BUCKSPORT — This is the time of year when young high school graduates, one foot in their youth and the other stretching toward adulthood, typically take a moment to thank all the people who helped get them here from there.

Sarah Low need only look in a mirror.

“I didn’t think I’d make it here,” Sarah said Thursday in the quiet of the guidance office at Bucksport High School. “There were times when I couldn’t find the motivation to just get up off my bedroom floor.”

Her father? Deceased.

Sarah Low holds her diploma and a photo of her late father following her graduation from Bucksport High School on Friday. Photo courtesy of Sarah Low

Her mother? An alcoholic who’s been sober since last fall – thanks in no small part to Sarah.

Her guiding principle whenever life knocks her down – as it has repeatedly since she was a young girl?

“You get up,” Sarah said with a smile.

The first of her siblings to graduate from high school, Sarah now heads for the University of Maine on a slew of scholarships. The most fitting: a $5,000 award from Mainely Character, based not on grades but on things like courage, integrity, responsibility and concern for others.

“She is an amazing example of resilience and perseverance,” said Curt Mildner, a Mainely Character board member. He added rhetorically, “Where did this come from?”

Good question.

“I remember living in a two-bedroom trailer and being really, really young and thinking is this it? Am I going to be here for the rest my life?” Sarah recalled.

At first, the crowded household included Sarah, her older sister and their mother and father.

“At that time, it wasn’t bad,” Sarah said. “Then it got much worse.”

Her parents split up. Her mother moved out to a nearby town and Sarah’s sister went with her.

Then her sister had a baby at 16 and decided to move back in with Sarah and her dad. The baby and her sister’s significant other came as well.

“Then my father’s brother wound up homeless and came to stay with us too,” Sarah said. “I shared my bedroom with my sister, her child and her significant other.”

Her father suffered from a leaky heart valve that eventually forced him to give up his job with a fire alarm company and go without health insurance. Doing his best to handle the crowded conditions, he built bunk beds in the living room for him and his brother and gave Sarah his room.

But something had to give. In eighth grade, Sarah moved to her mother’s two-bedroom trailer in Orland because “I was the only one with the ability to leave.”

She tried to stay tethered to her father. But without his medications, he suffered from a chronic lack of oxygen to his brain and other organs.

“So he essentially had like early dementia. His personality changed,” Sarah said. “I was 14, I didn’t understand what was happening. I was really angry with him.”

Just before Christmas of her freshman year, Sarah took her dad gift-shopping. He had a list for the whole family, including his two sons by a previous marriage, but since Sarah was with him at the time, she wasn’t on it.

Christmas Day came. The family gathered. And Sarah received nothing. From anyone.

“I left without saying goodbye,” she said. “I was like. ‘Wow, I can’t even believe that.’”

Four days later, her father died in his sleep.

“It was really difficult,” Sarah said, the pain still manifest in her downcast eyes. “It was like the whole ground had just fallen out from underneath us.”

Her mother’s drinking, already a problem, grew worse. She crashed her car while drunk and lost her license, leaving Sarah, by now a sophomore, without reliable transportation.

Finally, in her junior year, Sarah left. She moved into an apartment in Bucksport with her boyfriend. Then she moved back in with her mother. Then, last November, she left again for another apartment.

But for all their difficulties, for all the times she resolved to not follow in her mother’s footsteps, she never stopped caring. Last summer, Sarah sat her mother down and said, “If I get you a ride and get you back home, will you go to one AA meeting? Just one. If I set up the whole thing, will you just try it, please?”

Her mother had balked at similar requests in the past. But this time, she agreed.

Sarah arranged for the transportation and crossed her fingers.

“How did it go?” she asked later that day.

“I’m going to two more meetings tonight,” her mother replied.

Sarah couldn’t believe it.

“She met tons of wonderful people and they’re so willing to pick her up and bring her to meetings and bring her to get groceries,” she said. “And she’s been sober since October.”

Faced with all of this, some kids might simply give up. Broken lives beget broken lives, after all, and from the Christmas that wasn’t, to her father’s death, to her mother’s addiction, Sarah had all the excuses she needed to retreat into a life of self-pity.

But like the young woman says, you always get up.

She works three jobs – cleaning hotel rooms and rentals during the summer and working 20 hours a week year-round at Toziers’s Family Market on Main Street in Bucksport.

She leaves high school with a four-year grade point average of 97. She’s a member of the National Honor Society and volunteers with homeless people once a week in Bangor.

She even played on the high school golf team and readily admits that when her coach took her to the regionals, she came in dead last.

“I mean, it was an experience,” she said with a laugh. “And it was a good time.”

When she arrives at UMaine this fall, where her combined scholarships will cover everything, she’ll major in anthropology and minor in archaeology. She envisions herself working the world over at dig sites, sifting through the ancient past, searching for elusive clues to how other humans lived their lives and why.

Think about Sarah the next time you hear someone grouse about how easy kids have it these days. Or the next time you hear someone complain that life is unfair and blame the world for keeping them down.

Think about the young woman who, no matter what, always gets back up.

“I’ll be damned if I let the things that happened to me decide who I am and what I turn out to be,” Sarah said. “Because I can’t help what happens to me, but I can help who I am and where I go.”

On Friday, Sarah donned her cap and gown and graduated from Bucksport High School. Later, she posed for photos holding a picture of her father.

It was, in the truest sense of the word, a commencement.

FOOTNOTE: In last Sunday’s column about Central Furniture and Appliance Inc. of Sanford, I sang the praises of founder Roland Couture. I neglected to mention that the late Alphonse Lapierre co-founded the business along with Couture in 1948.

Lapierre’s daughter, Elaine Hadiaris, wrote in an email that her father originally ran the service department out of his family kitchen, while Couture handled sales from his home.

“Together,” Hadiaris said, “he and Roland established the standards and ethics by which the business is run today.”


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