Monday, October 19, 2009
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” ~~ Isaiah 41:10
“Pain is inevitable, misery is optional.” ~~ Mary Shafer
The Shafer clan lost a radiant light when Mary Shafer died this past Wednesday in my hometown of Knoxville, after a 14-year battle with recurrent breast cancer. A book could be written about her accomplishments, but I like thinking back to when I first met her.
I was going through Freshman Sorority Rush at the University of Tennessee, and, when I walked into the Phi Mu room at the Panhellenic Building, Mary, then the sorority’s president, met me at the door. She took a look at my name tag, and her eyes opened widely. She put her hand on my arm. “Are you related to Bo Shafer?” she said, her face alight with what I took to be hope.
As I answered Mary politely, “Yes, he’s my cousin,” and she, becoming even more animated, said to me, “We’re dating!” my first thought — which I obviously kept to myself — was, “Uh-oh, I can see that this poor girl is already in over her head.” My second: “Please… don’t get your hopes up,” which, fortunately, I also didn’t share, and next, “Ah, well, another one bites the dust.”
I don’t mind telling you, her question was one I got often, because, in addition to being tall and handsome, my older male cousin was frequently in the news. He’d played varsity football for Tennessee and had met Mary when she was cheerleading there, but his philanthropic work and business acumen were what kept him in the public eye.
This cousin of mine was a quintessential illusive bachelor in our town. How many beautiful women had set their sites, and their hearts, on him? I’d met a couple of them at family gatherings — rarely did I see them again. It’s not that Bo was an intentional heartbreaker — it’s that he was looking for the Real Thing. I realize now that he’d know it when he saw it, and it turned out to be Mary Gwyn, because the next thing I knew, they were married.
Bo wasn’t looking for a trophy wife, but rather for a partner in life, and he surely found it in Mary. He was quoted on KnoxNews.com this week as saying, “I was so old I didn’t think I could fall in love, but I fell head over heels in love with that woman,” he said. “We never had an argument. Her goal in life was to keep a smile on my face, and my goal in life was to keep a smile on her face.”
A number of years ago, when Bo was International Kiwanis President, Mary traveled the world with him, even though she was in and out of cancer treatment at the time. I could never figure out how she had the stamina to keep up the fierce pace of their commitments, and she never, ever complained. Instead, she called her battle with cancer ‘an adventure.’ A devout Christian and active member of Second Presbyterian Church, her faith never seemed to waiver.
It was Bo who told me throughout my life: “As middle-class Americans, we are in the top 2% of fortunate people living in the world. For most of humanity, life is entirely different and much, much harder. We are extremely spoiled. It is our privilege and our obligation to give back.” In Mary, he found someone who lived this philosophy at his side, day in and day out.
Bo said that, during the year of his Kiwanis presidency, he and Mary lunched with the King and Queen of Thailand and spent time in the most poverty-ridden villages in Africa. It surprised no one that Mary was equally at home in either place.
During one of my family’s trips to Knoxville in recent years, each time we were with Mary, I knew I was in the presence of someone who was truly living the moments of her life to the fullest, cherishing her family and her life’s work. The phrase ‘Seize the day’ describes her way of being in the world. She was the kindest, the friendliest, the most caring individual one could ever meet, with an incisive intelligence. She was also incredibly fun-loving. As close as she and Bo were, her description of their recent wine-tour of France, with her imbibing a glass with every course, and Bo being a teetotaler, was hilarious.
At their house on the lake, where they spent every weekend, they have a tire swing in the living room. Not too many women would think that went with their decor!
Mary and Bo sent out yearly Groundhog’s Day cards, which were always upbeat and inspiring. In recent years, their greetings contained business cards for an organization called water.org., as Mary had developed a passion for finding solutions to the problem of clean water scarcity in developing nations. Together, they built wells in Ethiopia and Guatemala.
The message of this year’s card was that life is so precious, we should never complain about small things. She truly and fully took her own advice. I am in awe of the life she lived and the legacy she leaves us all.
Looking back to that week of Freshman Rush when I first met Mary, I recall that at the end of the week, Phi Mu did a pageant in which she played the lead. The title of the presentation was “Starlight.” All these years later, it fits more than ever.