I met a young mother in Village Homes who told me her name was Sarah. I was walking on the green with my 2-year-old grandson, Dane, and her children, ages 2 and 4, were playing at the gazebo.
At first, it seemed like a short, typical Davis-style encounter.
Her children and my grandchild came together easily, sharing toys and snacks. The same thing happened between Sarah and me — except for the toys and snacks. I learned that she graduated from Davis High; she learned that my children did, too, a little later.
We talked about young people who return to Davis to raise their children — my daughter would have done it, if she could — and then went on to other topics. Everyone had a good time.
I’m not sure what led me to search for Sarah’s name on the web that evening, but it had to do with my pleasure meeting her and a vague hope that Dane could play with her kids one more time before he flew home to Chicago. I didn’t expect to find her name as easily as I did, and I didn’t expect to find a news item that I had paid close attention to when it happened two years ago this month.
On Sept. 4, 2011, a woman and her companion capsized in their kayak on the American River in Sacramento. The man survived; the woman, a Davis resident, died.
This story hit me hard because of my passion for kayaking. I pay attention to news items about river deaths, and in this case, I was particularly troubled because I didn’t understand how a 57-year-old woman, dressed properly in a life vest, could perish on a quiet section of the river with no rapids at all.
For several days, I actively looked for stories in local papers and on local news, and I discussed what I found with my husband. I learned the victim’s name and the fact that she was an art teacher in Fairfield. It sounded as if she had been paddling with a male partner; I didn’t consider what other family she might have.
Eventually, I came to understand that the drowning had to do with the boat wrapping around a piling of the Watt Avenue bridge. This kind of obstacle can look perfectly harmless, but fast-moving current changes the equation. It took 20 minutes to free Sarah’s mother, who was apparently trapped underwater. She died the next day at Sacramento Medical Center.
One month later, a reporter for this newspaper, Anne Ternus-Bellamy, interviewed Sarah and published a long story about Sarah and her mother, a story I somehow missed.
Looking two years later, I found the story and read it carefully, thinking at every moment about the young woman I met that day. I learned that Sarah had lost not one, but both of her parents prematurely; her father died when she was only 6.
Three weeks after her mother’s tragic river death, Sarah’s second child, the little girl I had just played with, was born prematurely. Sarah’s mother, described as deeply loving, had been looking forward to Hope’s birth but never got to meet her.
Sitting in front of my computer, putting the details of this story together, it suddenly seemed to echo my own.
I, too, lost my mother unexpectedly when my children were very young. She died from cancer, not a tragic accident, but it took her very fast. She, too, was a wonderful mother and grandmother whose absence left a gaping hole.
My meeting with Sarah now seemed like an intersection between two people who unknowingly had something in common.
I know what it’s like to go places and wish fervently that your mom could go there with you one more time. In fact, I was walking through Village Homes with Dane because that’s what my mother loved doing with her grandchildren and it helps me feel closer to her.
If I was feeling closer to my mom just by being in Village Homes with my grandchild, what thoughts might Sarah have had when she met me, a grandmother similar in age to her mother? Does it haunt her, as it does me, to think about a much-loved parent who never got to live out her grandma joy?
At home in front of my computer, I think about loss — sudden loss — and relationships that can never be replaced. You carry on because you have to. Later, after years have passed, most of the people you meet will never know your story. I didn’t walk up to Sarah and say, “I lost my mother when my children were the same ages as yours.” She didn’t tell me about her mother’s tragic accident.
Sarah and I had a simple Davis encounter like dozens of others in a town where people talk to strangers. I haven’t seen her again, and although I verified that she is OK with my writing this column, I don’t know her otherwise. Nevertheless, I feel a special resonance.
Although our meeting happened more than a month ago, I still think about it today.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org