Laughter & Love: Remembering my sister, Shelly

Today, December 11th, marks ten years since we lost my sister, Shelly to colon cancer at the age of 39. She bravely chronicled her cancer journey on her blog. We miss her terribly. I don’t think I have it in me to try to capture again how much she means to me, so in lieu of new thoughts, I will simply re-share the remarks I gave at her memorial service in December of 2013, with continued gratitude for everyone who was there for our family during that difficult time.

I know somewhere, up there, Shelly is staring down at me and she’s saying “OK, Scotter – you big Drama major – let’s see if you can pull this off.” 

There are so many memories I want to share about my sister, Shelly. But, I’d like to begin by acknowledging the love and friendship in this room. So many people have traveled great distances during the busiest time of the year to be with us to celebrate and remember Shelly today. It’s an incredible testament to her.

The Butler and Baker families are so grateful for the tireless support everyone here has shown Shelly and her family during these past four years. 

I want to thank Chaplain Margaret Redman and her colleague, Leslie Ferrell for their extraordinary kindness. The truth is… we weren’t prepared for this. We didn’t think it was possible that we’d be losing Shelly so soon. There was never any question whether we’d be spending Christmas together.

We had just enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving here in Seattle. Shelly was fatigued from her recent round of radiation, true – but, that was the new normal course of things. Shelly had done this in various forms countless times.

It wasn’t really until her final day that – at least for me – I had truly reconciled what was coming. Last Wednesday, my mother and I walked through the doors of this church – it was a cold call actually – and they welcomed us. Chaplain Redman told us they would be here for us, we said a prayer together, and then my Mom and I drove to the hospital to join Neil, my father and sister, Laura. 

About three hours later Shelly passed away peacefully, surrounded by all of us.

Shelly joins my Uncle Jim who left us just seven weeks ago. I’m heartened by the thought of the two of them together up there. I’m sure they’re on a boat… cruising the clouds. They’re singing something at the top of their lungs. Jim’s not quite nailing the lyrics… Shelly’s singing in the voice of someone else completely. They’re having a good time. And I’m sure her grandparents are on the back deck enjoying themselves.

So, let me begin by saying, quite simply that Shelly was my first best friend. We were the Betty and Rhodes of the 1970s. I’ve been blessed to know Shelly her entire life – and it was fantastic. 

As children, we had grand adventures together, we put on elaborate puppet shows in our basement, we chased our dog Frazier every time he escaped from the backyard – typically luring him home with a piece of baloney. There were always lots of kids around to play with. 

River Glen Rd. is sixteen houses ending on a cul-de-sac. There is a small forest behind Chip’s house. If we squeezed through the fence at the end of the street you’d pop up behind Rink’s – a department store where you could pick up a record, or a bag of candy. The Maumee River is nearby. The country club is a short bike ride away too.

Laura and I just had the unusual experience of taking her kids Hazel and Knox trick-or-treating on our childhood street a few weeks ago. Although my parents have since moved down the road a few blocks, my Aunt Becky and Uncle Tim live three houses down from 725. As Laura and I walked around, I thought to myself – we know every house on this street inside and out. Life on River Glen was complete kid bliss.

And I’m not sure how Shelly pulled this off, but she had a bigger bedroom than my parents. But, I think she needed it. There were a lot of projects going on. And she entertained her many childhood friends there. Shelly’s grade seemed to have the largest cohort of kids on the street. They were quite the pack, and she was the ringleader.

Summers were the best. The swim team. Trips to my grandparent’s lakehouse just down the road from Cedar Point Amusement Park. We were season pass holders and Shelly loved a good roller coaster. Our family would sometimes lounge around the marina until we got up the urge to ride the Blue Streak again. She was always a bit more fearless than me in that regard.

And then there was our annual pilgrimage to the Adirondacks, Tupper Lake. I don’t pretend to know what heaven looks like but I hope it looks like Big Tupper Lake. Those times with grandparents, our aunts and uncles, our cousins, and friends. Those times together counted amongst the best in our lives.

Shelly was the second oldest cousin and she had a gift for entertaining everyone. At Tupper, she invented “Club Fun” of which she was President. Club Fun was located on the alligator shaped rock across from the boathouse. She organized our games of charades. Shelly had a running joke that anyone who is thinking of marrying into the family has to pass the charades test. At least I think it’s a joke. I can’t say we’ve let anyone in who can’t act out “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in a timely manner.

Tupper Lake was the backdrop for Neil & Shelly’s beautiful wedding. And it seems like only yesterday.

Shelly attended St. Ursula Academy and among her many signature roles there she was the reader of the morning announcements over the school intercom. As you might imagine there were certain embellishments. She would remind the chess club that they’re meeting after school, being sure to add something along the lines of “don’t forget to bring your rooks.”

Swimming figured significantly in her high school career but that talent reached new heights at Kenyon. Her athletic accolades are well known: team captain, 4 national championships, 13 NCAA titles, 26 All-America awards, the Bennett Award. 

