Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Louise Shelby: a fighter to the end

One day while I was working in the tutoring lab at Austin Community College a woman wearing a patch over one eye turned to me and said, "You're Joe, aren't you?"

Her name was Louise Shelby and I didn't remember her, but she remembered me as if we were still at Bryker Woods Elementary in Austin, Texas. My sister recalls Louise as a pretty little girl with translucent skin. Louise was an innocent who one day discovered something odd hanging out of her nose. It was a flap of skin that didn't belong. It didn't hurt, but it concerned her family who immediately took her to the first of many doctors. Louise had something growing in her face. It was a massive and quite malignant tumor.

I didn't immediately remember Louise from Bryker Woods. She was a year younger than me and she had vanished from our school. Her life was a series of treatments for a cancer she had little chance of surviving. Doctors had to remove her eye. They just as quickly removed her youth. Many of us are stuck, frozen in a moment of tragedy or brilliance. It might be the glory days of high school or the partying times in college. Perhaps it's that first love that still stings with desire. For Louise it was innocent childhood days at Bryker Woods when she could still see through both eyes clearly.

Like me, the adult Louise was a writer. She set out to tell the improbable story of her survival in a book called Child of Glass. She joined a tight group of Austin writers who helped her along her journey. She had found her purpose. She had improbably survived both of her parents and many of the doctors and nurses who treated her.

Then the beast that had been crouching in wait pounced on the adult Louise. Cancer. Again. More chemotherapy. More struggle. More survival. Louise wrote, she drew, she fought.

Two years ago I sent out a note on Facebook that I would be selling my novel-in-stories Evacuation Plan at a Texas Book Festival booth. Louise wrote that she would love to read it, but she was broke. I told her to come and I'd give it to her as a gift. When she arrived it was clear that the chemo had taken its toll. Her speech was slurred and the weariness was pulling her down. But she was alive and Louise knew how to fight. She put her book out on Kindle, and I recently tried to help her connect with a publisher who would put out a print edition.

She lost the battle this past week.

My book Evacuation Plan is about hospice, but I don't claim to know much about death. Louise knows. She fought it off for years. She never stopped being that little innocent at Bryker Woods. She made art, laughed in the face of the beast of cancer and lived as long as she could manage. In her last days traveling to Houston to see doctors, she marveled at the beauty of Texas wildflowers. She never stopped seeing the beauty in life, and that's a big lesson for us all.

Please do me a big favor and read her story as she wrote it. You can find it here. The best tribute to Louise would be for her book to be on the Amazon bestseller list.

You can also read Louise's blog here.


mark mitchell said...

Beautiful post, Joe. Thank you. You really caught her here. That's what always struck me about Louise too -- her innocence and honesty. Her grit and courage, too of course. I think the innocence is what shines forth in her remarkable, satisfying, positive book.

Anonymous said...

What an amazing tribute. Thank you for sharing. Tara

Erin Conway Izzo said...

I knew Louise.
She was the first to befriend me, when we returned to Austin in '68; Bryker Woods Elementary, Mrs. Burdett's class. (That's pronounced BURR-dit, for any of you who were her students!)
I was skinny, scrappy, almost 2 years younger than many of my classmates. And most times, felt like I was on the fringes of anything "important" going on. At least in the realm of that age. Our first play date we were thrown together due to our older sisters. And Louise was... magical. Someone to explore my imagination with.
She was 'Pippi Longstocking' and 'Bayou Suzette', all rolled into exuberance. One stand-out adventure was "Braving the rapids as pioneer woman, to settle Texas." This was accomplished by bouncing up and down on a piece of plywood floating in the creek behind their house; reduced to a trickle, except when there'd been a big rain storm.
We would walk up to Ballaird's and blow our allowance on gum and 'Sweet 16' magazines. And yes, we reveled in being obnoxious to our sisters. One day we played Katie's 45RPM of 'Hey There Little Red Riding Hood' over and over, until their Mom came home and couldn't take it anymore. Many years later, I delighted my own children, knowing all the words when it came on the radio.

And then Louise disappeared. At some point my Mom explained to us that they had found she had Cancer. I could only understand that in a child's way. What struck me when reading about her life, is that despite the ravages of the disease, no where once was it ever put forth, not even with her first return home, that she had already beaten the odds. In an era where parents were told to take their child home and wait for the inevitable, Sarah and Cader refused to give in. And Louise fought. She fought back hard. Against more than Cancer. Against the frightened insecurity and unkindness of children facing anything that makes one "different". I am ashamed I was one of them.
I don't recall her being at school much after that. But one image has stayed with me. It is of Louise, sitting in the lunch room alone, after school. We were both probably waiting for our Mothers; each invariably always LATE picking us up! I saw her through the windows. Even at that age, I felt her isolation. But instead, I slunk on, and waited in front of the school. It is a CHOICE that has remained with me all of my life.

Erin Conway Izzo said...


Louise was a Wordsmith. I like to think that I am a bit of one too. As was my Father. Started collecting quotes while still in school. It wasn't until I was a parent with children of my own I came across this one;
" I always knew I would look back at the times I'd cried and laugh, but I never knew I'd look back at the times I'd laughed, and cry."
The words on the page blurred, as I remembered Louise. I bowed my head and wept. Because she had already forgiven me.

