Wednesday 31 August 2016

Farewell, noble Sarah, the bravest person I ever met

Published 26/11/2008 | 00:00

Let's get right to the point. Sarah Lawson was English, as English as English as English could be. She was actually the Right Honourable Sarah Lawson, of Jewish extraction, many generations ago. But prosperous Jewry in time became English aristocracy.

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She was highborn, and knew it: not in a snobbish way, but in her habits of effortless confidence. She once told me that whenever she walked into a room, she could spot her fellow Hons, as they could her. No word was needed: merely the secret and nameless runes of the tribe sufficed.

This caste has not had a good press in Ireland, or indeed, in modern England, not least because it is silent upon its virtues. Laconic self-depreciation is a readier hallmark of its outward image than articulate pride. It does not speak well of itself, or its virtues: and indeed, for one to do so would disqualify oneself from membership.

These are people who do not boast, who learn emotional reticence from an early age, and for whom the stiff upper lip is no mere caricature but a badge of discreet honour. Steady in adversity; fight to the last round, and most of all, die with your face to the enemy.

Sarah was more than highborn. She was ambitious and clever too. She married Michael Grade, the television executive, and son of Lew Grade, the impresario. They went off to Hollywood, where her acute legal mind helped her carve a successful career for herself.

But Michael's own career brought them back to London, where in time they went their separate ways, though remaining friends. One of the people she befriended in London was my old friend Jeananne Crowley, through whom she was to meet her next husband, the brilliant Irish businessman David Meagher. They married in the summer of 1994, and their wedding party, over a glorious summer's weekend in Wicklow, remains eternally unforgettable. Shortly afterwards, they bought Ardbraccan, outside Navan, the former home of the Bishop of Meath.

Their magnificent restoration of that great Palladian house was one of the architectural triumphs of recent decades, involving artistic integrity and capital in equally vast amounts. Meanwhile, she had two children, Jamie and Lucy; and she bought a modest dwelling in Ranelagh, as a town-house. And all was well.

Seven years ago last month, Jeananne phoned me to say that Sarah had cancer: initially in the breast, but secondaries had spread elsewhere. Her children were still babies. Not merely did her maternal instinct command her to live; so too did the obligations of class and breeding.

Thus began the most heroic fight against death that I have ever witnessed. Those with cancer live in a different world from the rest of us; occasionally, I escorted her into that world, when taking her to chemotherapy sessions, after which she might be too weak to drive home. In the oncology units of our hospitals lies the valley of death: there sit the gaunt, the hairless, the terrified: young and old, children and parents, some doomed, but most not, and no-one quite knowing what card they had drawn in this abominable lottery.

One sees sights there to haunt a million dreams; the bald and weeping teenage girl, hand in hand with her young husband, tears trickling down his almost beardless cheeks, silent in their Gethsemane of grief.

This was her portion, year in and year out: witnessing those doomed to go before her, yet all valiantly fighting against the onward march of their inner nemesis. She never spoke of these sights, nor of the fear that must have racked her mind as, gaunt and bald, she returned from her chemo sessions, planning the next stage of her war of survival.

For her duty was to live and breathe for Jamie and Lucy, that they might know a mother's kiss before they slept, and might wake to a home made warm by a mother's love. This drove her implacably onwards, through all those years to come.

Meanwhile, equally implacably, cancer continued to spread throughout her body, and she had many close encounters with death, to which others would surely have succumbed.

Last year, I visited her in St James's, and said an unspoken farewell to a tiny cadaver, curled up in her bed like a withered, evicted fledgling; she was surely breathing her last. A week later, she was striding about the place, planning her next project, a house in Cornwall.

We regularly had lunch at her favourite restaurant, Mint, round the corner from her home. She was often worn and haggard, but never woebegone, as she calmly laid out the options before, which were endlessly replenished with fresh ones. For she had become a self-educated cancer expert, for whom the internet was a vast pool of oncological lore, which she trawled with the discerning seine of a truly remarkable mind: for her intellect matched her intrepid heart.

But the battle was always unequal, David's stalwart support could not change that. Cancer slowly but surely took command of her body. Two weeks ago, her ammunition pouch finally empty, the bravest person I have ever met passed on, her face to the enemy, to the very last.

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