How a sip of beer killed my closest friend

It was a freak accident, and I still think about what, if anything, I could have done

Reflecting on the loss of a friend is a difficult but necessary undertaking.
(Image credit: MaZvone / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo)



"Steve, it's Shelley. Hey, I've left a few messages for Sara. Is she mad at me or something? I haven't heard back from her."

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"She's dead."

I sat down.


Steve was Sara's ex-husband. He knew I was her closest friend.

"I was going to call you but…" he trailed off.

"But what? How long ago? What happened?"

"She choked on a beer and apparently inhaled some of it. She got a yeast infection in her lungs. It killed her in two weeks."

I don't remember saying any more. I hung up.

Sara and I met in the ninth grade. We shared a lab table in science class and became fast friends. We were both only children and looking for friends in that awkward, halting way that geeks do. Our beleaguered, tenured science instructor scheduled a test within the first month of class and declared a few days beforehand, "You are allowed half a page of notes to use for the test." Sara and I looked at each other. It was as if we were twins from a different mother. She tore a sheet of legal-size yellow paper off its pad, ripped it in half and gave the half to me. "How small can YOU write? she asked with a mischievous giggle.

When test day arrived, the class fell silent as the teacher circled the room. He stopped at our table and scrutinized my notes. "You're cheating!" he cried. Everyone looked at me.

I reminded him that he gave us the OK to use a half page of notes for the test. "But this is a lot more than that!" he bellowed.

Sara jumped to my defense. "You said half a page of notes. You didn't tell us what size paper. You didn't tell us how small we could write or that we could only use one side." By this time, a few other kids started laughing. Too old and tired to argue with a class full of 14-year-olds, our teacher tromped back to his desk, defeated and cursing himself.

That was the beginning of our 28-year friendship.

Sara was into Blue Oyster Cult, Boston, and AC/DC. I was into David Bowie, the Eagles, and Pink Floyd. She started to drink beer and smoke pot at 15. Sara was Rizzo from Grease. And I was… Sandy. Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee. Sara was tall and skinny with straight blond hair. I was short, curvy, and had wavy brunette hair. She was on the swim team. I was… not. I was in the math club.

I moved to California at 15, but still, we remained close and called each other every month. Our volatile parents could not have been more different than us and we found a safe harbor in each other's friendship. Sara's mom was a divorcee who cursed every boyfriend she ever had, and passed that distrust and love-hate attitude toward men onto Sara. My parents argued every day but remained married for 50 years until their deaths. As only children, we tried to navigate those contentious surroundings the best we could, only to receive mixed messages about love, relationships, and life.

Throughout high school and college we kept in touch. Sara was a talented swimmer who was always top on the school swim team rosters but never made it to regionals because of her drinking problem. Fridays and Saturdays were her beer-guzzling nights and she'd drink so much she'd have to be driven home. I don't know why she stayed away from stronger spirits, but beer was her love. Throughout college, Sara changed majors six times, finally settling on marketing. She changed her last name from her mother's maiden name to her dead father's name, but I was still Sandy and she was still Rizzo in nearly every way. We supported each other. When she got pregnant by her very first boyfriend during her senior year in college, she called me when she decided to get an abortion.

"Shel?" her voice was muffled and her nose was stuffy from crying.

"Yeah honey, what's up?"

"I was pregnant yesterday," she sobbed softly into the phone.

"Sweetie, what can I do? I'll fly out..."

"No. no. I just need to hear your voice."

And from that moment, Sara felt branded. And that feeling never left her. It fueled her zeal to succeed. And our friendship took a turn. Everything I achieved, she wanted the same — and more — for herself. I earned an MBA when I was 25. She got hers at 28. She married a pilot around that time and demanded — and got — an eight-carat sapphire engagement ring.

Sara and her husband rescued two basset hounds, Fred and Lily. Fred was overweight and had to get fitted with a harness so his privates wouldn't drag on the ground. When Sara called to tell me about Poor Fred and his dragging balls, she laughed so hard the phone fell silent. I hadn't heard her that joyful in a very long time and it made my heart sing.

