Karen Swymer-Shanahan, 32, died Monday in Milford, Mass. Karen’s death spelled the end of an era-an era in which the most remarkable person I’ve ever met gathered around herself a circle of loved ones for the privilege of sharing a great human drama. She lived my favorite song lyric-“It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”-in ways I never expected to witness.
The day before she turned 11, Karen learned that the lump in her arm was Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare, virulent cancer. Almost fifteen years later, in her second year at Boston College law school, a second cancer, osteosarcoma, erupted in the same arm. It also invaded her lungs.
I met Karen in the midst of the second battle, and she became like a daughter to my wife, Barbara Carr, and me. Over the past two years, as she fought cancer a third time, she became a frequent figure in these columns.
Karen loved music. She was an early fan and friend of Dave Matthews, and a recent one of Cindy Bullens. She got to know Bruce Springsteen on the Tom Joad tour. She and two of her sisters dancing at the edge of the stage at Bruce’s Hartford show in ’00 remains for me the proof of the power in that slight body-she’d just been diagnosed with cancer for a third time. Once, I left Karen alone for five minutes at an awards ceremony and when I got back, she was old friends with Etta James. Emily remembers seeing Karen receiving chemotherapy at the hospital, wearing headphones and thrusting her arm in the air at a crazy pace. The nurses got scared-was she having a seizure? No, she was listening to “Land of Hope and Dreams.”
Sometimes, I’d buy Karen discs, but often, I’d burn her CDs. I played her one Terry Callier record and it wound up sparking a long immersion in all his music for both of us. She also reinforced my convictions about Iris Dement, Gretchen Peters and Patty Griffin. At her funeral Friday, it was Iris’s “This Kind of Happy” that provided the final eulogy.
If the choice of songs seems unusual, you need to know more about her. Karen was smart, beautiful, graceful like a great dancer, a brilliant public speaker, a perceptive art historian (her impromptu discourse, from a wheelchair parked in front of Bellini’s St. Francis at the Frick last summer, hushed a roomful of people, although she was addressing only two). She was wickedly funny and had such absolute cool that she needed no sense of shame. When she went back to law school, she met Bill Shanahan and they gave everyone else a glimpse of what it means to be each other’s heaven. Bill told me recently that Karen woke up every morning, even when she was in the greatest pain, and smiled to greet the day. She loved being alive without qualification.
It took cancer more than 20 years to impinge on those things, and it had to invade nearly every part of her body before it did. Yet her spirit it never touched.
I wish I could say the same. When Karen died, I felt like Guy Clark in “The Randall Knife”-I couldn’t find a way to cry. It wasn’t until late that night, sitting at home alone amidst a crowd, that my face got wet. It was one of Karen’s favorite songs that pushed me over the edge: Gretchen Peters’ “On a Bus to St. Cloud.”
“We were just gettin’ to the good part / Just gettin’ past the mystery,” Gretchen sings. Well, you never get past the mystery of encountering someone this magnificent-and I haven’t room to tell you 10% of the truth about someone who got a five minute standing ovation at her own funeral.
Some of the rest is in last Wednesday’s Boston Globe, in a splendid obit by Dan Shaughnessy, another member of her circle. Yet even that’s a shadow, not even quite a ghost, of what Karen Shanahan gave to the world.
How fortunate I am to be haunted by it.
Memorial contributions can be sent to:
Karen’s Legacy Fund
c/o Rosemary Wilson
Sullivan & Worcester LLP
One Post Office Square
Boston, MA 02109
(This is the list of tracks I put together on a CD in memory of Karen-a mixture of things she loved and things that, I hope, speak to the feelings of those who loved her):
1. The World’s Greatest, R. Kelly
2. Land of Hopes and Dreams, Bruce Springsteen
3. When My Morning Comes Around, Iris Dement
4. Five Hearts Breaking, Alejandro Escovedo
5. Angel, Dave Matthews
6. Better Than I’ve Ever Been, Cindy Bullens
7. Touched by an Angel, Stevie Nicks
8. Only Time, Enya
9. Walk On, U2
10. Happy, Bruce Springsteen
11. On a Bus to St. Cloud, Gretchen Peters
12. At Last, Etta James
13. Occasional Rain, Terry Callier
14. Forever Young, Chrissie Hynde
15. Not Alone, Patty Griffin
16. As Long as You Love, Cindy Bullens
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