Spoiler alert: my friend Shannon died today, after a long battle with multiple cancers. Writing is my life and my therapy. This is me trying to work through some things in the only way I know how. Besides scotch, I mean. Oh, wait, I’m doing both at the same time!
My friend Shannon was a rare breed: honest to a fault, eternally optimistic, forever loyal to her friends, and basically made of steel. If you’ve been to a Sigler event in the Chicagoland area, you may have met her. Check out the smile on that picture of me and her — you wouldn’t think a light like that could ever be snuffed out.
But that’s not how life works.
I met Shannon Cunningham in my sophomore year of college. She was an incoming freshman. I was a sophomore journalism student and editor of the school paper. Now, you had to be a real go-getter to hold that position as a sophomore. Shannon was also a journalism student. I believe the first thing she ever said to me was “hi,” and the second was, “I’m going to take your job.”
She was a go-getter, too. Shannon was hungry, aggressive, loud and more than a little obnoxious. Does that sound familiar, dear reader? In short: I instantly smelled my own kind.
We hit it off immediately. Some people go to college and use it as a four-year party plan (and knowing what I know now, I highly recommend that particular field of study). Back then, though, I was there to work. Did I party? Of course. But mostly, I studied, I did my job as a student, I wrote other people’s term papers for $20 and a pizza, I was on the wrestling team, and — most of all — I worked hard to develop the school paper, “The Olivet College Echo.” I wanted to prove my worth as a budding reporter.
That meant long hours at the paper. It was a small college, yes, and a small paper, sure, but there were only a handful of reporters and lot had to get done. My buddy Dan Stahl was there for most of those long hours. So was Shannon. She never shied away from work. Sometimes we were all there until 2am, because shit had to get done and we’d be damned if we’d miss a deadline.
This was the days of printing out articles in column width on 8.5×11 paper, cutting the columns to size, running said columns through a “waxer,” then sticking said messy-ass-hot-waxed-column to grid paper. These pages were delivered to the print shop in town to turn them into actual newspaper copies. What’s that, you ask? Didn’t we just lay it all out on the computer and send the file to the printer? Child, please! We were the last generation of actual “paste up” kids that made the paper by hand. Shannon and I revolutionized the school paper by using a Mac SE running System 6. That’s right, System 6.
I tell you this “I walked to school two miles uphill each way through the snow” story to communicate that this girl worked her ass off. Shannon Cunningham simply did not give two shits about anything that got in the way of her goals. She knew what she wanted in life. She knew our college paper was Step One of her master plan (to be fair, I think “keggers & frat parties” was Step Two, and her sorority was Step Three, but no lie, Step One was the kind of old-school work ethic this nation was built upon).
I mentioned that she was loud. And obnoxious. And opinionated. So much so, that because we hung out together all the time my friends often referred to her as “Sigler Junior.” We were two peas in a pod, all right. A very, very loud pod that would tell you what we thought whether you cared to hear it or not.
I also mentioned that I knew her when we were immortal. Well, of course we weren’t. We knew that at the intellectual level, but at the raw emotional level, most 18- and 19-year olds can’t quite come to grips with the fact that their days are numbered. Death just doesn’t feel real. Even when it happens to someone close, it’s hard to deeply accept it can — and will — happen to you. If you’re 18 or 19 and you’re reading this, and you’re saying “whatever, bruh, I know the score,” how about you mark this down and hit me up a decade from now? At some core level, you think the rules don’t apply to you, that you’ll find a loophole, somehow, and tragedy will kindly skip your door and hit up your neighbor (who, to be fair, has a loud-ass dog that has political beliefs opposite of yours, so the bastard probably deserves a little tragedy, and I feel you on that).
When I graduated from Olivet and moved on, Shannon took over the Echo. Even at a small college, being the editor of the school paper looks good on a resume. But as with everything Shannon related, just having a title wasn’t enough. She was going to make her mark. She was going to set the bar so high they would eventually rename the school paper “The Olivet College Shannon.”
She broke a couple of stories that really embarrassed the school administration (they want you to write puff pieces about the drama department and the football team, not uncover blatant misuse of funds, you know what I mean?). Oh, that library you’re asking alumni to fund? Do those alums know about the library you raised a shit-ton of money for 25 years ago that quietly went away and never got built? Yeah, she landed a couple of solid right hooks on the administration’s jaw. The woman did not play.
After graduation, I went back to visit campus often when she was a senior. Everyone loved Shannon. Loud, opinionated, take-no-crap-from-anyone, happy to call you on your bullshit, and everyone loved her in spite of that. More likely, because of that. Why? Because your whole life long, it’s rare to meet truly honest people. “Does my ass look fat in this?” Shannon would be the first to say “girl, and then some.”
