Saturday, April 13, 2013

What Would Shelly Do?

In the fall of 2005, I attended a fundraiser in Minneapolis at which I knew none of the attendees, except my then 5-year-old daughter, Clare, who came as my date. Seated next to us were John and Brenda Warner, maybe five years my senior, from rural Iowa. Making small talk, I asked them about their connection to the cause being supported by the evening’s festivities. I then listened, dumbfounded, as John told me the story of their 25-year-old daughter, Shelly, who had developed preeclampsia ten months earlier. The details of her story – the sudden onset of the disease, the liver failure, the need for blood transfusions – were eerily similar to my own, but with one key difference – a week after the delivery of her baby, Shelly died. In gaining their first grandchild, John and Brenda had lost their daughter.

Since meeting Shelly’s parents, I’ve kept a framed photo of her in my office, right next to the one of Jenny Eller, whom I’d also never met. Jenny and Shelly – two vibrant young women whose lives ended too soon despite help from anonymous blood donors – became my muses. Every time I felt I couldn’t get on one more plane, give one more blood donation talk, host one more preeclampsia fundraiser, I’d think of these two women, and then just do it.

Bree (left) and Shelly (right)
Last weekend, I read a highly entertaining book about Shelly written by her best friend since childhood, Bree Housley (We Hope You Like This Song: An Overly Honest Story About Friendship, Death, and Mix Tapes). It was through Bree’s elementary-school eyes, then teenaged eyes, then 20-something eyes that I got to know the real Shelly. And let me tell you, she was one kind, crazy, outgoing, fun-loving, snort-laughing, shout-singing, pool-cannonballing, willing-to-try-anything kind of gal – the kind I would’ve hung out with in a heartbeat if we’d been of the same generation and from the same small town.

I was particularly moved by the author’s struggle to deal with her loss. “Since Shelly’s death,” Bree wrote, “I’ve been trapped in this weird space of guilt where I feel I’m not doing enough to honor her. Not enough crying, enough talking, enough grieving. What is grief, anyway? Who decides how one should go about it?” 

So on Shelly’s 4th deathiversary, as the author so aptly calls it, Bree, a self-described “anti-social shut-in type,” set out to live life more like Shelly did. Every week for a year, she committed to doing a different challenge – karaoke, talking to strangers, even dressing like a giant gorilla in a tutu. The key was to step out of her comfort zone and try something new, the same way Shelly would have. Every time Bree lost her nerve to complete a particular week’s assignment, she simply asked herself What would Shelly do? And then, she did it.

Earlier this week, I went to the health club for my usual lap-swim workout. It was 19 degrees out and snowing like nobody’s business. (Welcome to springtime in Boulder) I took one glance at the outdoor pool, covered in fog as the snow continued dumping, and I knew I’d be swimming indoors. (I’ve never been one of those daring all-weather swimmers.) But then four little words shot through my brain: What would Shelly do? 

Five minutes later, I shivered my way outdoors wrapped in skimpy gym towels (sorry, no photos available), and in my mind I heard Shelly’s voice yell “Cannonball!” as I jumped into the pool. I swam my laps in the most glorious snowstorm, a goofy smile on my face the whole time.
Would that we could all have a muse like Shelly, a reminder to grasp the a-muse-ment that life has to offer … while we can. 

And remember, when in doubt: CANNONBALL!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Shelly's parents are co-chairing Saving Grace: A Night of Hope to benefit the Preeclampsia Foundation in October 2013 in Iowa City, IA. Please consider attending (and join Bree and me for a cocktail in honor of Shelly) or supporting John and Brenda's efforts with a donation.  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, free.  Click here and go to the link below the "Buy the Book" button.  Zuzu's Petals is also available on Kindle and Nook.  Hardcover signed and inscribed copies are available at Happy reading!