17 April 2009

IN MEMORIAM: Carol Dempsey Shannon

Today would have been my friend Carol Dempsey Shannon’s 50th birthday, but she died when was just 42. We met in kindergarten. That's Carol at left. How I miss her and our conversations! But we're still connected.

This essay is based on the eulogy Carol's husband asked me to write for her funeral.

To describe somebody who appears sad, shattered, crestfallen, there’s a clichĂ©: “You look like you just lost your best friend.”
When Carol and I turned up in the same kindergarten class, we had no way of knowing our friendship would span almost four decades. We were raised together in Mason City, Iowa, immortalized as “River City” by Meredith Wilson in the musical, “The Music Man.”


Bookworms, Carol and I carried armloads of volumes across the same footbridge where Marian the Librarian and Professor Harold Hill spooned. As girls, we passed the lion’s share of our free time in the vicinity of the public library. Once we’d worn ourselves out in the woods of the Library Gardens, we went inside to check out books. Carol was one of the most intelligent individuals I’ve ever known. On our Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, she used to rack up near-perfect scores year after year.

Frequently, we hauled our books next door to the MacNider Art Museum, where we headed upstairs to the reading room. Side-by-side on the couch, we turned pages beneath the glow of the ceiling paneled in alabaster. It was about the only time we ever sat still. Then, and when we’d lie on our backs, staring up into the summer sky, trying to pick out constellations. Carol’s favorite? Cassiopeia.
As I pedaled with my friend perched on the handlebars of my bicycle or sailed beside her on the swings at the playground, as we staged underwater tea parties at the swimming pool or ice skated together, as we climbed the maple in my front yard or peered through her microscope at molecules of sugar and salt and rain water, I had no way of knowing my best friend would die so young from breast cancer.


Carol would remain in our old neighborhood, raising her son Nate and her daughter Errin Colleen. Once she’d been tagged “terminally ill,” Carol did take a road trip with her husband to the South Carolina shore.
“Louder than I had imagined,” she had said of the waves breaking on the beach.
I would marry, divorce, bear brainchildren, living our childhood dream as a writer with respectably stamped passports. To share my wanderlusty adventures, I sent Carol postcards from where ever I landed: Europe, Israel, Asia, the Caribbean, Central America, and destinations across the United States. I posted glossy images of oceans and deserts, glacial bays and island flowers, ancient ruins and contemporary art.
Carol answered with letters drafted in her careful, calligraphic penmanship, always with the same hometown postmark. And, eventually, our correspondence evolved into e-mail messages.
It was a phone call from her husband, however, that alerted me to Carol’s rapidly deteriorating condition. We had planned for her to visit me in Denver. Instead, I dropped everything and cashed in my frequent flyer miles. Upon the day of my return to my hometown and my friend’s deathbed, Carol roused a final surge of energy. At her suggestion, we took a walk--much to everyone’s surprise since she hadn’t exhibited such spunk for more than a month.


In our old stomping grounds, Carol and I caught a whiff of perfume from a flower bed. “Smells like childhood,” she said.
We made our way up a hill, talking and talking as we slowly walked, admiring the houses by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School architects. We stood midway across the Music Man’s footbridge and looked down on the landscape of our youth. Carol pointed out a turtle in the slow olive waters of Willow Creek.
We wound up in the Library Gardens, where our friendship had grown in earnest. In the quiet green, a capricious cardinal sang overhead. “My name means ‘a song,’” Carol said. Then she stared toward the Children’s Reading Room, an enchanted octagonal space with window seats high above the river bluffs. We had spent many hours there, together.


Carol looked one way, then the other. Her brow furrowed. “Where’s that path?” she asked, agitated.
I knew she was right. There had indeed once been a trail where she pointed, but the footpath had long since filled in with lush overgrowth.
“I think we made our own paths,” I said to her.


Just a few evenings before she died, Carol and her husband and I sat at their kitchen table. The three of us talked late into the night. Nostalgic and punchy, we giggled and guffawed until we practically slid off our chairs. It seemed like old times, even though we would have few new times. Carol and I reminisced about the mysteries and mischief we had shared over the span of all those years since kindergarten. I recalled a funny phrase we used when we were kids.
Carol laughed. “I’d forgotten all about that.”
And then, as we continued to chat, she reminded me of why I had broken up with my last boyfriend: “He was a nice guy, but he wasn’t your guy,” she said. “You were looking for enlightenment; and he was looking for oblivion.”
I recognized my line, the summary I had offered her after the split.
“That's right," I said. "I forgot I'd said that.”
Carol said, tenderly, “I remember for you; and you remember for me.”


One of the last things my friend reminded me of was to look for love. Love, Carol knew, really is stronger than death. “Light and love are the way to go,” Carol wrote to me in an e-mail about six weeks before she died. “At some point in time, we will realize how profoundly easy the route is and be astounded that we didn’t see so,” she wrote. “So pray for love; the rest is icing on the cake.”
My last night in town, I crawled into the hospital bed with Carol at her invitation; and we hugged one another without an iota of self-consciousness. She fell asleep in my arms. She seemed to glow from within, the way a candle does when it has burned down. She resembled a baby, her face full of innocence, her hair a soft fuzz. I wanted to sob, but didn’t want to wake her.
Saying good-bye to her the next day was one of the most painful things I’ve ever done. “Are you going to be okay?” she asked me, her last of a lifetime of questions posed to me.
I said, “I’ll have to be. But I miss you already."
I managed not to cry until I got around the corner, in her kitchen, where I collapsed into the arms of her burly brother-in-law.
The next thing I knew, Carol’s little sister and her daughter were driving me to the airport. A cell phone rang within the hour. Carol had asked to be moved from her home to a hospice.
Carol died in that hospice--just across the street from the library, the library gardens, and the art museum that had figured so prominently in our life as children. There, just one day after I bid farewell to my friend for the last time, the life of her body ceased. The life of her impressive mind ended. But I still recognize Carol’s light. Especially in Cassiopeia.



Pass it on!