‘The Brave One': Sarla Nichols turned dying into living

By Updated: May 27, 2020 6:23 AM CT | Published: May 06, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Editor’s Note: Friends and family are remembering longtime yoga studio owner Sarla Nichols, who passed away over the Memorial Day weekend. Many readers commented on her story, which was first published May 6, 2020, about a parade in her honor just days before. We are republishing that story here.

There have been countless parades the last month and a half.

Birthday parades. Anniversary parades. Engagement parades. The list goes on and on.


No More Chemo, COVID-style


But Saturday in Memphis there might have been a first, a funeral parade.

The subject was in attendance — she had a blast.

“It really was more than I ever could have imagined, it really was,” 68-year-old Sarla Nichols said. “I got to see people that I haven’t seen in years and I just felt so loved and supported. In turn, I think that they felt a part of something bigger than what’s going on in the world right now. It was a gift for all of us.”

In February, Nichols entered into hospice care. She opted against any further chemotherapy or radiation treatment back in 2017. Cancer is something she’s been battling for nine years.

She was diagnosed with cancer in her left breast in 2011. She was diagnosed with cancer in her right breast in 2013. She was diagnosed with cancer in her colon and liver in 2015. She was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017. She was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2019.

But there she was Saturday in her front yard watching more than 300 cars drive by.

“My mom is stronger than anybody I know,” said Katie Cook, Nichols’ daughter. “I don’t know how she is so strong. I’m inspired. I’m grateful. I know a lot of other people feel that way.”

That’s why, when planning for her mother’s death, Cook knew the best time to celebrate her life was now. Before she died. Nichols already spent years “turning dying into living.”

There was a need to share her at least one more time.

“It wasn’t quite Mardi Gras or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade,” Jimmy Lewis said, Nichols’ husband, “but it was so unique that it defies being compared to anything.”

‘One and Done’

The thought of dying from cancer is not new for Nichols, longtime owner of Midtown Yoga. She’s known her disease was terminal for around four years.

The fear that coincides with death is something she grappled with for a long time, but doesn’t fight anymore.

“I just had a meltdown,” Nichols said about her first cancer diagnosis. “… I’m now an entirely different person. It was a journey. Empowerment and transformation isn’t something you can just snap your fingers and it just happens. You deal with fear and resentment. A big part of it is healing those deep wounds so that you can get to the core of what’s important. I think this was just my path. Right now, I don’t have any regrets or anger. I’m really at peace.”

The inspiration for her changed mindset came from a book titled “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande.

“What he talks about in that book, and what really began to change my perspective was, ‘What constitutes a really good day?’ ” Nichols said. “That’s what you want to have. When someone tells you that you are dying of terminal cancer, the question then becomes, ‘What brings me joy?’ ”

It’s not chemotherapy.

So, when the day came to tell her oncologist that she would no longer undergo treatment that could prolong her life, Nichols made that a “really good day.” She was already at peace with her decision.

The only surprise was that the doctor who was both her friend and enemy was not there that day. He was on vacation. Instead, she received the lab work from the stand-in nurse practitioner.

“She bounced into the room, and I can remember that she wasn’t a doctor-looking person,” Nichols said. “She was wearing Dockers and her shirt was all crumpled up. She was really cute. When she went to hand me my paperwork, I just told her, ‘You can keep that, because I’m not doing any more treatment.’ ”

“Oh! OK!” the nurse practitioner responded. “So, you’re a one-and-done?”

One-and-done; Nichols thought that was hilarious. They laughed together in that moment, although for many it would be sobering. The struggle was finally on hold.

“I didn’t ask another question,” Nichols said. “I signed up for hospice and the next day the nurse came. The first thing she said was, ‘You’re on hospice? You look great!’ ”

There was no question that whatever Nichols chose to do with her treatment, the family would support it 100%. When she said it was time, it was time.

“What I think people are starting to understand is that having terminal cancer doesn’t have to be an act of suffering and killing yourself along the way,” Nichols said. “I’ve had a great few months here, and overall, I’ve been able to live my life. When I took chemo again, I was down in the bed, throwing up and unable to function. I just don’t think that’s any way to live.”

