FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Love Hurts, A Tribute to the Life of Karen Swymer-Shanahan

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

DeskScan

(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

Dave Marsh coedits Rock and Rap Confidential. He can be reached at: marsh6@optonline.net

Dave Marsh’s Previous DeskScan Top 10 Lists:

April 30, 2002

April 22, 2002

April 15, 2002

April 9, 2002

April 2, 2002

March 25, 2002

March 18, 2002

March 11, 2002

 

More articles by:

Dave Marsh edits Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, now available for free by emailing: rockrap@aol.com. Dave blogs at http://davemarsh.us/

December 13, 2018
John Davis
What World Do We Seek?
Subhankar Banerjee
Biological Annihilation: a Planet in Loss Mode
Lawrence Davidson
What the Attack on Marc Lamont Hill Tells Us
James McEnteer
Breathless
Ramzy Baroud
The Real Face of Justin Trudeau: Are Palestinians Canada’s new Jews?
Dean Baker
Pelosi Would Sabotage the Progressive Agenda With a Pay-Go Rule
Elliot Sperber
Understanding the Yellow Vests Movement through Basic Color Theory 
Rivera Sun
The End of the NRA? Business Magazines Tell Activists: The Strategy is Working
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
Historic Opportunity to Transform Trade
George Ochenski
Trump Trashes Sage Grouse Protections in Another cCollaboration Failure
December 12, 2018
Arshad Khan
War, Anniversaries and Lessons Never Learned
Paul Street
Blacking Out the Yellow Vests on Cable News: Corporate Media Doing its Job
Kenneth Surin
The Brexit Shambles Rambles On
David Schultz
Stacking the Deck Against Democracy in Wisconsin
Steve Early
The Housing Affordability Crisis and What Millennials Can do About It
George Ochenski
Collaboration Failure: Trump Trashes Sage Grouse Protections
Rob Seimetz
Bringing a Life Into a Dying World: A Letter From a Father to His Unborn Son
Michael Howard
PETA and the ‘S’-Word
John Kendall Hawkins
Good Panopt, Bad Panopt: Does It Make A Difference?
Kim C. Domenico
Redeeming Utopia: a Meditation On An Essay by Ursula LeGuin
Binoy Kampmark
Exhuming Franco: Spain’s Immemorial Divisions
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
Democratizing Money
Laura Finley
Congress Must Reauthorize VAWA
December 11, 2018
Eric Draitser
AFRICOM: A Neocolonial Occupation Force?
Sheldon Richman
War Over Ukraine?
Louis Proyect
Why World War II, Not the New Deal, Ended the Great Depression
Howard Lisnoff
Police Violence and Mass Policing in the U.S.
Mark Ashwill
A “Patriotic” Education Study Abroad Program in Viet Nam: God Bless America, Right or Wrong!
Laura Flanders
HUD Official to Move into Public Housing?
Nino Pagliccia
Resistance is Not Terrorism
Matthew Johnson
See No Evil, See No Good: The Truth Is Not Black and White
Maria Paez Victor
How Reuters Slandered Venezuela’s Social Benefits Card
December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail