by Laura Sillerman

Sharon is 61. She works at a college where her young colleagues think she’s a little dorky and a lot of a mystery. She has never boasted about anything in her life, despite being the go-to person in half a dozen non-profits in 40 years. Those young women have no idea who’s in the next office.

Sharon was the one in college who everyone looked to when the fun was dipping and boredom was rising. She seemed to be born on roller skates, and on the day in 1965 when she bleached her hair blond and bought a big skirt to go with the look, about 250 other freshmen co-eds (as we very definitely were called in those days) all knew exactly who we wanted to be.

OK, maybe on the night she dropped the pumpkin on the panty raiders we weren’t sure, but only until she organized us to find a daisy-studded field where we put down blankets of food and were introduced to the wonders of a wineskin she’d purchased in the Cambridge, Mass. market of hippie culture to come.

She has aged gracefully and kept a hold on the rope to what makes her authentic: art, music, interaction with those she loves, the ability to find the corniest gifts (do we New Yorkers need yet another bottle opener that reminds us that the Red Sox won the Series in ’04?) and above all, service.

She doesn’t see the point of profit and has lived with a professor husband in a life of almost-enough or just-enough for long enough to understand what enough is.

Sharon is comfortable with 61. She gets that it’s external. Inside, she’s what she’s always been: timelessly interested and wanting more time for all those interests. On the day we launched this blog, Sharon had her hip replaced, and as someone who learned what true best friendship was at age 19 because of Sharon, I can think of little else these days.

I’ve watched her go from stiff to stifled by a gait that forces her to swing one leg and drag another, carrying her dancing spirit in a hobbled but stubbornly motivated body. In recent seasons, I’ve been on several adventure trips with her (Maine to Mexico, Boston to Baltimore, and Ashland, N.C. for good measure — the kind of stops that this time of life allows the personal train to make) and watched her go from simply being a little slower than the rest of us to asking if we could find or call a taxi rather than standing to wait or walking too far to find one.

I, along with all the others close enough to be let past the stoic Yankee guardswoman she has ever ready, have encouraged this surgery. And now I want to protect her from the fears she has and the weeks to follow. But she doesn’t need protection, because she embodies what being older allows for: preparation.

Thorough beyond complete, Sharon read every piece of medical literature on the procedure, researched the hospitals, met several doctors and took the pre-surgical course (learning everything she needed to and more than I wanted to know).

Many of us would do the same, but how many would have done the one more thing she did?

When my dear pal finally decided she would have the surgery that would mean she’d be at home and unable to drive for a minimum of five weeks, Sharon looked for a service organization to which she could donate time at home. She found a group that does crisis counseling by telephone — intervention with desperate mothers who are worried that they might strike or harm their children.

A veteran of working with battered wives in a small Wisconsin town, Sharon had no trouble understanding the drill in a suburb of Boston. And, of course, she took that understanding and researched places until she found one that would forward calls to her home.

This woman has given more hours, done more community service, sacrificed more to the priorities of others than any in my experience. These next five weeks could have been filled with books, DVD’s, naps, home pedicures (don’t think her friends wouldn’t have sent a stream of beauty services) and bon-bons of every description, but what she’s done is found a way to be useful — because she knows useful is beautiful — especially when it averts something ugly.

My beautiful friend, what you have taught me about being of use will never lose its power or its beauty.

Laura Baudo Sillerman, an author and poet, is president of a New York City-based charitable foundation and is a board member of Women’s Voices for Change.

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  • Jane November 28, 2006 at 11:40 pm

    Sharon and Laura are two of a kind — inspirational women. It’s no wonder they are such good friends. Since Sharon would never have written about herself, I’m glad Laura did it for her so we could all learn from her experience. If post-surgical recovery is linked to a positive attitude, I’m betting Sharon is well on her way.

  • Elizabeth November 27, 2006 at 11:49 pm

    What a wonderful portrait! I wish Sharon and all those she helps in the coming weeks goodspeed.