Forty-one years into his marriage, George Shannon became better acquainted with a woman he once took for granted, and fell deeply in love with her.
“Such beautiful blue eyes and a great sense of humor,” Mr. Shannon said. “I loved her more, I respected her more and I wanted to be with her more.”
They met in 1967 at a restaurant in the Pittsburgh area, where they both grew up.
“I was sitting with a friend and when we got up to leave I felt a tug on my sleeve,” he recalled. “When I looked over she handed me a slip of paper with her name and phone number on it, I guess she liked what she saw.”
Mr. Shannon was not flattering himself and another woman at the expense of his wife, with whom he was married for 48 years, nor was he revealing an extramarital affair.
The woman with the blue eyes and the great sense of humor for whom he had a newfound, deeper respect was in fact his wife, Carol Sue Shannon, who died at age 70 in April 2017, seven years after suffering two strokes that led to myriad other physical setbacks and resulted in Mr. Shannon becoming her primary caretaker. It was an experience that became in essence a second tug on his sleeve, a chance to rejuvenate a marriage that he “had not paid much attention to,” he said, for the better part of four decades.
Mr. Shannon, now 73, who retired as a vice president for Northeast sales at a Georgia-based company that maintained water quality for communities, sounded like a man drowning in sorrow when he talked about the cold, empty years of his marriage before becoming his wife’s caretaker and rediscovering magic.
“Carol never complained about anything or asked for anything, and I took advantage of that by being selfish and self-centered,” he said, pausing for a painful moment to clear his throat.
“Everything I wanted to do, I did without first asking what she thought about me doing it,” he said. “I’d say things like ‘Carol, I’m going out to play golf,’ or ‘Carol, I’m going out drinking with some buddies,’ and all she would ever say was ‘that’s fine.’ She was always deferring to me because it was always all about me, but if I had to do it over again, I would certainly balance things a lot better.”
Mr. Shannon said that before his wife had her first stroke in April 2010 on the final night of a vacation in Cabo, San Lucas, Mexico, they had “a good relationship, though our love wasn’t real deep.”
A month later she had a second, much more devastating stroke that drastically affected her speech and balance. She subsequently fell twice, which led to her breaking both hips, requiring surgery and a long rehabilitation. She would suffer yet another fall in which she broke a shoulder, and later had a heart attack that warranted triple-bypass surgery.
“Through all of those challenges she never lost her spirit, never lost her smile, and never complained,” Mr. Shannon said. “Whenever someone asked how she was feeling, she would simply say to them, ‘I’m fine.’”
When he began the caretaking process, he said he “began worrying less about me and more about her.” Mr. Shannon and his wife began growing closer and their feelings for each other intensified “until it got to the point where we were madly in love again,” he said. “I felt humility for the first time in my life, my heart and soul opened up, and I could just feel that the special connection we once had was back again.”
Lara E. Fielding is an adjunct professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and a psychologist in private practice in Beverly Hills who specializes in using mindfulness-based therapies to manage stress and strong emotions. She said the emotional transformations of Mr. Shannon and his wife during those last seven years of their marriage can be attributed to human nature.
“A tragedy such as illness can absolutely bring couples closer as they fight a common foe together,” she said. “We get closer when we find a space to be vulnerable together.”
“The usual day-to-day annoyances fall away,” Dr. Fielding added, “and we remember what really matters, and we grow united in what’s most important.”
Mr. Shannon still lives in Sewickley, Pa., a small town 13 miles outside of Pittsburgh, where he and his wife raised three sons, including Chad Patrick Shannon, 44, a lawyer turned writer who wrote with his father “The Best Seven Years of My Life: The Story of an Unlikely Caregiver.” The self-published memoir was released in December. It chronicles the metamorphosis of a distant-to-doting husband.
“My dad was hard-driving and demanding both as a spouse and as a parent,” he said. “He was successful in business, but he was also this very serious, intense, Type-A personality who all of my high school friends were afraid of.”
“My mom loved my dad, but to be honest, he wasn’t fully in love with her until those final seven years,” he continued. “But once he got there, he just wanted more and more of the true love they so enjoyed catching up on.”
In the memoir, Chad Shannon described the moment when his father came to a crossroads in terms of making caregiving decisions for his wife that would relentlessly test his resolve, and hers.
“Most people’s reaction to these circumstances would be to tumble into depression,” he wrote. “Life has dealt you a bad hand. You’re boxed in. It would have been so much easier for George to find someone else to take care of her than to do it himself. Bring strangers into the house to offer round-the-clock care. Put Carol in a home. Take the easy way out. But that isn’t George. Self-pity wasn’t an option for him. If he ever felt sorry for himself, he never showed it. He was all in. When the relationship faced its drastic change, George totally accepted his fate and grew from it. He recognized anew that he was, as he puts it, ‘terribly in love with this woman.’ He found joy in a seemingly never-ending task that would buckle most of us at the knees.”
The memoir also revealed other personal challenges faced by the Shannon family, including the fact that George Shannon was diagnosed with prostate cancer on his 60th birthday.
“My cancer is present but very much under control,” George Shannon wrote.
But there would be other birthdays to celebrate, over and over and over again.
“In her last years, Carol could comprehend a lot but could only speak in short sentences, and she had trouble remembering things,” George Shannon said. “For three straight years while I was taking care of her, she went down to our local drugstore, which has a selection of about 5,000 birthday cards, and she picked one out for me, soon forgetting what was written on each card.
“Yet on all three occasions, a year apart, she picked out the same card, which told me in the end how much my wife really felt about me,” he said. “The cards read: ‘Happy birthday to my husband, my soul mate, my very best friend — I love you.’”
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