I attended Jeff Shannon’s memorial service yesterday on the site of my old high school. (I say ‘site’ because my high school was torn down fifteen years ago and rebuilt from scratch. Lesson in impermanence.) Jeff died of complications from pneumonia in December. Another lesson in impermanence. The location of the gathering was appropriate because Jeff also attended Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood, Washington oh so many years ago. We were in the graduating class of 1979, affectionately nicknamed the “Smelts.” Many of my fellow Smelts were there yesterday. I suppose we are all getting to a time of life when attending funerals and memorial services have begun to regularly punctuate our years.
Yesterday I heard stories about Jeff, many I hadn’t known, from friends, colleagues and family. It was good to have an overview of Jeff’s life and hear tribute from the many people who loved him. But even before his passing, Jeff has long been on my mind.
Two weeks after we graduated from high school (and stayed up all night in the senior grad party writing deep thoughts in each other’s yearbooks) and a few weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday, Jeff went to Hawaii and broke his neck in a diving accident. Spinal cord injury. He was on a trip with other kids from my high school. When the accident happened, these kids saved his life. Jeff spent the next thirty-four years living with the reality of C-5/6 quadriplegia. This, Wikipedia tells me, meant he had some function of biceps and shoulders but little or none of his wrists or hands. And no controllable function in the torso below the diaphragm.
I think I heard about Jeff’s accident a few weeks after it happened, during a rather horrible summer when I was working in a paint factory earning money for college. I was shocked but imagined Jeff would probably get better. Eighteen year olds are, after all, optimists, and I had my own worries and concerns and future ahead.
I have a cousin who has been a paraplegic since the age of twelve, so I had some inkling what life in a wheelchair is like. Physically, at least. Mentally, spiritually, much less so. I didn’t understand why life had meted out this karate chop of fate to Jeff of all people. Even at eighteen it seemed frighteningly random. In the book of Genesis, one night Jacob is beside a stream and some guy comes out of nowhere, attacks him, and they wrestle all night, neither getting the upper hand. In the morning, it turns out the pugnacious thug was an angel. Why did the angel pick on Jacob? Why all night? Why did the angel wrestle and not, say, offer Jacob a nice back massage? Why?
At Meadowdale (doesn’t it sound bucolic, like a land of frolicking sheep?) we all knew, and took for granted, that Jeff was immensely talented. So talented that he could shine effortlessly in multiple areas at once. He could sing. He could dance. He could act. As his brother said yesterday (or was it his sister?) when Jeff got up on a stage, your eye followed him. You couldn’t help it. He was charming. He was handsome. Things came easily for him. He had a future.
He was also quite a writer, even then. I remember during the infamous spring quarter of our last year of high school, when every senior had checked out mentally even if the body was still required to be present, and watching with awe as Jeff sat down an hour before a paper for college prep English was due. In the next forty-five minutes he proceeded to handwrite a five-paragraph essay with a thesis, development and conclusion. When it was done, he turned it in and received a pretty decent grade. It was a paper I’d spent at least six hours on (and typed!) so I was both indignant and envious it came so easily to him. It was clear that writing was already a strength of his, even if the greatest value of that strength was to allow him to spit out a paper pronto so he could dedicate time to other pursuits. (I’m pretty sure if he’d allowed himself a second draft, he could’ve outwritten us all back then.)
So all this talent, all this energy, all this future. And then wham. The metaphoric angel of Genesis knocks him down with one of the biggest body blows life has to offer. Why did it have to be Jeff? It could have been anyone of us. Why did life make that absolutely extraordinary demand of him?
If Jeff’s life were a movie or a novel, the spinal cord injury would be the inciting event, the point where the character moves from routine/normal/status quo into heroic territory where great achievement and great failure become possible. To overcome the presented conflict/obstacle the character must struggle, adapt, change. He (or she) must draw on both internal and external resources, invariably discovering ones he didn’t know he had. In a comedy, the process of defeating the obstacle/resolving the conflict causes the character to grow/develop/experience epiphany and achieve a higher level of existence/consciousness. (In a tragedy the obstacle defeats the hero.)
At least that’s how it works in stories.
As far as I can tell, Jeff did proceed down the hero’s path. With the help of friends and family he faced what he had to, transcended much, and achieved a level of spiritual accomplishment that I haven’t often run across in the days of my life.
How do I know this? Over the last thirty-four years I’ve only seen Jeff in person a few times. But in the last five years, through the double-edged sword known as Facebook, I have read Jeff’s writings. I was especially enamored with his contributions to Facing Disability.com where he had his own column/blog. I encourage you to read his posts. They are still up. Especially, “Finding Plan B,” “Happiness is A Choice,” and “Mother Nature Wants to Kill You.”
It is in these writings that I see both evidence of his struggles and his achievements. I see that he wrestled his way through the five stages of grief and came out in a place not so many of us ever get to. He did it through day-in, day-out perseverance, guts and courage. (In the end, is there any other way?) Combine this with his enormous intelligence and creativity, and you get the kind of life and achievement he was able to create for himself.
When I speak of achievement, I am not talking about money, or fame, or popularity, or awards. I am not even talking about love. (It’s clear Jeff's heart was open to give and receive love, and that this was an important source of his strength.) What I admire and respect Jeff intensely for was his willingness to undertake a terrifically difficult journey that asked so much of him. That he had a deep enough sense of himself and the universe to understand that the journey was worth the effort. That though he’d been put down on a path far outside his ken, that offered few of the conventional rewards any boy of his age might want, that meant constant physical and emotional struggle, he rose to the occasion and became a man in the process. He wrestled that angel, an angel that fought dirty and mean. And while I wouldn’t say he ever won, like Jacob in the Bible, Jeff did last out the night. He did find joy and meaning and grace and spirit. He did prevail and perhaps was blessed.
I suppose we all wrestle with our night of angels in one way or another. Why Jeff got that particular one is still a mystery to me. But I do see that Jeff was on a hero’s journey that transformed him. I suspect he is still on that journey. I hope in some way, some form, our paths cross again. However, you don't get to choose your angel. It chooses you.