It was the choice of peace. It was the choice of fun. It was the choice of “living.” Not even the coronavirus pandemic could stand in the way.

‘I Love A Parade’

“When (the pandemic started) she was very fearful of dying from the coronavirus because of her lung cancer,” Cook said.

As a result, Cook and her brother, Jordan Nichols, avoided seeing their mother for four weeks in an effort to keep her safe.

Then she called again.

“She told me, ‘Katie, I’m not scared of dying. I’m not scared of the coronavirus, but I am scared of dying alone,’ ” Cook said.

“At that point, we just agreed that as a family we needed to make an effort so that she can see us, hug us, and see her grandkids,” Cook added. “That’s when we went over there because that’s what we needed to do for her.”

The exchange also sparked the idea for a parade, which would give her mother at least one more opportunity to see her friends and family without the exhaustion of Zoom calls and constant yard meetings.

“This was like attending your own funeral,” Cook said.

Through texts and a Facebook page, word of the event spread rapidly.

“Today I will sit in my front lawn and watch a parade of well-wishers pass by my house. They are coming to support my passage from this world into the next,” Nichols wrote on her cancer blog the morning of May 2.

She’s been writing since she was a little girl.

The title of the excerpt is “I Love a Parade.” Inside, she details her childhood in the Midwest and her envy for majorettes in the marching band. She never was a majorette. But she did eventually get her own parade.

“Last night my son asked me if I was excited about the parade,” Nichols continued. “What was my response? I feel ... you fill in the blank. OK wait, let me try. I am cautiously optimistic, leery, anxious about my emotions, excited, all eyes on me and my response. So, I’m taking my son’s advice and dialing it back. I am going to wait and see what will be revealed.”

But 30 minutes before it started, Nichols was already weeping.

The family surprised her with a Zoom call from Nashville-based musician Andy Gullahorn, who years ago wrote a song about Nichols’ battle with cancer titled “The Brave One.”

“Before the parade, he sang that song to me,” said Nichols, fighting back emotions. “It really set the tone for the entire day. That was the start of something special. Something really, really special.”

What followed was more than one hour of cars passing by.

There was singing. There was dancing. There were goofy hats. There was a bit of everything. She still hasn’t been able to read all of the letters from friends and family.

One family had to get out of line because they were waiting for more than an hour. Another family fixed a flat tire on the way to the parade and still made it just in time.  

“I could see this whole legacy of a family,” Nichols said. “I came from a really broken family and my whole goal in my life was to heal that. That’s what I witnessed. To just watch the love flow through all the way into my granddaughters who were running out to the cars to get cards and flowers, it was beautiful.”

And it was a bigger, rowdier turnout than her children ever could have expected.

“I think so many people respected and appreciated how in control she’s been of her own life despite all the challenges,” said Jordan Nichols. “… Two years ago, doctors said she had one year to live, but there she was on Saturday celebrating.”

 “It was way better than any funeral I could go to for my mom,” Cook said.

‘The exclusion of a conclusion’

The first time Nichols called about the cost of cremation they told her it would be $4,000.

“That sounds high,” she said.

She called another business and lowered the price to $1,500.

“I could do better than that,” she said again.

In the end, she lowered the price all the way down to $895. There was no need for anything fancy. She talks about it in a very matter-of-fact, proud way.

“I feel like that when we open up to things, that’s when they are revealed,” Nichols said. “You can’t plan everything. You can plan, practice and work at things, and then life takes over. That’s how I see this. Everything is an unfolding.”

It makes nailing down all the details ahead of time somewhat pointless. That includes knowing when you’ll die, or the right time to celebrate someone’s life.

You can plan for a 100-car parade, but 300 cars might show up.

“There was a lot of crying, and a lot of laughter, and a lot of fear,” Nichols said. “It was the whole gamut of emotions, but that’s really what life is.”

They are eternally grateful it turned out that way.

“What we created was the exclusion of a conclusion,” Lewis said. “It wasn’t the end. It’s like having a heavy heart and a full heart at the same time.”

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parade funeral services
Drew Hill

Drew Hill

Drew Hill covers Memphis Tigers basketball and is an AP Top 25 voter. He’s worked throughout the South writing about college athletics before landing in Memphis.


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