After graduation, we sorta kinda kept in touch. We’d see each other at alumni events. I think she worked for a newspaper, but I’m not sure. We had this grey area of our 20s where there is so much shit going on and you don’t notice time slipping past, you don’t realize that months or years go by without talking to people that you truly adore.
Then I set my sights on the publishing world. Shannon was so excited she volunteered to proofread a couple of my novels. It’s hard to remember the details—this was twenty years ago, gang, and my memory is not exactly something of legend. What I do remember is Shannon was well aware of my dream before my dream became reality. She was all for it, a pep-squad captain telling me to go after it.
When I got my book deal, Shannon was elated for me. I think she was more excited than I was, and believe me, I was excited.
Then I started touring. Most tours took me to Chicago, where Shannon had put down roots with her husband, Ted. From 2008 to 2015, we saw each other every time I came to Chicago. We’d do lunch or dinner. We’d get beers and reminisce about the old times. And she didn’t miss a single book reading in the Chicagoland area. Not one — not even during the years where she was fighting breast cancer. Oh, she was more than happy to (loudly) tell the Junkies about how obnoxious I was in my college days.
During this time (and I don’t know the dates because of a) bad memory and b) I am a horrible friend), Shannon was diagnosed with cancer. She tackled that shit head on. She had no illusions, but if there was one thing that defined my friend it was that she would never back down from a fight. She fought. She won — for a little while, anyway.
Then came 2016. I went to BookCon in Chicago as a guest. For the first time, Shannon couldn’t make it out to the event, or come see me downtown for drinks. The cancer was back. She was going through yet another round of chemo, and she was simply too weak to drive out to see me. So I drove to see her, at her home, a few hours outside of Chicago. And man, am I glad I did that.
Because it was the last time I saw her.
She was having a rough time of it, but she and her docs felt she had turned the corner. Yes, she was up against The Big C — again — and — again — had kicked the shit out of it.
But she hadn’t.
It was lurking inside of her, spreading, growing. I write horror novels for a living. It’s hard to invent something as evil as the reality of cancer.
After BookCon, I went home to San Diego. Shannon and I texted every day about her efforts to get back to walk and gain strength, to get on the elliptical and build endurance. Why? Because the woman wanted to get back to work, to get back to her job. She hadn’t changed a bit — there was work to be done, and she was the girl to do it.
Then came the Third Hardest News: not only was she not out of the woods, her situation had worsened. Significantly. A visit to her doc find out why she had stomach pains and couldn’t keep food down resulted in learning the chemo she thought had worked hadn’t got everything. What it hadn’t got had spread, fast, and in a big way.
Back to the hospital with you, Shannon! If you hear news like that about a loved one, your logical side knows shit is getting real. Your emotional side, though, that side holds on to hope that your made-of-steel friend is going to beat the odds. Yet again.
Then came the Second Hardest News: Shannon was going home to be with Ted, and doing hospice. The cancer was inoperable. She had, at most, a few weeks to live. No more optimism. We texted a few times. I sent a funny video. Something to do with cats, I think. She loved it. Then I went a few days without texting her, because, honestly, I was overwhelmed and had no fucking idea what to say to her. Before I could think of sending something that wasn’t fucking ridiculous considering the situation (cat videos for your dying friend, bro? Seriously? That’s the best you can do?), Ted let everyone know that they were going into private mode, that they didn’t want any more calls or visits.
I sent Shannon one last text: I heard the news. I love you, my friend.
She sent one last text back to me: I love you, too.
So, I went about my daily business. I wrote. I chatted on Twitter. I took out the garbage. All the usual stuff, knowing that at any moment, the news would come. I didn’t cry, goddamit, because I am a man raised the Midwest and Midwestern men simply do not do that shit.
I also did what people my age do when death rears it’s ugly head (I mean besides drink heavily, of course). I updated my will. I made sure the people I love knew I loved them.
Today, the Hardest News Of All hit home — my dear friend of 27 years has passed away.
This is the first time I’ve lost a friend close to my age. She’s gone, and that’s crushing, but it’s compounded by the fact that we were in college together. Grandparents dying, yeah, that sucks. When my parents go, sure, I know that means I’m next on the depth chart. When someone your own age dies, someone who blazed with life and love and who treated every fucking thing on the planet like it was the Super Bowl and Lollapalooza and chocolate and beer and a dozen drunken birthday parties all crammed into an overstuffed magical piñata dies, there’s something different about it. It takes that subconscious immortality, gently places into a velvet-lined box, puts a nice bow on it, and fires it into a black hole to never be heard from again.
My friend Shannon is gone. I love her. I will miss her.
I knew her when we were immortal.
We’re not immortal anymore.