Her marriage to the pilot lasted a few years. No kids. After her divorce, Sara continued to push forward to succeed. To overcome. To achieve. When her mother became ill, Sara had to make the heartbreaking decision to end life-support. I found out a few months later and was a little hurt that my friend hadn't told me sooner.

I became a CFO by the time I was 32. Sara nabbed a house and a Mercedes that year. And although we didn't talk every month like we did in school, we called and gossiped at least every few months and it was as if no time had passed.

The phone rang. We were now both 36 and successful career women.

"Shel, I'm converting to Judaism. AND I'm going for my PhD. I'll be the first Jewish doctor in my family!"

"Sara, honey, are you sure? You're already successful. Why don't you just slow down and enjoy life? You don't have anything to prove to anyone."

She got very angry and hung up on me. A few days later I got a handwritten apology with a photo of her drinking at a bar with a few drag queens. "Livin' the life! Luv u. S." it read on the back. She looked completely stoned as she smiled blankly into the camera, a beer in her hand. With Sara, it was never hard drugs and drink. It was always just pot and beer. Pot and beer. And she never slowed down. I don't know what she was running from.

We never spoke of the angry exchange again. About a year later, she was drinking more than ever. She'd given up pot, but almost every night found her at the bar downing a lager.

Our calls dwindled to the point where they became yearly events to wish each other Happy New Year. They became less about catching up and gossiping and more about what she had achieved in the last year. I didn't know how I could help her but I always tried to be her friend. By the time we reached our late 30s, I had been trying to get pregnant for years and when it finally happened, she cried for me. And cried again weeks later when I lost the baby. For a brief moment, our call was like we were 14 again. Laughing and crying and being… just friends.

The last year of her life saw her succeed in her conversion to Judaism and achieve the halfway point toward her PhD. She was so excited and energized. The new year, 2006, was going to be great, she said at Christmas. "I've got to go. I'll call you next week, okay?"

I hadn't heard her so happy in a long time, and I never heard from her again.

After talking with Steve, I sat for what seemed like forever. Sara was dead. Steve hadn't even bothered to call me with the news. Just as Sara hadn't called me with the news about her mother.

He gave me the news so clinically. So coldly. And although he had no reason to lie, I wondered about the facts surrounding his story. It just seemed so far beyond belief. I'd never heard of a yeast infection in the lungs. I'd heard of aspiration pneumonia. I'd heard of yeast infections. But not something like this. Wild, impossible, crazy thoughts ran through my head as I tried to understand that she was gone. Did he murder her? Did she die of AIDS? Organ failure? He wouldn't tell me any more. Not because he was hiding anything, but because there wasn't any more to tell.

But here's what I do know: She aspirated while drinking, the yeast-based beer got into her airway and into her lungs where the dark, warm, moist environment fostered a yeast overgrowth. It didn't make her sick right away, she probably just coughed a bit after choking on the beer. But within a week she collapsed. The infection spread quickly and caused multiple organ failure and the doctors couldn't do anything to save her. She never regained consciousness.

Steve sent me a picture of her headstone and some pictures taken in the last months of her life. Sara was still skinny as ever but she looked sick. The strange circumstances of her death made me feel so lost. Mad. Sorrowful. And guilty. Could I have done more? It weighed on me for years until I realized there was nothing anyone could have done. Beer took down my friend. And it could have been anything, really. She could have been hit by a car. She could have committed suicide. And maybe in the end, that's what she did, but in her own time.

It's been a decade since Sara died. I still think of her. I talk to her sometimes and she shows up in my dreams. And in them she brings me flowers or imitates our grumpy science teacher from all those years ago. I never became a fan of AC/DC or Blue Oyster Cult, but when one of their songs comes on, I know it's Sara pinging me from upstairs. Yeah Rizzo, I know you're still there. I love you, too. Yours, Sandy.

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