Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2021-22 Fellows.
The idea of being the first person to accept a fellowship with her name — the Sharon Begley-STAT Science Reporting Fellowship — freaked me out.
It seemed, to me, like an injustice that I might benefit from her death in some way. It’s a knotty feeling, like winning an award for telling a horrible story well. Along with the excitement came a crush of doubt: How could I ever be linked to such a singular journalist, someone who won countless awards for her imaginative, crisp, transportive writing about science? How could I possibly uphold her legacy as a matriarch of modern science journalism?
A few years ago, I became transfixed by legacy, the things and stories we inherit and how we carry them with us, when my grandmother died suddenly in the fall of 2017. As my mom and I cleaned out her closet, it was all I could think about. I decided to keep some of her shoes and colorful blouses for myself, convincing myself that she was in there somewhere, some of her hair stuck between the fibers of her denim shirt, offering me protection or lending me some of her nerve. I packed away her house dress, a vibrant green, ankle-length cotton dress with multicolored embroidery, and had it framed. It is the dress I always picture her in, just as she was, opening the front door, greeting me with the smell of onions and garlic and hot oil, and a kiss on the cheek.
I got to keep abuela’s desk, too. I searched for signs of her in the worn grain of the wood, between stray pen markings, and in the stamps and stickers stuck to the inside of the cubbies. Sometimes it was too overwhelming to write at the desk, where she felt so near.
I found Sharon at her desk, too.
The desk phone, line 7153, has winked its red eye at me for seven months, alerting me to the dozens of missed calls and voicemails people have left for Sharon since she sat here. After weeks of squatting at another empty workstation, I finally moved my handful of pens and STAT mug to Sharon’s desk.
She would write remarkable pieces of journalism on that wobbly desktop, just as she had written them on deadline thousands of times over the course of her career…
On the foamy cubicle panel, there was a clipping from the Boston Herald: “Pablo Sandoval Stuns Sox Camp With Hefty Hello” over a picture of said pitcher, which made me wonder if she was a big Sox fan (a forbidden question in Boston, I know). But then, underneath: “GUT CHECK” — the name of the column Sharon wrote for a while. I found a faded yellow note that said, “Taping ‘Here & Now.’ Back soon” with her signature underneath. Did she leave that in case Gideon, her editor and now mine, walked over to talk through a story?
And then another note, at the top of a stack of neon green Post-Its, with a WGBH event name scrawled onto it — scheduled for April 14, 2020 at 5:30 — and then crossed out, with the word “cancelled” next to it. She wrote that, just an ordinary little reminder that spoke to so much of what the past two pandemic years have washed away, scratched out. She wrote notes to herself and I thought: I do that, too.
In the drawers, which I hesitantly pulled open, I found an ancient-looking, family-size tub of white petroleum jelly, a toothbrush wrapped in paper towel, some cough drops, a stack of business cards and a squishy stress ball shaped like some organ or molecule or vessel I can’t name. Her mouse pad was the periodic table of elements. I pieced together a story with this random assortment of forgotten items, and wondered if she ever made a trip back to the office to grab a few belongings before she found out she had lung cancer in the summer of 2020. I put her things in a box and tucked it away under the desk, but pinned one of her business cards right beside the monitor. We share this space.
When I started using the desk, I noticed the computer monitor hung limply, and she had propped it up with a sideways box of business cards and two stacks of Post-It notes. From what I have learned of Sharon, she would not bother someone about that screen. She would write remarkable pieces of journalism on that wobbly desktop, just as she had written them on deadline thousands of times over the course of her career, while out on assignment, on long reporting trips, at her home in Boston or New York, and finally, in the hospital, where she wrote her last piece.
Before I moved to Boston for the fellowship, Sharon’s husband, Ned, graciously agreed to have a phone call with me. We ended up talking for over an hour, me scribbling down as much as I could in a notebook, and him stringing together dozens of stories about the love of his life. Sharon, by all accounts, was brilliant from her youth. She graduated early with an Ivy League degree in combined sciences and a job at Newsweek, and she quickly moved up the ranks, despite her age and gender, to become a science editor there when she was 25 (the same age I am now). The rest is just as spectacular: countless cover stories, the most captivating descriptions of complex science you’ve ever read, and a reputation for being a warm, generous colleague. In addition to her day job, she mothered two children and wrote books.
I asked Ned if her talent ever weighed on her, and he told me what anyone who knew Sharon says: She didn’t see herself that way. She thought anyone could do what she did, though she would admit to being a decent writer, he said.
Sensing my I’m-no-Sharon crisis, Ned reassured me. I could never be her, but that wasn’t the point anyway. “Think of this as an adventure,” he said. “That’s how Sharon saw our move to Boston.”
It strikes me, in studying the pictures of her that Ned has posted on Facebook over the last year, that Sharon was also drawn to the past. She frequently wore hand-me-down clothes — her son’s jacket, her daughter’s baggy jeans, a friend’s coat, her father’s bright red suspenders. She was frugal, Ned says, but she also wanted a tangible reminder of her loved ones. As we wrestle our way out of a pandemic, I think of how we make sense of the loss, and how we find what we need in the perfectly ordinary, physical remnants of those we loved, and even those we never met.
In pictures of Sharon walking along gorgeous, historical streets and gardens all over the world, she always seems to have this same expression: easy, observant, a slight almost-smirk. When they met in the doorway at a party, Ned said Sharon’s round, bright blue eyes were the first thing he noticed. Her eyes are what I think of when I imagine her sitting at our desk, wrapped in her favorite pink shawl, pecking away at some brilliant story with her gaze fixed on that sideways screen.
Isabella Cueto was the inaugural Sharon Begley-STAT Science Reporting Fellow, and is now covering chronic disease for STAT. She previously reported on local governments in Florida, South Carolina and California.