Life of the party: Facing death, Shannon Anaya chooses joy
BY ERIC ADLER
The Kansas City Star
The appointment will be routine, the young mother expects. She settles into the doctor’s office, a silver and green oxygen tank propped at her side.
Shannon Anaya, 36, has traveled to her oncologist so many times since being diagnosed with colorectal cancer three years ago — enduring radical surgeries and radiation after what she originally ignored as stomach cramps — that these sit-downs to tweak her care have become part of her life.
Breathing has been a struggle this week, prompting an X-ray that showed tumors infiltrating her lungs. So maybe the doctor will recommend continuing the oxygen or a new chemotherapy drug.
“Bumps in the road,” says Shannon, half Hispanic, sculpted cheek bones, short chocolate-brown hair, green eyes.
It’s Feb. 7. Her 6-year-old son, Julio, will soon be having lunch at his Blue Springs kindergarten. Her fiance, Manny Mejia, 29, a compact and muscular drywaller from Mexico, sits at her side. They have been together through it all over the last five years. They plan to wed in April.
The doctor enters.
“Is the oxygen permanent?” Shannon asks and laughs, trying to put the others at ease.
“Yes,” the doctor says.
Silence. Shannon senses a shadow cross the doctor’s eyes.
“Shannon…,” the doctor begins carefully.
Anticipating what’s coming, Shannon makes it easy.
“Doctor,” she says, “do I have a year? Are we talking a year?”
Her thoughts drift to Julio, motherless.
“No, Shannon,” the doctor says. “I can’t say you do.”
Manny clasps her hand.
“Do I have six months?”
The doctor removes her glasses.
“Shannon,” she answers. “I can’t say you do.”
For the first time in front of her doctor, Shannon Anaya weeps.
Cancer riddles her lungs and has so weakened her bones that she needs a wheelchair. She knew it was aggressive. By living three years, she has already beaten the odds. Now mere months are left, the doctor predicts. Tumors are growing on top of tumors.
Outside, dazed, Shannon and Manny cry in his truck. Shannon’s cellphone rings.
Please, Lord, I don’t want anybody calling me, Shannon prays, because I’m going to have to ruin everybody’s day.
That’s not the way she plans to live her life.
One day later, the wedding is off. Shannon’s choice.
From the time doctors cut away her colon and declared her cancer rampant, she has tried to set Manny free, to save him from the pain and burden she knew would follow. He set his jaw time and again and refused. He wasn’t leaving.
“ Te quiero con todo mi corazon,” he would say. “I love you with all my heart.”
Nikki Walker, 35, Shannon’s best friend since fifth grade, her media naranja— “better half” — aches to help her spitfire friend. Shannon calls her condition “a pain in the butt” and named her colostomy bag after an old boyfriend.
“OK,” Nikki says on the phone, emphatic, having cried, but now trying to be strong. “What are we going to do? … What do you want to do?”
They think about the wedding that would never be.
“I’m not getting married now,” Shannon says.
“OK, that’s fine,” Nikki says, then ventures to think of something else: all the people Shannon loves and who love her.
They hatch an idea, outlandish and perfect.
“Yes,” Shannon says. “Let’s do that. Let’s have a party!”
The invitation hits Facebook and email boxes with a wallop, taking people aback.
A party? In the face of death?
Funeral directors say such affirmations of life are not unheard of but they are rare.
“To know Shannon is to love Shannon,” the invitation reads.
The script is written in English and Spanish, a language Shannon learned on her own. Set in turquoise and pinks, her favorite colors, it goes to friends and family and Shannon’s co-workers at Children’s Mercy Hospital, where she worked for seven years in admissions. That ended in October, when the illness became too much.
“Family and friends, please join us for a taco dinner, pictures and laughter to celebrate Shannon!”
No mention of illness. No mention of dying.
Date: Feb. 23, 6 to 10 p.m. at the Valley View High School gymnasium in Blue Springs, where Shannon’s father, Louie Dobbs, 58, has worked more than 25 years as the custodian. The principal didn’t hesitate to give permission.
It’s where Shannon as a preteen — three years older than her brother, Mike — skipped alongside her father at work when it was Hall-McCarter Middle School.
What seems like a sad and overwhelmingly tragic occasion to some people seems perfectly right to Shannon. The party is not about making a strident statement, she says, or raising a clenched fist to mortality.
