I want to put a quick note in on an article my uncle wrote this past week, a eulogy of sorts regarding his friend Sheila. My uncle lives the perfect life: a great home in Key West with his loving and intelligent wife, a great dog, and amazing friends. He works as a birder, writing a birding column as a supplement. Last week he was up in New Jersey to visit and happened to mention that his good friend Shiela was dying. I’ve heard much about her through his stories, but this piece that he wrote for his column says everything. I think we’ve all had someone relatively close to us die, and I guess that his words really filled a great gap that I’ve felt lately.
Cursing a good life: Remembering a close friend
Sheila called about three weeks ago. She wanted to know how much money was in the poker beer kitty. She said someone had burgled her house the night before and emptied out a few drawers, but the only thing missing was the money we all pitched in to keep our game supplied with Beck’s and Corona. (Sheila never played. Bill did. But she tolerated our presence around her table every week and maybe even encouraged it.)
There was a nice policewoman there, she said, who’d taken fingerprints, but needed to know a dollar amount to finish out the report. She thought it was all kind of funny.
I told her I thought there’d been about 40 bucks. I also told her it sounded like an inside job, trying to point the finger at some of my fellow players, something she scoffed at before hanging up.
An hour later she called back and told me not to post anything on FaceTube about the burglary. She didn’t want one of her sons finding out, and calling Bill, who was out in Oregon for a few weeks. She didn’t want him worried when she was fine.
I told her I wouldn’t post anything on FaceTube, and that I wouldn’t post anything on Facebook or YouTube either.
Two weeks ago she called and asked if next time I was around I could bookmark National Public Radio on their computer for her. She’d spent about a half hour trying to do it herself and was exasperated by the process. Whether it was by choice or inclination, Sheila mostly lived without silicon-based technology, but she’d been drawn in this time by promise of listening to shows like This American Life whenever she wanted.
I said, yeah, sure, but I was going out of town on vacation the next morning, so it was going to be a few weeks until I got around to it.
She said, sure, no hurry, do it when you get back.
Actually, the conversation wasn’t quite like that. It went on for about a half-hour, with Sheila doing most of the talking, touching on her theories about the burglary (she had found a light beer can on the property, which she figured the thief dropped, as no one in her household would have drank such swill, and she’d given it to the police for more fingerprinting), her son’s recent engagement, New York, Australia, her status as a grandmother, job opportunities for lighting technicians in Las Vegas, her thoughts on the upcoming elections, the lame movies they’d been showing at the Tropic, the improved qualities of burritos and burrito delivery in town, the family reunion in Oregon, the Mall of the Americas, and several other subjects.
Sheila could, at times, go on a bit. I might have rolled my eyes at my wife. I might have said, eventually, that I had to get off the phone and pack. But really it was a great phone call. If she had energy to go on like that she was doing well.
About 10 years ago Sheila was diagnosed with throat cancer. The doctors got the cancer out, but in the process they’d dosed her with heavy radiation. For a couple years after the treatment her health was good, the main after affects being trouble swallowing and a voice rough as gravel. But after a time things slowly started to happen. She lost dexterity in her right arm. Her heart and her immune system grew weaker. She had less energy.
One day, sitting next to her at a stop light — me on my bike, her in a car — I gave her grief about the oddity of a Tupperware full of unpopped popcorn on the front seat. She rolled her eyes and said yeah. Her doctor had told her to do it so she could plunge her hand into it regularly and stimulate the nerves as a way to try and keep the hand functional.
A couple months later I stopped by the house and noticed all these notes covered in child-like scrawl. I was going to give her grief about the degradation of her handwriting, but then realized it was because she couldn’t hold a pen in her right hand anymore and she was learning to write with her left.
Last January she went up to Miami to have a stent put in near her heart to improve blood flow and the doctors nicked an artery, turning an overnight hospital stay into something that lasted a week. A few months later she spent time in the Key West ICU with pneumonia.
You’d learn about these things and you’d worry, but then you’d think, she’s Sheila, she’ll be fine. She had to be.
You sum up a woman like Sheila Rowan at your peril. You can talk about her fashion sense, which tended to range from bath towels to surfer shorts and surgical scrub shirts, with the occasional dress or polar fleece thrown into the repertoire to keep you on your toes. You can talk about her excellent taste in books and movies, her penchant for staying close to her sons’ ex-girlfriends, or her quality salads.
You can talk about her ability to speak civilly to anyone about anything and her penchant for profanity salty enough to get her kicked out of a convention of truckers and sailors. You can talk about the fact that the only thing she ever got sentimental about was high school choral music and her sons, though she’d be disinclined to admit it to her sons. You can talk about her obsession with Key West politics, something she viewed as a combination of blood sport, of dire portent, and never-ending, highly-nuanced theater, something that drove her to attend so many meetings that on occasion they would ask her from the dais to clarify what happened at the last meeting.
But really, there’s no way to get it right. Her world was too broad and too deep.
I’ve been writing this column for a little over five years now, and round about the third or fourth week she called me up and told me something she liked in it, an exercise she’s repeated at unexpected intervals ever since, though on occasion she’s also let me know when she thought I was phoning it in. A small Sheila rave has often kept me going for weeks.
This isn’t to say how important I was to Sheila’s life, but the other way around. And to say that there were a lot of other people she was just as important to.
There’s Tom, Cheryl, Benji, Al, Sue, Bob, Jody, Nan, Annette, Perry, Kathy, Michael, CJ, Kent, Guillermo, Craig, Holly, neonatal Jack, architect Jack, Sandy, Eric, Betsy, Rosie, Elizabeth, Charlie, Richard, Mary, Dave, Haven, Elena, Erin, Chris, Lisa, Paul, Theresa, Bert, Nancy, Eliza, Laura, Jay, Morgan, Chuck, Marty, Leenie . . . These are just the people I can name in one breath without thinking about it too hard, and no doubt it is a sadly incomplete list. It doesn’t include people from Cancer Conquerers, the library, the Tropic, the Garden Club, the Literary Seminar, the Martin Luther King, Jr. swimming pool, the high school, the old Waterfront Market, and Lord knows what other island subcultures. Or the people she knew back in Oregon or Hawaii or Connecticut.
And it doesn’t include the people at the core of her life — Bill, who she lived with through adventures high and low for 30 years, or her four sons, Jason, Noah, Josh, and Ian, or their wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, or children.
The woman had reach.
Two days after the call about setting up NPR bookmarks on the computer I was sitting in a seafood restaurant in the Delmarva peninsula, waiting for a crab melt, having spent the morning birding in the local marshes, when I ran into McNeil, who grew up in Key West and used to date son Josh but was now going to school in South Carolina. She asked me if I had any gossip, which I gave her, and she asked me how Sheila was doing.
I said it had been rough, but she talked my ear off for a half-hour the other night, so she had to be doing all right.
Two days later, sitting in a strip mall in New Jersey, my wife and I found out she was back in the ICU with double pneumonia. Then we heard they were talking about putting her on life support. Then that she was doing better, and that her sons were joking about all coming in from their various corners of the country when it turned out she was going to be fine.
When my wife called to tell me she’d died I was driving in heavy Cape Cod traffic. I cursed, long and loud into the phone, and then apologized to my wife.
She said don’t. Cursing was probably an appropriate way to respond, given that it was Sheila.
Mark Hedden is a birding guide and vice president of the Florida Keys Audubon Society. He is owner of Bone Island Bird Expeditions