I normally write opinion pieces in this space but today I must write an obituary, a far more difficult undertaking. More heartbreaking is that the obituary is for my wife, my best friend of 40 years. Here is her story.
Shirley and I met in 1981 during my freshman year in medical school. We married 4 years later at the end of my internship year. She was busy as a buyer for Carson Pirie Scott in Chicago while I was a resident, but we found time to have Stephanie at the end of my ophthalmology residency. Two years later came Christopher and three years later Eric. The boys were born with serious medical issues which Shirley made sure were treated with the best care that the medical world had to offer, and we were able to provide the same for her when she became ill last year.
We lived in Michigan for 11 years, New Zealand for 3 years, and Denver since then, with Shirley creating a loving home wherever we lived. She was the glue which kept our family close and helped our kids grow into caring and competent adults.
She became ill with COVID in March of last year, before anyone knew much about it, other than the horror stories on the news. She spent six weeks in the ICU at Porter Hospital, received great care, but we thought then we would lose her based on how critically ill patients were faring at that time in New York and Italy. We unknowingly began grieving her death then, a year and a half ago. At first, we couldn’t be with her in the hospital but eventually we could and one of us was with her every day as she awoke from the fog of heavy sedation and life support. After Porter, was Craig Hospital for rehab followed by further residential rehab at Learning Services, nine months in total, most of the remainder of last year, helping her to recover as much as she could.
Her illness took a terrible toll on her – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. COVID beat her up badly and in hindsight left her terminally ill. We didn’t know it at the time, but her clock was ticking. Did she know it too? If she did, she didn’t let on. We had been grieving her loss for the past year and a half, subconsciously, but at some level knowing that despite her will and spirit, and unquestionable love she had for me and our family, Shirley wouldn’t be able to beat this.
We went through horrific pain last March when we thought we would lose her, and are going through it again now, with the added bleakness of finality but at some level understanding the inevitability of this day. The outpouring of love and support from friends and family has been wonderful. Shirley touched so many people and lives. She had a knack for spotting the wounded sheep in the flock, able to offer the help and support they needed, as many friends and family recently reminded us. She touched more lives than any of us realized.
She was born in Bloomington, Illinois, the fourth of five children of Hans and Victoria Stroink who immigrated to the US from Germany in the 1950s. Her father was a successful and prominent pathologist in Central Illinois while her mother was busy caring for five children. Shirley graduated from the University of Illinois in Champaign, and is survived by four siblings, Hermann, Ann, Walter, and Susan, who all still live in Illinois.
Shirley was active in the local community including the Denver Alliance, Denver Ballet Guild, the Cancer League, her women’s bible study, and other charitable organizations. She was so proud of being honored as volunteer of the year by the Denver Alliance with the Donald Sewell award for her success with membership growth. As one of her fellow members said, “Anything Shirley touched she gave 100 percent.”
She loved me and her three children, daughter in law Miranda, and our first grandson Theo who she adored. She was so proud of her family and loved spending time with us, whether in the kitchen cooking with Chris, or during weekend getaways to the Broadmoor with Steph, our last visit to Boise seeing Eric, Miranda, and Theo, or our usual evening activity of playing golf, Shirley driving the golf cart and putting, and frequently noting how well, or not well, I was playing that evening.
It was wonderful just being outside in nature with her on warm summer evenings, with me perhaps at some level, realizing that we were on borrowed time, making sweet memories to sustain me after her passing. A recent photo captured her joy on such an evening, sitting in our golf cart on the 16th hole, in front of our home, with a huge smile on her face.
Why did this all happen? Why did she leave us now? God had a plan for her, written before she was even born. Someday when we reunite, I may learn the answers. Despite being in a way terminally ill after her initial battle with COVID, God gave us most of this year with her, to begin grieving and to grow in our love and support, both as a couple and as a family, to prepare us for this inevitable parting. I am so thankful for the rock of support of our children for the past year and a half.
Pinned above Shirley’s desk was this message from one of her Craig Hospital therapists. From Corinthians, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
Our anguish, while acute, is temporary. Shirley knows this as she watches from heaven, free from pain and suffering, proud as always of her family, waiting to reunite with us all in the future when we are someday called home. We miss her terribly but are comforted in our memories of her and knowing that she walks beside us every day, unseen, unheard, but always near, still loved, still missed and very dear..