In September, my parents and I attended Shelly’s induction to the Kenyon Athletic Association Hall of Fame. She was presented by her coach Jim Steen, known to us – even me – simply as “Coach”. He’s with us today and if you have a chance, ask him about the story he shared at their wedding regarding the time on a plane Shelly first asked him what he thought about this Neil guy.

I didn’t share high schools with Shelly and so I was thrilled when she chose Kenyon. We had two great years there together and Shelly shared one overlap year with Laura as well. We didn’t see each other all of the time – she had her world, I had mine, but having family nearby was comforting. Even if it meant my car would disappear on occasion without warning. 

I remember her 20th birthday, I wanted to plan something special and so Laura came to campus as a surprise. We had tickets to none other than David Copperfield in Columbus with dinner after. For college students, this was a heck of a night out and it reminded us of the kind of things we did as kids back in Toledo. I was VERY specific about when and where Shelly had to meet me so we could depart on her surprise evening but when the time came, we couldn’t find her. Shelly wasn’t exactly known for her punctuality. 

This was before cell phones. We waited and waited and finally, I left her an exasperated message at her dorm room, explaining that Laura was here to celebrate and we were going to David Copperfield and we weren’t going to waste our expensive tickets so if she gets this, she should race to the Ohio Theater (which was about an hour’s drive away) and we’ll wait in the lobby until showtime. … At one minute until curtain, Shelly waltzes in – “I’m here… just like magic!”

Shelly loved impersonating others. If you had a particular verbal tick or personality quirk – you would not likely be spared. But, she meant it lovingly. Shelly’s humor always brought people closer together. She showed us it’s OK to laugh at ourselves. 

One of my favorite characters she stepped into, was my dear great grandmother, Nonie. We were fortunate to have Nonie in our lives during our childhood. She was born in the late 1800s and lived to be 104 1/2. Please note, we give her credit for that last half year. She earned it.

A telephone call from Shelly might begin like this – Hello, darling! To which I’d respond: Oh, why hello, darling. How are you, darling? I’m fine, darling. This would typically go on for five minutes or so – it was almost a game to see who could stay in character the longest. 

A voice mail message from Shelly was always a present waiting to be unwrapped. Most of my telemarketing calls were in fact, from Shelly.

If Shelly were to be found in the kitchen, she was probably doing her best Julia Child, remarking how she was going to add a little butter to the broth before pouring the broth over the butter.

Or she might be acting as perhaps her defining character… my mother. Still in the kitchen, she might have a little taste of whatever was cooking and declare: Mmmm. That tasted good to me. Didn’t it?!

That something my Mom actually said once – I think we’ve decided it’s some sort of rhetorical question.

And if singing were to be judged based on enthusiasm alone, Shelly was among the greatest singers who ever lived. Shelly could stand up and perform the entire film, The Sound of Music from beginning to end. The overture, the songs, every bit of dialogue – you’d have no trouble distinguishing one nun from another. 

If you watch the shortened version that’s on TV you’ve likely forgotten about the perhaps wisely edited out back and forth on Edelweiss between Liesl and her father. Let’s just say that Leisl’s scooping up to find her notes – Edelweiss – did not become less subtle in Shelly’s performance.

Moving to quite a different genre, I will tell you that Shelly’s rendition of Norman’s final jail cell monologue from the movie Psycho in the voice of “mother” was really very, very good. I thought of trying to do an impersonation of Shelly doing an impersonation of Norman doing an impersonation of Mother but decided that – this was tough enough already. 

Incidentally, Shelly showed up to my Halloween party one year as Tippi Hedren from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. A crow in her hair, a few hanging off of her distressed dress. It was so Shelly.

I want to share a story Shelly told me years ago from earlier in her relationship with Neil. They were hiking in the snow on a mountain somewhere…. it was a challenging group hike and it was freezing outside. Shelly was tired, beyond cold and she couldn’t feel her hands anymore. She called out to Neil, increasingly distraught, and started to break down. Neil went over to her, spoke to her calmly and put her freezing cold hands under his shirt on his stomach where he held them until they warmed up.

She said to me, “Scott – he knew exactly what to do to make me feel safe. He completely understood what I needed.”

When Shelly and Neil were married – we produced a feature film in their honor, “Waiting for Shelly” and if I do say so, it was fairly hilarious. In fact, much of the cast is here with us today. Dozens and dozens of family members and friends filmed scenes in that Christopher Guest mockumentary style that she adored. Films as gifts aren’t made for people who aren’t beloved. She was, and everyone got involved.

The conceit of the film was that while Shelly & Neil were off on their six-month adventure in Australia, their family and friends were left to plan their wedding for them. And hilarity ensues. The first part is true – Shelly and Neil did quit their jobs and spend six months in Australia. … Who does that? These two. 

And they had some great stories, like falling asleep in their car and awaking not only to find that a flock of oversize birds had descended upon their car, but that a busload of tourists had surrounded them and were taking pictures.

