By Susy Schultz
Two and a half years ago, one of the parents in our school, Shawn Stumbras, was diagnosed with a brain tumor, Stage IV.
I don't know much about brain tumors, but I know Stage IV can't be good. It's the highest number in a rating system that starts at one.
And when Shawn was diagnosed, I didn't know much about Shawn, either. Our older boys were the same age, we had met at school, kids sports games, music programs and classroom events. He taught the Family Math class we took at school. He was a funny guy, athletic, bright and always very sweet.
I enjoyed talking to Shawn, a commodities trader, who was always home for the kids in the afternoon. I enjoyed his wife, Mary Beth Cvengros, an attorney, who can remember every book she's ever read and laughs easily.
I knew a bit better their son, Michael, a bright, vibrant guy who plays a mean Lynyrd Skynyrd riff on the guitar, has a good eye for film making and is never afraid to speak up. He is also confident enough in himself to enjoy adults with no shame--not always easy for a preteen or teen. I barely knew the youngest family member, Sarah, a Daddy's girl and a very bright soccer, baseball and cello player with an independent way of thinking.
They lived two and a half blocks away and were on my list of people to get to know better.
When I heard about Shawn, the list seemed stupid. I felt stupid. And when I thought about it, it was stupid to even be thinking about what I thought or felt. I picked up the phone to say I was sorry.
In the years that followed, I have come to know the family a bit better. I am very lucky.
In that short time, Shawn and Mary Beth have taught me more about being a parent than almost anyone I've ever known--except my mother.
Even when Shawn was moving closer to death, he was more alive than most people ever will be.
And he was, above all, a dedicated dad.
Shawn and Mary Beth went ahead making plans. Shawn's line in the sand was simple: No extended measures if he could no longer parent his children. That was his definition of life.
Beyond that, things would go on.
They didn't cover up his illness. They talked about death in the open, rather than hushed tones. They named it. Not pushing it, but not afraid of it.
They also showed the children (and the rest of us) how to make choices. "When Shawn would get bad news and there was often bad news," says Mary Beth, "he would take a minute, and just say, ‘Well, I can only do my best.'" And he would.
"They were always focused on doing your best--not always being the best--but doing the best," says Susan Gibson, a friend and the former principal at the children's school.
"They weren't seeking perfect children, but happy children, joyful children. They gave them space to have their own personalities," says Gibson.
"They kept the family focused on what was good about the family--not the illness."
They kept moving forward. Life continued with its many responsibilities: tests, homework, music, sports, laughing and especially, playing.
It was Shawn. "He loved to play," says Mary Beth. "He was a big kid himself."
"No matter what was going on ... Shawn carved out big chunks of time for those kids," says Ray Suarez, a family friend who met the couple in Lamaze class. "He wanted life to go on with birthday parties, outings, Little League."
For years, Shawn coached basketball and baseball, girls and boys. That continued, as did his presence at school. "He was the one who was ill and he just wouldn't let anyone feel bad about it," says Gibson. "He was able to joke about his condition," says Suarez. "He was self-deprecating, putting people at ease even at a terrifying time."
"It was never about Shawn, no matter what he was facing," says his friend of 30 years, Dan Halfman.
After his first surgery, Shawn stood up in front of his son's 6th grade class, joked about his shaved Frankenstein head and gave a good-bye tribute to the teacher. It was never about Shawn--fresh out of a life-threatening surgery. It was about this wonderful teacher and these great kids.
After his second surgery, Shawn started refereeing basketball at the Y and for regional Catholic high schools. Very often, he met children who couldn't afford the basketball fees. They touched him. His family and friends have set up a fund for them in Shawn's name at the Oak Park YMCA.
"It is pretty amazing when your body is in full and open revolt against you and your brain is literally killing you," says Suarez. "At that time, the one thing he thought about was: Is everyone else OK?"
Everyone else was OK. Shawn wasn't. There were three brain surgeries, chemotherapy, drug reactions, setbacks, recoveries, tears and questions.
Like an artist, he made it all look easy.
When things weren't good, the family found a way to turn it around. Mary Beth once threw Shawn on her back, put him in the van and drove him to Sarah's baseball game. When they arrived, Sarah said they had missed her home run. Mary Beth simply said, "Then, you'll just have to hit another one." Sarah did. Shawn was so pleased. At age 44, Shawn's body left life just a week before we went to press. But the spirit of this big strong bear of a man is still with his kids, his wife, his family, friends--and everywhere a kid is playing.