Monday, June 29, 2015

This Moment Brought to You by Shelby Offrink

Photography by Kerry Lake
Do you see the little boy wearing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sweatshirt?  That's 4-year old Jack.  Underneath that sweatshirt is a beautiful button up shirt in muted shades of gray, green, yellow and blue- a shirt carefully chosen by me to coordinate with the rest of our outfits for family picture day.  That morning, Jack wriggled and writhed around our bed as we attempted to get him in that shirt.  As a compromise I told him we could go to his closet and pick out a different dress shirt.  It wouldn't be as perfect, but I could let that go.  When presented with two options for alternative dress shirts, he wanted nothing to do with either of them.  Instead, he reached into his closet and pulled that sweatshirt off of the hook and said "I want this.  I want my turtle sweatshirt."  When faced with this dilemma, every parent has to sigh a deep sigh and ask "Is the juice worth the squeeze?"  But for me, the answer was pretty simple.  For over a year now, the answer has been so very simple.  "Ok baby," I said. "You can be a turtle for our family pictures."  And later, when he wanted to hold his Avenger's sticker book in every shot, he found no protest with me.  Because, dear friends, when given the choice to have a smiling turtle in your photos or a crying gentleman, you pick the turtle.  You choose to let your child's heart sing for a little while.  I want a family photo that freezes us in this moment in our lives, this amazing period of joy and frustration.  Our house is on the market, we've had unexpected car repairs and illnesses to address, and our children are little balls of chaos and unfettered energy.  Life is very complicated, but it's also a tremendous gift.  Life is a tremendous gift.  And that's why the moment you see captured in that photo, and so many more have been brought to you by Shelby Offrink.

I met Shelby in the offices of our HR department at work.  She had come in to talk to someone and somehow we struck up a conversation about farming, organic vegetables and food labels- because clearly that's what happens in HR offices in case you didn't know; we like to solve all the world's problems in this line of work.  Shelby was brilliant and I love being around brilliant people who can teach me things.  I was leading a training program called SEEK- Stryker Employees Exchanging Knowledge that sponsored all sorts of guest speakers to come in and do "lunch and learn" style classes on a variety of different topics.  I asked Shelby if she'd like to do a course on food labeling and what it all meant.  Shelby put together a class called "Organic and Grass Fed and Cage Free, Oh My!" that was filled with her perfectly sarcastic sense of humor.  She opened up her presentation by saying "There is a lot of label generated confusion when you walk into the grocery store. Today I am going to probably confuse you a little more (pause)  (laughter).  But the goal is that by the end, you are a little more educated about what this stuff means to us and to our environment."

Shelby and I stayed in touch over the years, making plans to get lunch together when we could.  She was the only person who would go eat sushi with me at lunch.  Funny side note- she always gave me the tomatoes off of her salad because her amazing palette couldn't handle a non-organic, store bought tomato.  The girl truly walked the walk in all that she was passionate about.  I saw her briefly after she moved back to Michigan shortly after the birth of her second daughter.  We had a sushi date on the calendar that was canceled after she got a diagnosis that the back pain that she had attributed to sciatica was actually an incredibly rare and incurable form of cancer -  stage 3 glioblastoma of the spine.  Shelby fought with every fiber of her being.  The cancer spread to her brain and still she fought.  Her husband Ben's Hodgkin's Lymphoma which had been in remission came back and they fought together.

I watched Shelby's story unfold over the past year and a half.  I would read updates about her setbacks, her little victories, and her indomitable spirit.  I considered the little things that caused me frustration throughout my day- messy kids, cars that broke down, deadlines, bills to pay, and the litany of inconsequential distractions we all slog through over the course of a week or month or year.  I began to think about how desperately Shelby and Ben would love a child's ear infection to be the worst part of their day.  How they would long to only worry about paying for a minor car repair.  I thought of those things and I got nervous.  I got nervous that I was wasting precious time with my babies and husband worrying about trivial nonsense.  I was losing my children, not literally, but it was growing harder and harder to see them  through the noise and the fighting and battles of will.  So I bought a ring.

A fundraiser for Shelby came out in the early months of her fight.  Beautiful beaded rings whose colors were selected by her and made by an artist who donates portions of her proceeds to fund cancer research.  When the ring came in the mail I wore it every day.  The sight of it reminded me to take in a deep breath of the life-giving air that surrounded me and to feel grateful.  I wasn't always perfect at it, but I have paused in gratitude more in the past year and a half than I ever have in my entire life.

Jack and I, both wearing our Superhero rings
Shelby passed away last night, and now her positive, beautiful energy is scattered everywhere.  It certainly lives in me.  The family photo at the top of this blog post was taken yesterday morning, Shelby's last morning on earth, in the form that we all knew and loved her.  The smile on the face of my son belongs to Shelby Offrink, Ben Offrink and their daughters Maeve and Hazel.  Their story, their bravery, and their love were the only things that made me pause that beautiful Sunday morning, look my son right in his pleading brown eyes and say, "Ok, baby.  You can be a turtle for our family pictures."  I will forever look at his face in this photo, his joyful, jubilant (and yes, victorious) face and say a silent prayer to my friend Shelby thanking her for that smile.  

I asked our wonderful photographer Kerry to capture us as we are at this time in our lives; who we are in this moment.  I know now that what she captured was the legacy of Shelby Offrink in my life.  What I hope to share with anyone reading this is to carry on Shelby's legacy in every moment you pause to reflect about how grateful you are for this life; this messy, complicated, beautiful life.  In those moments when you let your 4 year olds leave the house looking like turtles or princesses or wizards because it makes their hearts sing, do that for Shelby and dedicate the ensuing smiles and laughs to her spirit.

Our family photo captured us in this moment and in this moment we have nothing but gratitude.

If you are able, please consider a donation to a trust that has been set up in Ben and Shelby's daughters' names-