Oh Sandra

The last leadership team at The Wire, at front, left to right, Andrea De Silva, Sandra Chouthi and Cordia Gibbs.
At rear, Irving Ward, Mark Lyndersay, Alva Viarruel. Photo by Karla Ramoo.

I just stood there for long minutes, watching her chest rise and fall in a ragged rhythm.
This was Sandra Chouthi’s final battle in a life that had held no shortage of them.
Her eyes were closed, but her face still was in the grip of that fierce determination that I’d come to know well over the three decades we’d known each other.

Her body was failing her, finally crushed by the cancer she’d battled so long, her life preserved by a thin plastic line pushing oxygen into the mask that covered her face.
Three hours later, she would slip from unconscious into the finality of death, her time with us, barely two score and ten, now over.

I’d met Sandra on the first day I showed up to work on a project at the Trinidad Express in 1994.
She had just returned from doing her first degree in journalism, formalising her commitment to the career and I’d just ended my relationship with the Guardian under difficult circumstances the year before.
For both of us, in retrospect, it was a bit of a reboot.

“I’m told I have to give you some stories,” she told me with a wry grin and a cool stare.
“Great,” I responded. “What do you want to write about?"

It would be the first of several Carnival souvenirs I’d do for the paper, back in an era when covering the event meant not just photographing, but also documenting, with some effort at seriousness, the key characteristics of the year’s celebration.

I’d signed up to write, photograph and paginate the thing, which would be published on newsprint.
Pretty much everything about that previous sentence was a bad idea and it showed in the final product.
Oddly enough, it was working on that project, abysmal failure that it was, that made Sandra Chouthi my friend.
She loved hard work, and she genuinely admired tilting at windmills and I suspect that watching me preside over that catastrophe struck some kind of resonant chord in her.

Now this was the Sandra of considerable hotness. Despite acne which had scarred her face, she wore high heels, tight skirts that showed off her beautiful legs and sported long flowing hair.
She was gorgeous, and I was smitten.

For most of the first fifteen years I knew her, our friendship consisted of talking shop, flirting and discussing the many strange twists and turns our lives had taken.
Eventually, the flirting would diminish and disappear.
I loved that girl, but not everyone you love is meant to be your lover, and you can end up blessed with a true friend.

And Sandra was an amazing friend.
She would drop everything to dash off and be helpful to someone, and I wish that more of us, myself included, had taken the time to be as generous with her.

When the Guardian decided to experiment with a daily tabloid paper, she was one of two people I made it my business to recruit from The Express, along with Andrea De Silva.
There’s a popular misconception that in launching a newspaper, or indeed any media product, that you need heavy artillery to make an impact.

It's nice to be able to bring in some big cannon to level the competition, but what you really need are the journalistic equivalent of M60’s with overflowing magazines.
People who can lay down quality work on a consistent basis that keeps your competition ducking.

At The Wire, Sandra began as a reporter, eventually took over the post of Features Editor and during a couple of really difficult moments, sat in the Editor’s chair.

I won’t lie and suggest that these moves were easy for her. 

Never convinced that she had fulfilled her potential working where she was, she was often reluctant to step up and took such promotions with reluctance.
When The Wire was shuttered, I tried to make sure that all of the folks who wanted to stay on got jobs that were commensurate with their efforts and sacrifices.
Sandra moved over to the Guardian and began migrating to business reporting, which agreed with her.

Her promotions at The Wire ensured that she would carry an editor’s rank, and she would eventuallyy become an Associate Business Editor.
She deserved more promotions for her work, but after taking ill with cancer the first time and beating it into remission, I think she also wanted more out of her life.

She always had.
A steady relationship and a child always seemed to drift just out of her reach, and we spoke sometimes about the two big relationships of her life, both of which ended in disappointments.

We’d drifted into a fraternal distance over the last ten years, not least because of the infrequency of my visits to the paper, but her desk was always one of my favorite spots when I visited.
Sandra Chouthi had come to such an empowered place in her life when the cancer flowered again in her.

Given time, she might have explored more aspects of her writing, made decisions about a family, pursued more of her personal interests and yes, I’m sure, become an advocate for cancer treatment in this country.
But time was what she did not have. I think of her life as I knew it, the steadily rising arc that her painful, ruthless illness cut short so abruptly.

She was not a sad woman by any means. Sandra filled her life with enthusiasm and immediacy.
Right now and right here were matters to be dealt with fully.

I wish she had more time to realise her dreams.
I wish that I had been a better friend to her.
And I truly wish that she finds peace in a better place.
She worked hard, and she deserves it.

Mark Lyndersay
April 14, 2015

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