Mystery Solved: She Found the Perfect Project to Engage Her Ailing Friend

She prayed long and hard for an activity they could still do together. The answer? Writing mystery novels.

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- Posted on Jul 22, 2019

Geri Christensen

“Are you okay?” I asked my friend Sara as we walked to our table in Great China, our favorite restaurant.

“I’m just a little out of breath,” she said, sitting slowly. Eight years older than me, at 78, Sara suffered from congestive heart failure. Rheumatic fever had damaged her heart as a child, and her symptoms seemed worse lately.

We’d started as neighbors 20 years earlier, in 1994, when I moved into a house on her cul de sac. Sara was long divorced, while my husband had his work to keep him busy. With our children grown, Sara and I had time to indulge ourselves. We bonded over home-baked goods—her favorite was my lemon cake—and international cuisine. We had been there for each other, steadfast, through good times and bad.

“Honestly,” Sara said, “I wish I had some kind of hobby, something to keep me occupied. Ever since I retired from my medical practice, the days have been feeling empty.”

“What about knitting?” I said. She shook her head. “Gardening?”

She laughed. “I don’t think I’m up to that now.”

“We’ll think of something,” I told her, although I had no idea what.

That night and every night thereafter, I prayed long and hard about what I could do to help Sara. She had helped me through so much over the years, including the loss of my job and my own health problems.

A few weeks later, a message from the Lord came through loud and clear, and it was both surprising and gratifying. I had dabbled in writing poetry and short stories, but only God knew my secret dream: to write a mystery. I’d never breathed a word about it to anyone else. Not my husband. Not Sara, though both of us were avid mystery readers. Our favorite authors were Agatha Christie and Elizabeth George. I didn’t talk about writing my own mystery because I didn’t remotely have the confidence that I could ever do it. Yet here was God telling me to write one with Sara.

The next time Sara and I met for lunch, I got my courage up to ask, “Would you be interested in writing a mystery with me?”

Her eyes sparkled. “Why, yes, I think I’d enjoy that,” she said. “What do you have in mind?”

“Maybe a ‘cozy’ murder mystery?” I said. “Something with no graphic violence, like the Miss Marple books.”

And just like that, we began working on a mystery called Crime Will Tell. We used our hometown of Provo as the setting but called it Farhaven. Our main character was a bookstore owner and sleuth named Emmalyn Partridge. I would write a chapter, and then at Great China, over lo mein and moo goo gai pan, Sara and I would take turns reading it aloud and critiquing it.

After a raffle at the library, the richest woman in Farhaven drives off a cliff. The autopsy reveals a powerful sedative in her blood. In the wake of a potluck dinner, one of the attendees dies of carbon monoxide poisoning. Emmalyn and her best friend, Quincy, have whittled down their list of suspects when a third death occurs. Who is killing the townsfolk and why? Will Emmalyn and Quincy be able to crack the case before someone else dies?

“It’s a good thing I’m a doctor by profession,” Sara said. “If I weren’t, I believe I could commit the perfect murder!” She knew all about forensics, autopsies and poisons. “It doesn’t happen the way it does on CSI,” she told me.

Sara was a master at making critical plot suggestions—and catching mistakes. Mysteries are hard to get right! With her head cocked to one side, Sara would say, “Hmm, I don’t think Emmalyn would be afraid of the dark. That would inhibit her work as a detective.” Or “I don’t think Emmalyn would say that. It’s not in line with her personality. Why not have her say this…?” My right-brain creativity and her left-brain logic complemented each other perfectly. We brainstormed like gangbusters and finished the 300-page manuscript in just a year and a half.

In the fall of 2016, Sara began using a walker. She grew too weak to visit our favorite restaurant anymore. That didn’t stop us from working on our next Emmalyn Partridge mystery, Once Upon a Crime. I’d cook something and bring it to Sara’s house, and we’d write at her dining room table.

Amazingly, she rallied, as crackerjack as ever. Sara didn’t dwell on her health. When I asked how she was feeling, she steered the conversation back to me: “How are you, Geri?” she’d ask, barely able to catch her breath.

We managed to get through two revisions of the new book, but in August 2017, Sara hit her hand on a door frame. The cut got infected. She was admitted to the hospital with septicemia and put on IV antibiotics. The medication seemed to work for a week or so, but then the infection spread to her heart. With her heart already damaged, she was put on oxygen to help her breathe.

I sat with Sara around the clock those final few days. One of the last things she said to me was, “Geri, I want you to keep writing. You must. You have the talent. Please don’t waste it.”

I shook my head. “Sara, I just can’t do it without you.”

“Yes, you can and you will,” she told me. “You won’t be doing it alone.”

I promised her I’d keep writing but, deep down, wondered if I could keep that promise.

After everything medically possible had been done for Sara, she asked to be taken off the oxygen. Four hours later, she waved to the loved ones at her bedside and said, “Goodbye, everyone.” Then she closed her eyes and was gone.

Now I’m hoping to get our novels published. I haven’t been writing mysteries, but I have been working on children’s books. I’ve also started a small business, making specialty cakes. Ventures I would never have had the courage or confidence to try before. I had prayed for a way to fulfill my friend’s last years. The answer turned out to be as much a gift for me as it was for her.

Whodunit? Sara and I did, with God’s help. Mystery solved.

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