Eric’s hands are folded on the table. Firm yet gentle. Fixed yet flexible. Those same hands he used to place stones under Shauna’s pillow for comfort. “They put her right to sleep. She didn’t even know I had put them there and she’d sleep for hours,” he explained. Their oldest son’s hands are unceasingly occupied. He plays with a wind up toy that gets tangled on a few precious strands of the soft and fluffy afro Shauna had finally decided to grow back. He assured he could get it out. My own familiar hands gently helped him unravel his toy making sure to protect each prized, well-earned strand. Shauna’s hands—dry, cracked and darkened from treatment—also bring comfort. They examined and soothe her youngest son’s head after something had fallen on him while playing in the leaves outside. Shauna’s hands touch the tiniest of places in this life she has chosen with such beauty and grace. “One day I just told my soul it should stay. I choose hope,” she told me as I watched her hands. I love hands. I believe that we love with our hearts, our bodies, our minds; and all that love, all that life always finds itself in our hands.
Shauna is as radiant on this unseasonably warm day in January 2014 as she was in 1990 when I first met her in college. She was cute and quirky and different in college. She still is. Shauna is a collector. She collects words. She shares books that have touched her while we talk in her bedroom. Books that have inspired and moved her. She shares quotes that have kept her faith strong when it was weak. Some might think that the affirmations—words hand written and scattered like fallen leaves around her bedroom and bathroom—give her strength. I think otherwise. Shauna’s strength is the affirmation—emotional support and encouragement that the world so desperately needs. She also shares the collection of newspapers she has amassed over the past month. She reads them during her monthly trip to Philly for treatment. She says that Eric is probably happy they are not all over the bed when they try to sleep at night. I bet the love they share for each other and for words make him miss her newspapers almost as much as he misses her when she goes. I imagine Shauna and Eric as the children trekking home from the library with more books than they could carry. Still thinking about the ones they hated to leave behind. I imagine them as the children who stayed up with heads under covers reading books late into the night. Secretly collecting words. An obsession that only they could understand. What exists between this wife and her husband is so considerable. It is nearly too much to contain in words.
Shauna is a mother. She chases joy in the everyday—like so many mothers. Folding clothes for her family. Leaving the random, unmatched and missing socks for the boys to sort out. Ironing clothes or as was the case on this particular Sunday, being reminded by the ironing board and the pile of clothes near it of yet another bit of household work that would not get done that day. Before she boards the Amtrak to Philly, she dries the boys’ comforters. Making sure they smell fresh and linger with warmth from the dryer and from her touch. One that is a familiar memory to those she leaves behind for the remainder of the week. “Striving to keep everything as normal as possible” each month so that she can continue to live. To remain among the living.
After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, Shauna had a double mastectomy. The doctors constructed new breasts for her without nipples. As I understand it, this is common since it is rare to save nipples during this procedure. A woman can hope for the appearance of nipples with cosmetic surgery and even tattoos, though she will not have nipples as she once did. “I took my nipples for granted until I didn’t have them,” she said. Her words whispered to me for hours, days and weeks after I photographed her. I marveled at my breasts and my nipples in a new way. The nipples that efficiently and miraculously delivered milk to my children. The nipples that dutifully stand at attention when nipped by something cold and/or sudden. The nipples that surrender and abandon themselves entirely when caressed and fully consumed by a lover. Glimpsing what is not has a way of making us value what is.
After two years of multiple surgeries, countless treatments for cancer and the double mastectomy, Shauna believed she was winning the fight with breast cancer. Then “breast cancer broke her back.” Literally. The cancer had spread through her spine. The pain she was experiencing in her back was far more serious than her doctors realized. The cancer was eating her bones. She needed surgery. One doctor told her it was amazing that she was still walking. Over the next year, there were several miracles that took place. There were several medical professionals that would witness Shauna’s existence and marvel at the fact that she was still alive. Doctors would take chances on treatment with her. Her walking into their offices another day was not anything their science, their medicine or their logic could explain. In January 2012, she had spinal fusion surgery. It was not supposed to work. Her bones were deteriorating. They did not show signs of fusing with the metal inserted in her back yet, miraculously they did. In 2013, her liver was filled with tumors that led to liver failure. With a combination of alternative and modern medicine, many of the tumors inexplicably disappeared and the others were dramatically reduced in size.
Shauna is now four inches shorter because of cancer. She has been on and off of chemotherapies for five years because of cancer. She has learned to be gentler with herself because of cancer. “I use my body differently now than before, she said. “Instead of saying I can’t do it anymore, I find a different way to do it.” Shauna is far from perfect. That is what makes her so beautiful. Her experience living with cancer is not without anger or sadness or fear. She has had days that were so low she thought she would give up. She has attempted any and every treatment she thinks will offer her the chance to live and love another day.
Shauna is living. Living with cancer. Living with hope. Living with love. “The name Shauna means God is gracious,” Shauna wrote to me, “I believe that God is presently showing so much grace in the midst of the circumstance my family and I are experiencing and the grace makes all of the difference … it allows us to focus on what we have—the grace of each moment together.” She knows her “existence can be an example to everyday people that the miraculous is possible. No matter how long I am here. I realize that just because you are not 100% cancer free does not mean you are not a miracle. The miracles are in the midst of the details. I am not going to wait till I am 100% cancer free to help people.”
Shauna is a living modern day miracle. Miracles are expressions of love. Love is the miracle. Shauna’s story is about love. Shauna’s love is a loud love. Insistent in the most graceful way. Her life allows us to witness miracles and to allow those everyday miracles that walk among, between, in front, behind and within us to roam freely on this earth and be recognized. None of us know when we will die. We simply know that we will. Those living with cancer are made more immediately and intimately aware of the mortality we all share in grueling and beautiful ways. Living with cancer “forced me to identify my own worth, my own divinity,” she told me. Living has helped Shauna recognize that she is hope and love personified. We all are.