A very good friend, one who has come up recently, has succumbed to cancer. I’ve hemmed and hawed over how to write about this friend for over a week. From within, it’s a wrestling match, but from any objective perspective, it should be a simple, perhaps even perfunctory chance to mimic the vast majority of polite responses to death.
“I’m so sorry. My prayers to you and and your family.”
Nope. That doesn’t cover it. From another perspective, it could be a value equation. My friend Shirley died at 87 years of age, a good run by any standard, especially when you consider the sheer number of cigarettes she smoked with a pointed rebellious pride. If I manage to squeeze out 87 years, I’m definitely calling that a win.
Putting the third leg of the stool on the struggle with her demise involves how little I actually knew of her, and the relatively short time I knew her. We call her Aunt Shirley, at her request, but she is actually the sister of the woman, Joanne, who once lived across the street from my wife, and who died before I ever showed up in Sharon’s life. Joanne’s husband, Bill, was still alive when I came along, and we played a substantial role in caring for him once his health started to fail. Joanne and Bill were surrogate parents to Sharon when she was alone out here, thousands of miles from her own family. I got to know Shirley in the course of knowing and helping Bill. No relation to me, no independent friendship, at least initially – just the haphazard connections in life.
Shirley lived out here in Washington for years, after a lifetime of adventures, presumably to be close to her sister, and then to keep an eye on her sister’s husband. She collected her own health problems along the way, as tends to happen, and finally moved back to Ohio to be near her own family, presumably to get the help she needed as those health problems mounted. I’m sure she knew we would have happily taken the role, but I can completely understand the need to close the loops with her own children towards the end.
Shirley had three sons, I’m guessing about my age. Her sister had three daughters, all of whom I’ve met, and I appreciate the symmetry of it all. As the end drew near, her son Scott took the difficult burden of keeping me in the loop. As a son who once lost a mother, I know exactly how hard that was, and I will be forever grateful.
Shirley called me the Saturday before she passed, and I’m grateful for that as well. The cancer was in her throat, among other places, and I could barely understand her, but I knew she was saying goodbye. Given what I know of her, I pretended that she would fight on. That was how she wanted to be seen and heard. I respect that.
The following Wednesday, she sent me a text and photo to say thank you for the pink bed jacket that Sharon had sent her. I had nothing to do with it, would have never thought to do it, but it meant a great deal, and it was literally the last gesture of love we were able to give her, so I also have to convey my gratitude to Sharon for being a much better person than I am.
Also on Wednesday, we heard that she was moving to hospice care, which was the point when the fight was over. Intuitively, I knew it was coming, but it was still a shock.
By Saturday, Scott let me know that she was taking some powerful, far-beyond-morphine painkillers, and that Shirley’s niece was on the way. He predicted that she would hang on until Jaci arrived.
Very early Monday morning, December 3rd, 2018, Shirley Shanahan passed away.
It wasn’t a punch to the gut kind of shock. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was a slow burn of loss that hasn’t died out yet. The reaction is a hard thing to compare, and it makes me think about the impact that people can have.
I’ve already made the case for how I could minimize the loss, yet I can’t. Why?
What makes one person matter and another person a matter of course in the grand scheme of life?
Shirley was an unstoppable reader, like myself, and unrestrained thinker, like myself, and someone capable of stepping outside of every confirmation bias we live within, also like myself. Needless to say, we had plenty to discuss. She had been stung by life, and carried the cynicism that experience suggests. She had also chosen to carry the joy of life, which is a difficult trick in the balance. She could take the good with the bad in people in a very true sense. The teetering scale of judgment and live-and-let-live is difficult, and she wore it with style.
But these are just opinionated arguments. It really came down to a strong spirit, and that is something that cannot be conveyed second hand. It’s a thing that we sense upon encountering, but perhaps never consciously recognize. There is seemingly a freedom of opinion in old age, and I believe it is well earned, but not everyone uses it well. One can take the hard knocks of life and grow it like a green sourdough starter into a bitter brew that clouds everyone and everything. I can point to my own grandmother in this regard. Shirley never fell for it. She could always see both sides. She had no regard for ridiculousness, but in the same breath could find sympathy for the conditions that gave rise to a ridiculous chain of thought.
What is the word for it? Perhaps a philosopher of the high order that steps away from the written page and into the life that we should all live. Objectively, Shirley did not live a successful life on paper, but within herself, she was a person of high integrity and purpose. She could, on any given day, tell a doctor that there was no way she would stop smoking, yet tell someone that smoking was a bad habit. Her life – her rules. “Don’t make my mistakes.”
In a morally relativistic world where people can rationalize almost anything, her ability to own up to her own failings was miraculous. Honest. True.
We could all use more of that kind of honesty.
In a week when we celebrated the life of an ex-president, I’d suggest that we celebrate the lives of a great many people we lost – you know who they were – who changed the world in ways that will never make the news, but matter to those affected far more than we tend to recognize. For me, Shirley is at the top of the list.
With enduring love and respect, I salute the life of Shirley, a woman who most of you will never have the pleasure of knowing. May she rest in peace and her ashes be scattered upon the broad face of the Pacific.