At the Creighton Prep academic awards night, a frail, bald but smiling Sara Brown applauded enthusiastically as her 15-year-old son, David, received a $500 school stipend for his interest in architecture.
Lots of proud parents watched their offspring receive honors that night, May 16, just as happened this spring at high schools everywhere.
Being there for sophomore David's award was a goal Sara had set for her final days. At 52, she knew that with her impending death, David was about to be orphaned — a year earlier, his father had died at 57.
Her other goal was to watch David play one more baseball game for the Prep junior varsity — his teammates had shaved their heads in symbolic support of her and David — but that didn't happen.
Instead, on the night of Memorial Day, May 27, David rubbed her feet and ankles as a priest anointed her and prayed at the family home near 63rd and Pierce Streets.
David and brother Matthew, 27, who had rubbed her shoulders, then leaned in from either side of her bed. Each held one of her hands, kissed her and whispered their love one last time.
“Sara,” longtime friend Father Tom Fangman said quietly, “feel free to go. Everybody is going to be OK.”
In the next moment, at 9:50 p.m., Sara Maxwell Brown took a last breath. A hospice nurse stepped in to check. Sara's siblings joined in a prayer.
Thunder clapped, and Sara's sons stepped outside into a steady downpour.
“Mom loved the rain,” said Matthew. “We stood in it and got soaked. It was really beautiful.”
Every family suffers at some point, but the Browns have endured more than most.
The father, financial adviser William “Fred” Brown, had a liver transplant in 1999. In 2003, Sara was diagnosed with breast cancer.
As a child, Matthew recalls, he had always wanted a little brother or sister. When he was 12, David was born.
David grew up knowing about their mother's illness and the family's fear that it would return. Sara exercised to stay fit and practiced yoga.
The couple divorced, and the father moved to Florida in 2007. He had lived 13 years with his transplanted liver before he died in 2012.
For several years, Sara mostly had been a single parent.
“She would be the dad and the mom in some situations,” David said. “Good cop and bad cop.”
Matthew, who graduated from Omaha Central High and has acted in local theater since age 14, said Sara instilled values, character and morals in her sons and touched lives through volunteering. At the zoo or elsewhere, he said, she was always the one who would help reunite a lost child with worried parents.
Fangman first met Fred and Sara in 1992, after the priest was assigned to St. Philip Neri Catholic Church. The couple put up a sign welcoming “Father Tom.”
Over the years, he said, “They have had so much turmoil and sadness.”
Through a healthy lifestyle, Sara in January celebrated 10 years of being cancer-free.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
But by St. Patrick's Day, March 17, she suffered excruciating pain. She now had uterine cancer, and surgeons could remove only 25 percent of a winding tumor. She began chemotherapy.
Former colleagues at ConAgra Foods, where she had worked as a customer-service supply coordinator, sent their love in a framed photo — about 60 of them standing in the shape of a heart. The Prep baldies in their baseball uniforms, teammates of shortstop David, also sent a photo. (They eventually wore pink uniforms with her initials on the back.)
Sara knew her time was short, and asked Father Tom to pray with her. She made another request.
As he recounted: “She said, 'I want you to teach me to die with grace so that I can teach my sons.' I said, 'Sara, you are already doing it. You taught them how to live with grace. Why would this be any different?' ”
When her time came, he called hers “the holiest death.”
She hadn't made it to one more of David's ballgames, but she had accomplished her goal of attending awards night.
“I'll never forget watching her clap when he got that award,” said Fangman, who presided at her funeral at St. Philip Neri. “It took so much for her to get there, but she was so proud.”
Besides her sons, she is survived by five sisters, a brother and her mother, Shirley Maxwell of Omaha. A benefit pancake feed will be held from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday at St. Philip Neri, 8200 N. 30th St.
At Sara's request, David soon will live with her half brother, Tom Broderick of Omaha. For now, Matthew and David are living together in the family home.
“I don't really think of myself as an orphan,” David said. “I've got my brother and my family still here. And I still think my mom is here to help guide me. I feel her presence.”
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