Shelly traveled the world. France and Italy with her Mom and Laura. Brazil. New Zealand. Hawaii. In 8th grade, Shelly and my Mom came along on a high school trip I was taking to London. It was a theater trip and if Shelly’s love of musical theater hadn’t been fully formed, that trip certainly did it. Les Miz, Phantom, Follies, 42nd Street. Shelly packed so much in.

When Shelly & Neil came back from Australia they: got married, found better jobs, and were happy. They were so happy.

And then Betty came along. For me, having a niece for the first time was like discovering a new kind of love I didn’t know existed. And she was so much Shelly’s daughter. Precocious, funny, beautiful. And Betty loved to climb. I mean, why go up the stairs when you can scale the outside banister?

And in surprisingly short order, Rhodes came along. I remember once flying with Shelly, Betty and a newborn Rhodes from Seattle to Detroit. I held Rhodes in my two hands on my lap the entire flight and he smiled at me during all of his waking moments. He was stopping traffic in that airplane aisle with his smiles. 

Upon arriving in Detroit, Shelly and I grabbed the nearest family bathroom. We had two major diapers to change and both of us needed a break too. I remember saying to her – “I think we’ve entered a new phase in our sibling life here, Shell.”

I don’t want to spend much time today focused on the struggle of the last four years. I say “struggle”, but if you’ve been reading her blog – and I’m sure you have – you certainly appreciate how focused Shelly was on continuing to live her life without compromise or regret.

In a blog post from last July after describing three rounds of radiation and an awful new chemo regimen, Shelly wrote: It’s not a bad life I have. In fact, it’s ALMOST a perfect life. That was Shelly, the eternal optimist.

Shelly, in her blog, put herself out there – she possessed both the talent AND the bravery – in equal measures – to do that. She eased us into her challenges with her unique humor. The blog lives on as an inspiration to others. 

But, I concur with Cameron (who spoke before me). While she was completely honest, she protected us from the worst of it. She just wasn’t going to put Team Shelly through that. Truly, a singular act of love toward her family and friends. 

And to all of you that have been a part of Team Shelly – from the bottom of our hearts – thank you.

Before I close I want to address a few very special people, because I know there are things Shelly would want me to acknowledge.

To Julie and Erik: You are family. The generosity and commitment you have shown to Shelly, Neil, Betty & Rhodes is staggering. Among so many other kindnesses – opening your home to them, during a time of both transition and hardship – was perhaps the greatest gift you could have given them. Betty and Rhodes are so fortunate to have you both in their lives (and Sky, your dog, of course). We lack the words to describe this selfless generosity. You are, quite simply, angels. 

To my parents: while Shelly’s time with us was cut mercifully short, you can take great comfort in knowing that you filled her life and our lives with so much joy and laughter and love. You have created the memories that some people can only dream of. I am simply in awe of this marathon you have both run for Shelly and her family. You should be so proud. 

You gave, and are still giving everything you have. As far as parenting is concerned, you’re the gold standard. And I love you.

And to Neil: I know you’re fond of saying that Shelly is your hero. Well, Neil, you’re our hero. You cared for Shelly in the most extraordinary way under the most extraordinary of circumstances. 

Shelly drew unbelievable strength from you. And it carried her through the rough times. The only reason I could bring myself to end my trips to Seattle was knowing that I was leaving her in your capable and loving hands.

Neil, I have stood beside you this past week, and words fail me. If we measure love by any of these standards: dedication, grace, compassion – then yours was truly the greatest love I’ve ever known.

We’ll miss Shelly desperately, but we’re going to be OK. Shelly wants us to be OK. I know Rhodes is already teaching Neil the “silly songs” he sang with his Mommy, and so we’re going to get there, one silly song at a time.

In closing, I want to read a poem which was written by Kenyon Professor of Humanities, Timothy Baker Shutt – who happens to be Shelly’s second cousin, once removed – this is something Shelly discovered halfway through her Kenyon career. 

Can’t you picture Shelly sitting down for dinner in Peirce Hall and turning to a friend and saying, “So, it turns out my faculty advisor—is my cousin.” It seemed like a very Shelly thing to have happen. 

Tim writes, “In memory of Shelly, with joy…”

Eh, what?   So yeah.   The time was short.

But now I really can report

It’s not so much how long you live,

As who you are, and what you give,

And I loved giving—it was fun—

And so I gave to everyone,

A smile, a comment, wry and dry,

A happy twinkle in my eye 

(Or so they said, I wouldn’t know),

I really had a good time, though,

And really loved just being there

(You saw it in my magic hair),

Loved being with you, loved you, too,

And what you love is never through.

2 thoughts on “Laughter & Love: Remembering my sister, Shelly

  1. Sally Allison

    Oh Dear Shelly, Jack and I were with you in every day of your blog, and beyond.
    Jack kept wearing his Team Shelly bracelet for a couple years after you left us. I still have his bracelet, but I do not have Jack. You probably have met up with him and are eating some of my banana bread with joyful smiles on your faces.
    I love you Shelly!
    Love, “your PNW mom” Sally


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