She has no idea how much time she has left. Six months, she guesses, maybe less. She has called Kansas City Hospice and Palliative Care to help her and her family prepare.
For 13 years, hospice palliative care nurse Cindy Racz has helped hundreds of people with what’s euphemistically called their journey, to find grace in the process of death.
Those people who are accepting and have fallen into peace with themselves frequently have the softest, easiest passage, she said. Just as frequently it is a struggle for those who heave toward death with the demons and bitterness they carried in life.
“It hurts to see them go through it,” Racz says. “You see them not wanting to release, not dying peacefully. They linger or suffer or are restless. Sometimes you can see it in their face, the eyebrows furrowing. You can see the tension in their bodies.
“You try music, or aroma therapy. We try to get at some of these issues and pull the family in, even if it is to make a phone call to say, ‘I love you and forgive you.’”
In Shannon, Racz sees a rarity.
“She is so positive,” Racz says.
“I do hope I live for another 20 years,” Shannon says. “I want to.
“At the same time, I have to make plans in case that doesn’t happen.”
Central to her plan: Express her heart and mind to the people she loves.
Days before the party, Shannon sits, eyes bright and alert, smiling on a couch in her Blue Springs apartment. A clear nasal tube feeds a steady flow of oxygen. Images of her faith, framed pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, are arranged on one wall. Family photos adorn another.
Julio, at school, will be home soon. The hospice people have started coming to the house to give him art and music therapy.
Shannon made out her will long ago.
A friend arrives with a video camera to record messages for Julio, messages his grandparents can play for him as he gets older. She tells him stories about him as a little boy, sings him the song she sang to him as a baby.
Days ago, Shannon spoke to Julio in their kitchen.
“You know that mommy has an owie,” she told him, trying to explain. “It’s not getting better. Mommy might be going to heaven sooner than we thought.”
“When?” Julio asked.
He is only 6, a small boy with dark black hair who loves dinosaurs. His father — Shannon’s former husband — lives in his native Mexico. He has not been involved in his son’s life since he and Shannon divorced and she returned to the United States. Julio was still an infant.
“Only Jesus and God get to know when people go to heaven,” Shannon told him.
Whenever it happens, she said, he will have his own room and get to live with Grandma and Grandpa, whose house is barely a mile away. If she could, she would want him to know that she had no regrets in life, no bucket list with boxes unchecked.
Her ambitions have always been modest. Friends and family, that’s what is important to her. She loves to eat out and dance away weekend nights with her friends.
Oh, OK, maybe she would have liked to travel more and, before her illness turned worse, she had a plan to become a nurse to help people like her. She went straight to work after graduating from Blue Springs South High School, but she wishes she had gone to college. She is sorry about nothing else.
“Regrets?” she says. “I don’t really have any.”
At the party, she doesn’t want sadness. She wants people to know: “I’m very comfortable and at peace with where I’m going.”
She believes in an afterlife. She knows that her grandmother, Angie, her father’s mother, will meet her in heaven.
“I want people to go and have a good time and laugh and remember,” she says.
Funerals are one of the few times when an entire family and all the friends join together, everyone says. Someone invariably mentions how much the deceased would have loved the gathering. So why wait?
“Exactly,” Shannon says. “Exactly. I want to tell people thank you now. I want to let them know how much I care for them and love them now. So that way, when the time does come and I do move on, we have had our closure. And we know how we all feel. And we have talked about our lives. And they can be with me. Whenever that time comes, we can be at peace with everything.”
Maybe, she hopes, something else will happen too — the kind of small miracle that arises when people draw close to death and realize what really matters. Shannon holds out hope that long-lost friends will come together and that relatives will mend petty differences. Maybe, even if only briefly, they will come to see what she sees clearly.
“Appreciation,” Shannon says. “I think we all need to appreciate each other. Or show appreciation. We sometimes need to acknowledge each other more, acknowledge each other’s presence. Just a smile or a nod. You don’t know how much one smile can just change a person’s day. I know there are times when I have had bad days. Good grief, I appreciate that!
“Human kindness. The golden rule: Treat others like you want to be treated.”
But maybe it is too much to ask.
The party begins in two hours.
Last night, Friday, a mountain of snow smothered Kansas City. Shannon’s parents, Louie and Noma, worried that the party might not happen. School was canceled. No one was at work. Roads were clogged with cars, the city paralyzed.
