In one way or another, we all seek for honor. Sarah found it.
Sarah’s parents were new to town, and Sarah was just getting to know her new classmates at church. The second-grader was full of energy and brimming with mischief. My wife was Sarah’s Sunday School teacher, which provided us with an ample supply of funny stories about little Sarah. Monday night dinner was usually served with the latest about Sarah. Everyone at church seemed to like her; falling in love with her was easy.
One Sunday my wife had prepared a lesson on being useful. She gently taught the children that everyone can be useful, that usefulness is serving God, and that doing so is worthy of honor. The kids quietly soaked up my wife’s story, and as the lesson ended, there was a short moment of silence. Sarah broke the silence. In her sweet manner she softly spoke: “Teacher, what can I do? I don’t know how to do many useful things. I don’t know how to do anything that would be worthy of honor.”
My wife wasn’t expecting that kind of response. So she quickly looked around and saw an empty flower vase on the window sill. “Sarah, you can bring in a flower and put it in the vase. That would be an honorable thing.”
Sarah thought a moment, then said, “But that’s not important.”
“Sure it is!” replied my wife. “It is if you are helping someone.”
Well, sure enough, the next Sunday, Sarah brought in a dandelion and placed it in the vase. In fact, she did this Sunday after Sunday. With no more reminders or any help, she brought in her flower and placed it in the vase. My wife told all this to our pastor, and the following Sunday, he placed the vase in the main sanctuary next to the pulpit. He gave a sermon on the honor of serving others, using Sarah’s vase as an example. The congregation responded well to the sermon, and the week started on a positive note.
As a pediatric physician, I have developed an uncomfortable feeling about telephone calls. During that week I received one from Sarah’s mother. She told me that Sarah’s behavior was slower than normal and that she didn’t have an appetite. I reassured the mother and made room on the schedule to see Sarah the following day. After the normal battery of tests and days of examinations, I sat in my office with Sarah’s paperwork on my desk. The test results contained tragic news.
On the way home I stopped to see Sarah’s parents and personally tell them the test results. Sarah’s genetics and her leukemia were a horrible mix. Sitting at the kitchen table, I did my best to explain that there was nothing that could be done to save her life. I don’t think I have ever had a more difficult situation to deal with. Sarah’s mom looked at me with tears in her eyes and asked, “How can this happen? Why would God allow this?”
As doctors, we try everything to save a life. Sometimes we find ourselves wishing to trade our life for that of one of our patients, especially when they are as dear to us as Sarah was. But sometimes it’s really true that nothing can be done, and a tragic end is only a matter of time. Sarah was to have such an ending. Such a beautiful life, ended by such pain and anguish. It became so difficult not to question the goodness of God in Sarah’s life.
Sarah’s condition quickly worsened, and she became confined to bed. Although many people visited her, Sarah lost her smile. She lost a great deal of weight. And then it came: another telephone call. Sarah’s mother asked me to come see her. I dropped everything and hurried to the house. Sarah had become a small bundle that rarely moved. After a short examination, I knew that Sarah would soon be leaving this world. I advised the parents to spend as much time as possible with her.
That was a Friday afternoon. On Sunday morning church started as normal. The singing, the sermon—it all seemed meaningless when I thought of Sarah. I sat there in total sadness. Almost at the very end of the sermon, the pastor suddenly stopped speaking. His stared at the back of the church with utter amazement. Everyone turned around to see what he was looking at. It was Sarah! Her parents had brought her in for one last visit. She was bundled up in a blanket and held a dandelion in her little hand.
She didn’t sit down in the back row. Instead, she slowly walked to the front of the church where her vase was still placed by the pulpit. She put her flower in the vase and a piece of paper next to it. Then she turned and went to her parents. The sight of little Sarah placing her flower in the vase for the last time moved everyone. At the end of the service, people gathered around Sarah and her parents, trying to offer as much support as possible. I could hardly take it anymore.
Four days later, Sarah died. I cancelled my morning appointments and sat at my desk thinking about Sarah and her parents. It all hurt so much. I remembered the funny stories that my wife had told me about Sarah. I remembered the sweetness of her voice. I remembered that telephone call that brought the sadness. Tears filled my eyes as I tried desperately not to question the goodness of God in allowing all this to end in such a horrible manner.
I wasn’t expecting it, but the pastor asked to see me after the funeral. We were standing at the cemetery near our cars as people walked by us. In a low voice he said, “Dave, I’ve got something you ought to see.” He took out of his pocket the piece of paper that Sarah had left by the vase and handed it to me as he said, “You had better keep this; it may help you in your line of work.” I unfolded the paper to read what Sarah had written.
In pink crayon Sarah had left this message next to her vase. It simply said this:
This vase has been the biggest honor of my life.
Sarah’s note and her vase helped me to understand, at least in part. I now realize in a new way that life is an opportunity to serve God by serving people. And, as Sarah put it, that is the biggest honor of life.
Dr. David Cerqueira writes from Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal.