A beaming, honey-haired girl about three years old sat down on the floor next to me in the brightly painted yoga studio, the voices of chanting swelling around us.
I said, “Hi, I’m Sara. What’s your name?” She didn’t answer, but smiled, never taking her eyes off me. “Are you shy?” I asked. She nodded her head, yes. She wore a purple t-shirt with a sparkly butterfly over her heart, so I told her I’d call her “secret butterfly.” She sat very close to me and looked into my eyes, deep, holding my gaze intently for several long moments, as if she could see all the way into me. Apparently satisfied with what she saw, this tiny cherubic person crawled into my lap, and remained in my arms for the rest of the two-hour program. As a single, childless video producer with a raging biological clock, it was the most delicious feeling. I wanted this.
Krishna Das’s voice filled the warm afternoon air like honey, and my butterfly fell asleep as I carried her around the yoga studio, having no idea who her parents were. Afterward, a radiant, curly-haired woman with clear blue eyes came up to me and said, “Hi, I’m Kate. Have you ever thought about living in the Hamptons?” she asked, scribbling her phone number on a piece of paper.
I hadn’t. It was my first day in New York City, fresh off a six-week production job at a holistic retreat center in Rhinebeck. At the end of the gig I was slated to go back to my native West Coast to work at the Sundance Institute. So I had never been to Long Island’s East End, didn’t know anyone who’d been there, and had never even thought of visiting, much less moving there. I was just passing through.
“We live in a big house on a beautiful property near the beach. It’s a great place for a creative person to live. What do you do?” Kate asked. After hearing about my background in media, she added, “I could introduce you to the radio and TV people out there.” I was stunned into a rare speechlessness and she added, “Come out and stay with us for a few days.”
It was an incredible offer. It seemed hard to believe that in my first day in the city, I met someone who invited me to live with them in the Hamptons. I thanked her, but hesitated for several days. My mother in Seattle was worried. “Who are these people? What sort of place is it? It sounds like a cult!” But the connection with little Anna had felt soul-mate-deep, and curiosity hadn’t killed me yet, so I went.
Kate’s husband picked me up at the Jitney in Amagansett and drove me down winding roads deep into a forest of almost-bare trees. He was very warm and kind, but still, I was nervous. Their house was huge and sat in the middle of a large, lush property near the bay. The welcoming hugs from Anna and her five-year-old brother James vaporized my fears, and I relaxed. Kate cooked a delicious, organic, vegetarian dinner and I fell asleep in the garden bedroom that night with the moonlight pouring in through the sliding glass door.
The next morning, Kate greeted me with a steaming cup of sweet, authentic homemade Indian chai, as her husband Ramesh talked to me about his amazing experiences being with his guru in India. Anna sat in my lap in her pajamas. “Are you going to live with us? Please?” she asked. How could I say no? I was 3,000 miles away from home and didn’t know a soul, but I’d decided. I was staying.
Living on Long Island seemed exotic. The light out there was transcendent, translucent, reflective. I could see why so many artists had come there to work. Growing up on the mono-seasonal West Coast, I always felt like I was getting a sort of grey version of life—no snow for snowmen, no giant piles of leaves in the evergreen state. This was vivid, full Technicolor. That first day, I jumped in a huge pile of rust-colored leaves with the kids.
For the next two years I lived with Kate and Ramesh and James and Anna and was treated like one of the family. I helped out in exchange for room and board, and Kate made good on her promise. Through her introductions I got jobs at the local TV and radio stations, ultimately becoming co-host of the morning show on the popular WBAB-FM. I couldn’t believe they paid me to do something so fun, nor that I lived with this amazing woman who did all the grocery shopping and all the cooking! Ramesh worked the land, producing bushels of food and acres of flowers. I felt like I had landed in the Garden of Eden.
Both kids were little beams of light. I’ve never seen siblings so enraptured with each other. They were constantly hugging each other, “I love you, James!” “I love you, Anna!”
I fell in love with my new family. I taught the kids how to tell time on a dial clock and how to tie their shoes, gave them baths and read bedtime stories. It was almost like having my own kids. Almost. It felt like they were related to me—James in looks, and Anna in mind. One night while snuggling after our bedtime story, Anna lay with her hand over my heart, patting me, pat-pat-pat. She looked up at me and said, “Do you know why I’m patting you? Because I love you so much.”
Kate became the big sister I never had, and we got along so well, we joked we should get married. I felt an incredible connection with the family and couldn’t imagine leaving. It was everything I’d wished for, but I knew it wasn’t mine. I hoped I would meet my mate in this magical place. Kate encouraged me, and Anna backed her up. “You should have a baby!” she told me, “and stay here.” Sitting with the kids in the backseat on a family road trip one day, Anna put her head on my shoulder and asked, “How long are you staying?”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“I want you to live with us forever!” she exclaimed. I sort of wanted that too.
But, after several years in this idyllic place, I fell in love with a man from the city and moved to Brooklyn. I stayed in constant contact with my “east-coast family,” continuing to make regular trips to Amagansett to play, help with projects, stay with the kids when their parents were out of town, and watch these luminous children grow up. Even as she got older, Anna and I understood each other so innately, James joked that we had the same brain.
Last month, Kate and I were on the phone and she told me Anna had gotten got a job helping out at the local yoga studio. She was just 14, but was ready to take on this new responsibility. “Today is her first day. She arranged it all herself,” Kate said. “And she will be getting herself to work, riding her bike.” Our Anna was growing up!
That night I awoke in the middle of the night in distress, crying, and when my boyfriend Jeff awoke I kept saying, “I don’t want to be asleep, I don’t want to be asleep, I just want to be awake.” He held me even though I couldn’t explain the urgency of my feeling.
Later that morning, the phone rang. It was Kate. “Anna was run over by an SUV on her bike and killed.” I dropped the phone and screamed. She was just days away from her eighth grade graduation, she had so much ahead of her. The whole community responded to the loss. The school honored her at the end-of-year awards ceremony, at the eighth-grade graduation, and with a special ritual on the playground for her classmates, where they released butterflies into the air.
As I stood in the crowd of over 500 people at Guild Hall for her memorial, I saw that Anna belonged to everybody. Everyone treated her as their daughter, called her their best friend. Every day I struggle to find a reason, some explanation for this sudden, awful departure, and I understand why people find religion; any sort of spiritual meaning or divine presence would be the most comforting thing right now. I’m not sure I will find that peace. But this little person changed my life forever, and the gifts she gave me live on. For that, and for her presence, I am grateful.
Sara Karl is a freelance writer and reporter. Her work has been published in The New York Press and The Daily Beast and broadcast on WSHU Public Radio, as well as WEHM and WBAZ. She divides her time between the Hamptons, New York and Seattle.
This piece is one of the many nonfiction essays entered in the Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize competition. To enter the 2014 contest now, go to literaryprize.danspapers.com.