Then Louie received a call that all but brought him to tears.
His co-workers had made their way in. No one asked them to do it. On their own, they worked for hours to clear the long driveways to the school, making way for his daughter’s party.
The last two days have been as hard as any.
This morning, their son, Mike, now 33, flew in from San Diego. Through the day, the Iraq war veteran and now government investigator has been holed up in his childhood bedroom. He’s tired, but his parents also fear he’s in denial, wanting to believe that his sister is stronger and has more time than the doctors say.
“Anything can happen,” he says.
Manny, stoic, feels the same.
“Why are we having this party?” he keeps asking Shannon.
Manny doesn’t understand it as positive. He sees it as giving up. He wants her to fight.
“He wants me to keep a positive mind,” Shannon says. “Mind over matter.”
But yesterday, as Nikki and other friends went over party arrangements, Noma chose her daughter’s casket. Like the flowers and tablecloths tonight, it will be lavender.
At 4 p.m., Manny wheels Shannon into the gymnasium. For Shannon’s sake, guests will struggle tonight to make the evening joyous.
“People are coming out of the woodwork for this party!” Noma declares.
She is the strength of the family. At 56, blond and with knee replacements, she has the sharp, no-nonsense demeanor of a woman who has defeated three bouts of cancer herself — uterine at age 24, ovarian at 28 and melanoma at 46 — while running a licensed day care for nearly 30 years out of her Blue Springs home.
Teenagers when they fell in love, she and Louie are upfront about how they were both raised rough — Louie on Kansas City’s West Side, Noma in the Northeast area, where Louie eventually went to high school.
Their stories overlap with tales of family alcoholism, drug abuse, neglect and abandonment. Louie was raised as one of seven brothers and sisters to a loving, single mom who battled a drinking problem. He didn’t come to know his father, or discover that he has seven other half brothers and sisters, until only 12 years ago and just months before his father died.
Noma, who recalls being cared for by the state for a short while when she was barely 3 years old, wishes her life had been as nurturing as Louie’s.
“We came from such bad backgrounds, I think we were meant to be together,” Noma says. “I probably love Louie more than when I married him.”
Louie cuts a stocky and formidable figure — barrel-chested, with powerful arms and shoulders and a dense black mustache. His appearance serves as a poor shield to what friends say is a kind and fragile heart.
When he and Noma married in 1975, they vowed that they would one day have children raised in love. And not just their own. When relatives fell on hard times, Noma and Louie took in nieces and nephews.
“I’m far from perfect,” Louie says, “but my goal was always to be a good father.”
It is his eyes in recent weeks that, unbidden, have turned to liquid. Shannon worries about him.
A few days after the party, Shannon would call the hospice chaplain to her apartment to talk to her dad. Within minutes, sitting across from Shannon, Louie would sob.
“I cry when I’m going to work. I cry at work. I sit all day long. All I do is think of her,” Louie tells the chaplain. “I see her in a coffin. I see her on a table. I don’t want to think about it, but I can’t help but see it that way.”
“Think of the present,” the chaplain says. “She’s here. In the present.”
Louie: “As long as she’s here, I can have a halfway normal life, as long as she’s still here. I don’t know what I’m going to do when you’re gone, Shannon. I don’t know how I’m going to handle it.”
Shannon, calmly: “You will, Dad. I’m still here, Dad.”
Minutes to go, and no one knows how many guests might show.
Relatives and friends from the old Northeast neighborhood said they’d be there, some from out of state. Children’s Mercy co-workers too.
Louie worked all morning setting up tables, seating for 200. Friends Nikki and Tara Trevino and Bebe Bartholomew and others cooked or decorated. They unfurled the bleachers from the wall in case of overflow.
At 6 p.m., the Five Gumbas, an Italian singing group led by Jim Cariddi, 85, begins warming up. Cariddi was Louie and Noma’s vice principal when they were at Northeast High School.
“I don’t even know what a gumba is,” Louie says.
In the kitchen, people prepare tacos and refried beans. There’s chocolate pudding cake and madeleines and apple strudel. The first guests begin to amble in.
“Hey, girrrl!” Shannon says to a co-worker.
