Sitting in her wheelchair in a room of mirrors, Sarah McClain closed her eyes. Her sister, Vernell, wouldn’t let her peek. Gingerly, Sarah was helped to a standing position, resting her hands on a walker for balance. Slowly, her lids parted. The reflection she saw was a beautiful woman, wearing a lovely wedding dress. As if there were no one else in the room, she focused on her image, a flood of thoughts and emotions filling her head.
“This wouldn’t be the one,” she finally told more than a dozen friends and family who recently gathered at David’s Bridal in Fairlawn. “I want a little more oomph. And a little more of — ‘I’m a hot mama.’ ”
The room filled with laughter as she was eased back into her chair.
Sarah, 39, who is receiving hospice care in her Akron home, has a “list of possibilities,” or what some would call a bucket list. One of the things on that list was trying on a wedding dress.
Laurie Gibson, shift manager at the store, went right to work to get a sexy number for Sarah, who has been battling cancer off and on since 2012.
It was the third dress — a little flirtatious and a lot of beauty — that Sarah liked best. If she were getting married, she would walk down the aisle in the one that flattered her curves, the one that evoked both laughter and tears.
“I just wanted to know what it felt like to be a bride,” whispered Sarah, who has never been married.
Those lucky enough to have met Sarah have been lifted by her spirit. She has walked with many people through difficult times and celebrated their victories.
“There are so many reasons for this journey — so many reasons for faith and so many reasons for hope to never give up,” added Sarah, who arrived at the store with her friends in a limo donated by Thomas Limousine Service of Akron.
Lest you think that the social worker at Akron’s Blick Clinic is just a girly girl, afraid to get her hands dirty or take a couple of bruises to the ribs, you would be stunned to learn Sarah was once a pro football player. Yep — you read that right.
Fifteen years ago, she played defensive end and offensive tackle for the Syracuse Sting.
“I had just finished up school to be a social worker and … tried out,” she explained. “It was a dream of mine and everyone should live their dream.”
She put away her shoulder pads after a couple of years, following the death of her sister, who was survived by three children. Sarah also inherited another niece who needed help. So she and Vernell decided to co-parent five children, including Vernell’s biological son.
During the gathering at David’s Bridal, which was held after the store closed, Sarah’s entourage of loved ones were fitted in bridesmaid dresses. In a private, quiet moment, Sarah embraced her nieces, Tamaira Inman, 14, and Cecilia McCain, 18, whom she raised.
“Could I have my bouquet?” she asked. Someone handed her the arrangement, made of white roses and donated by A.H. Christiansons of Burton.
Sarah lowered her head to the flowers, closed her eyes and breathed in. Emily Carter, who had offered to take pictures, snapped a few.
“She is the kind of person if she asked for the moon, you would try to wrangle it and give it to her,” said Stephanie Carter with Hospice of Summa. “She’s just that special.”
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve received several emails and phone calls about Sarah, the inspiration for so many. She and her family have been on a roller coaster since 2012. Diagnosed with breast cancer and beating it, only to learn months later that it had spread.
Though she no longer can actively participate, she once rowed for the Dragon Dream Team, a racing boat crew made up of breast cancer survivors.
Michelle Lang-Schock, who was featured in a Beacon Journal series about her battle with breast cancer while pregnant with her daughter Charli, met Sarah during a breast cancer support meeting at Stewart’s Caring Place. “She had this upbeat and very positive attitude towards what she was facing, and I had told myself that if a woman with Stage IV can stay so positive, then I have nothing to worry about,” said Michelle, noting Sarah was the first person to give her a baby gift. “I had told her at that time how she was my inspiration to stay positive and she had informed me that I was too her inspiration.
“We have kept that feeling towards each other through the last two years. When I had Charli May 16, 2013, Sarah was with ‘Ned’ (no evidence of disease). As she put it, her and ‘Ned’ were engaged and planned on a long engagement,” she said, laughing. “At this point in our fight, I felt we both beat this stupid cancer. I lived through her experiences in life — boating with the Dragons, speaking at cancer rallies, walking in relays and never slowing down — no matter what meds she was on.”
Together, the women encouraged each other through their battles with cancer, often feeling anger, sadness, happiness and fear. Sarah was the first one in the support group to hold baby Charli.
“She stated that [Charli] was ‘our’ baby and our hope,” added Michelle of Wadsworth. “I have never met anyone in my life that has had such a positive attitude no matter what they are facing. … Her laugh is contagious and so is her smile. For God to have put her in our lives is a true blessing.”
In the store, cameras clicked. The bride and her wedding party were stunning.
“This is the most beautiful day ever,” Sarah said, grinning. “But then how can every day not be the best day ever?”