I am undeservedly blessed, that in a visit to Austin while carrying my first daughter, I had looked up Louise. We met for lunch. She was still a wonderful blend of contridictions. Quirky humored, etheral yet gangly, irreverent but oddly sophisticated girl-grown-into-a-woman, that she had to become, as a child. And with my inept attempts to aplogize for utter betrayal, her graciousness dismissed it immediately under the guise of 'kids are cruel'. She would not squander our visit on childish recriminations. She was more interested in how I felt, becoming a mother for the first time. This embodied Louise; Cancer was never what defined her. Not even in the hurt of what it should never have taken from her, what I so ignorantly gave to it; our childhood and beyond.

Time marches on. Occasionally I would think of Louise. But seldom as a victim/survivor of Cancer. But as someone I knew I had missed a great opportunity with. She possessed so many qualities I admired and found delight in. The greatest, having overcome the need to "fit in". I may pretend I did. But inside is still this skinny, toothy, "mouse fart". Who still occasionally relives the stings of childhood. Finding comfort sometimes in my lowest moments that someone like Louise would still call me "Friend".

To discover that she passed just this last Spring, tore through me like a clean knife. So neat in it's damage, it takes a moment for you to realize how much it bleeds. Despite the years I let slip away, it is lonely knowing she is no longer of this Earth.

But we are Wordsmiths, together. She, a PUBLISHED Authoress! There is Peace in that she knew this accomplishment. I am so very proud to say I have known her. What illuminates Louise, is that she would have said she was glad to have known me.
In another life, we might have shared more, swapped more quotes. So I leave her with one that has always brought me great comfort;

"Death is but a horizon. And the horizon is merely the limit of our sight."
Abraham Lincoln

- I don't know what's out there, Louise. But I do believe, someday we are all united. I look forward to that day.

With Abiding Love,
Erin Conway Izzo

Thank you Joe, for this opportunity. I do remember you; you were in my sister's Shannon's grade. Peace be with you.

Joe M. O'Connell said...


Thanks for posting your lovely comments about Louise. She struck me as pretty no-nonsense but still very innocent. I liked her. I'm glad you did, too.

Oh, and I think the last time I saw you a bunch of us were talking about skinnydipping at the quarry in Austin. We never did!

Oh, and buy Louise's book.

Take care--Joe

Erin Conway Izzo said...

Again, my gratitude for providing the place, (and space!) for me to Celebrate Louise.
Had loaded 'Child of Glass' to my Kindle upon immediate discovery, so she and I got to spend some time together last evening.

The wheels are already turning as to how to promote her legacy. A bit more of a challenge, since it is currently only in digital form. When time allows, please let me know any suggestions you might have for avenues I can pursue.

On a last note; smiled remembering the days as Trespassers at the old Quarry!
I'd say "let's all jump in the car, and go!"... but doubt it would carry the same anticipation or eye-popping effect, as it once did!
(Who WAS that nubile ingenue, and wherever did she go !?)

Congrats and Best of Luck on your new book.

Erin Conway Izzo said...

Good Morning Joe, (a-gain)
I am glad that you moderate this
("blog", is it?) as to allow exclusion of what is aside from it's intent.
As you can imagine, my heart and mind are full of Louise, and as I am now a world away from anyone else who knew her, and you were fortunate to know her as an adult, I would like an oppurtunity to share and inquire, if you would be at all welcome to that. I am going to go hunt and peck my way to a better path. But thought I would send you a weather advisory of my request. Also, yes, I would like a signed copy of your book. Should be a good read, as one of the many hats I wear, is in palliative care. At the very least, you have my email address to facilitate in that.
Take Care-

Joe M. O'Connell said...

Erin, Yeah, way to many daily spam comments about online casinos and sex aids!

I can't see what your email is on here. Send me a note at joeosobooktour at yahoo dot com.

Lizzy Onionhead said...

I had the pleasure of knowing Louise for a few months in college, back in 1982-83. During this time we took art class together and Louise was my friend. I thought she was lovely, smart as a whip, great sense of humor and cared deeply about animals. She had told me about her face and that she had cancer as a child, but our friendship was not about cancer at all. When I moved we drifted apart and I had wondered over the years how she was. Recently I found out about her book "Child of Glass" and read it. It is fascinating to read about her experiences and feelings from a time when I didn't know her yet. I never knew her as the Child of Glass, and I wish others could know the Louise I knew. Here are some pictures from when we were friends at Austin Community College. We went to Carnaval together (a big party in Austin) that's why we were in costumes in one pic. In another pic, Louise was collecting signatures to save the wolves, and she even spent extra time out of each day caring for a neighbor's German Shepherd that wasn't getting enough attention. Once she painted a mural of Pegasus on her ceiling. I remember that she was trying to help me become a better writer. I loved Louise's warm smile. I don't know if any of you out there knew Louise, but I want to make sure she is never forgotten. *Peace* (here are links to the photos. You don't need to be on facebook to view these pics)






Joe M. O'Connell said...

Lizzie, these are great photos to see! I didn't know Louise had attended ACC back them. You are lucky to have been her friend. She was a great person.