She is seated in her wheelchair near the gym entrance, close to a decorated cardboard box for people to place cards, or memories, or even checks. Shannon lost her life insurance when she left her job. There’s virtually no money for a funeral or to leave Julio. (By the end of the night, shocked, she would find $6,000 in the box.)
An oxygen bottle sits at her side. Mylar balloons in the shapes of a heart and star shimmy above her head. Her blouse is violet butterflies. Eyes and smile wide, she feels ebullient.
“Hey, cuz!” she shouts.
To another: “Wennndy!”
“The party’s just getting started,” she says.
Soon, more people come, and more. Within an hour, there are 150, then 200. The tables fill. The Five Gumbas sing.
“We’re here to celebrate Shannon’s life,” Cariddi announces from the stage. “Food is being served. Let’s reminisce and have a good time!”
Children run between the tables on the gym floor. People enter, some warily, unsure how to react.
A guest sidles up to Nikki and asks about Shannon in a whisper: “Does she know how sick she is?”
“I had some people ask me, ‘What are you doing tonight?’” says work friend Silvia Hernandez. “When I told them I was going to a party for a friend who would be passing away, they were shocked.”
By 7:20 p.m., the tables and bleachers are nearly filled with some 500 people.
“We’re running out of food,” Noma says.
At that moment, another co-worker of Shannon’s arrives with 300 tamales she’d made, unasked, over the last three days.
Many understand the night.
“Get everybody together. It’s a positive, positive way to do this,” says a cousin, Richie Dobbs. “Of course it’s sad. She’s leaving her kid behind. She’s leaving all of us behind. She’s really strong about it. She’s totally at peace with it.”
“She doesn’t give you a chance to feel sad,” relative Arminda Lomeli says.
“I’ve never been to a party like this,” says high school friend Jeanne Knapp. “I think it’s better to do it now than to wait.”
As much as others are trying to be happy, they struggle to look beyond the tragedy.
“You want to be happy for her because she doesn’t want people to be sad,” said family friend Maria Bradshaw.
“I can’t look at her that much,” another friend said. “She’s going to make me cry.”
Shannon feels lucky.
Much of what she wished for is happening: Relatives have shown up, some seeing each other for the first time in years.
Northeast friends whom Louie and Noma have not seen in decades stand by their sides again.
There’s Joette Brownrigg, Noma’s friend since seventh grade. She wears a black and white scarf. Noma admires it and relates how she must go shopping because the funeral home has told her that Shannon will need a scarf to wear with the black V-neck dress she will be buried in.
Immediately, Joette unfurls her scarf.
“Here,” she insists, in tears, “let Shannon have this one.”
Ginna Terrill is here, Joette’s sister. She has known Louie and Noma since they were young teens. Her father is singing onstage. She’s here with food and comfort.
“I had lost touch with Louie and Noma for probably 20 years,” she says. “I’m telling you, I’ve never seen people so prepared for something so tragic to happen.”
But the tragedy isn’t hers, Shannon says.
“I feel it’s a blessing to be able to have this time,” she says.
So few people get this chance.
At least five families in the room tonight have lost children or loved ones too young. Kim Lockard, Noma’s sister, lost her son Joshua in a car accident when he was just 19. Louie’s best friend, Tom, lost his son the same way. Another friend’s daughter was murdered. Two children died of suicide as young adults in the last couple of years. At Children’s Mercy, Shannon saw families devastated every day.
There were no parties for them, she says.
At the front of the room, Nikki takes the microphone.
“We’re going to have a slide show through the years with Shannon,” she announces.
But first, a few words.
“Everybody who knows Shannon knows my name right along,” Nikki says. “We have been best friends since we were 10 years old. My mom was her mom’s Avon lady and it blossomed from there. … Something that I never knew about Shannon is the strength she possessed. It is just amazing. And this peace. And the way she handles this. It’s like she spends so much time comforting everyone else because no one else really knows how to react.”
They hand the microphone to Shannon. She speaks, smiling from her wheelchair, Julio at her side. Emotion gradually cracks her voice.
“This evening,” she says, “with food and drinks, is just not about me, but about you. About the support system I have had on this journey.
“I want to thank you and let you know how much I appreciate you coming and having this wonderful night with me. I thank God for blessing me with such wonderful people in my life. …
“There is a Scripture that was sent to me by a friend and, to me, it truly expresses my feelings. It is Matthew 6, 19 through 21. It says, ‘Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy … but store up treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust destroy. … For where your treasure is, there so will your heart also be.’
