced."

"Heli, heli, lama sabachthani?"

"My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" 

"Pater in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum"

"Father, into your hands I command my spirit."

There is only one prayer that comes to my mind: "Sara.""Sara." "Sara." I thought of her husband, and her daughter. The priest talked about the Holy Week services. I wanted but one gathering, one with the people who love her. I wanted her there.

***

The day we painted in the garden was the day my father found out that he was a match for a transplant for his brother, my uncle. "The tests are back -- he's a match!" I told her, hugging Sara the hallways. Oh, hope. She believed. And for that, I loved her.

My God, how I want to re-write this story so it turns out differently. But instead, my uncle was taken two years ago, and Sara was taken today. Two people who laughed really hard, and enjoyed a nice glass of wine, and who were taken way before their time. Two people who genuinely cared.

***

The last time I saw her was at a surprise birthday party -- what, six weeks, two months? I waited my turn to talk with her after so many people who wanted to hug her neck. She was wearing the sassiest boots. How I go over what we said that night. How I wish I hugged her neck.

In her card I wrote that when she was up to it I wanted to take her to lunch, and that I was so thankful for the joy and light she had brought to so many. I wish I hugged her neck.

***

There is but one prayer tonight, Palm Sunday. It's a prayer covered in anger for what we have lost, thankfulness for what we had. The prayer is, "Sara."

Sara.