“That, to me, is what is most important. Everything that I feel in this room tonight — all the love, all the laughter — that is what we take with us. … It has just been an awesome, awesome feeling to have all this love tonight in this room. I thank you. Thank you.”
Hundreds of photos flash on a screen, running from Shannon’s birth, her lying in Louie’s arms, to motherhood, with Julio lying in hers. From a child in a sombrero to a young adult weighing more than she ever intended. “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” brings tears. “Fat Bottomed Girls” brings laughs. When Otis Redding finishes “These Arms of Mine,” hundreds of people are on their feet, cheering.
They gather around Shannon, offering their love, taking pictures.
“You’re a great person,” one says.
“Can’t complain, I have no complaints,” she says.
“I want to come visit you,” others say.
“I would like that!” Shannon says.
But Noma watches and wonders.
“She looks good. She looks great, doesn’t she?” Noma said earlier in the night. “I don’t know. I’m afraid it might go fast after this. I think she was waiting for this. I think she’s going to be at peace with herself. … I know my daughter, and she wants to see everybody. This is what she told me when I went over to her house: ‘God is calling me home now.’
“She’s in pain. She is never going to tell me how much she hurts. She said she is with God and she’s ready to go. She knows things; she just doesn’t tell us.”
Shannon Memorie Anaya, 36, died 10 days later.
The weekend after her party she went to a girls slumber party, where her friends ate and drank and talked about life and boys like when they were kids.
She had hoped to take Julio and Manny to the Great Wolf Lodge a week after that, but it was not to be.
Sunday night after the slumber party, her breathing became labored. By noon on Monday, she was in Room 28 at Kansas City Hospice. A day later, a few hours before she died the evening of March 5, the Rev. Robert H. Stewart of St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church in Lee’s Summit delivered her last rites.
Louie took comfort in knowing he stayed up with his daughter through the night before she died. Shannon was medicated, in and out of consciousness.
“Hello, Shannon,” Louie said to her. “I’m just sitting here, Shannon.”
But for her slow breathing, the room was silent.
“Shannon, is it all right if I sit next to you?”
“Sure, Dad,” she mumbled.
“Shannon, is it all right if I hold your hand?”
He stroked her hand as she settled into slumber. For hours, Louie watched her as she stirred, mumbling, waking once, laughing, to say groggily, “I was having a beautiful dream.”
At 4 a.m., with the night growing long, it was time for Louie to rest.
“Shannon,” he whispered, “I’m going to sleep now.”
He stood and kissed his daughter’s forehead.
“I love you, Shannon,” he said.
In her sleep, she heard.
“I love you too, Dad,” she said.
“That was the last words she said to me,” Louie said later. “I never heard her speak again.”
Shannon didn’t want Julio to see her dying at the hospice center.
He would not be at the funeral.
Before the visitation, Julio’s grandparents took him to the funeral home to see his mom in what he called “the basket.” He asked why she felt cold.
When they returned later to pay the bill, Julio ran from his grandparents’ grasp to the visitation room. He was confused to find someone else in the basket.
The funeral director explained without hesitation: Your mom isn’t here because God has already taken her to heaven.
Mike, Shannon’s brother, speaks at the funeral. He takes breaks to compose himself, steadying himself at the lectern above the lavender casket.
“I left last Wednesday, a week and a half ago, thinking, ‘I’ll see you in a month,’” he tells some 300 mourners, faces from the party exactly two weeks ago. “‘I’ll come see you every month.’ But a week and a half later, that wasn’t the case. …
“There are a few things people ask you. If there is one word that describes Shannon. You come up with words like optimistic, courageous, strong. But in the end, if you ask me that, I would say ready. She was ready. And she prepared herself. Until that last day, she was still smiling.”
Like Shannon, her parents display framed family pictures on the wall behind their couch.
At the center, on the bottom, is a new one that greets Julio every day now when he returns home from school. It’s of his mom at a recent party inside a school gymnasium, where she is surrounded by loving friends.
Shannon is laughing. Her head is tilted back, face pointing to the sky, eyes closed, mouth with a broad, open smile.
“I was really happy. It was exactly what I wanted it to be,” Shannon said just days after the party. “I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
“It was a nice time.”
Noma looks at the photo.
“This,” she says, “is the way I want to remember her.”