To our dear, wee Sheelagh

August 16, 2013 • Posted in guest blog, Mike Knezovich, parenting a child with special needs, travel, Uncategorized by
That's wee Sheelagh on the left, then our friend Jim Neill, Beth, and Beni. It was taken in August, 2011 in the picturesque Collioure, France.

That’s wee Sheelagh on the left, our friend Jim Neill, Beth, and Beni. It was taken in August, 2011 in the picturesque Collioure, France.

It’s difficult to put thoughts about our one-of-a-kind friend Sheelagh into words, so I am very grateful to my husband Mike Knezovich for doing that for us in his guest post today.

In August of 1986, our son — name still to be determined — was getting ready to be born. About the same time, Sheelagh Livingston — an unsuspecting college student from Belfast, Northern Ireland — arrived in Urbana, Ill. Sheelagh had qualified for a year-long exchange program at the University of Illinois, and found herself in the middle of corn and soy bean fields and 90 degree heat with 90 percent humidity.

Undaunted, she asked at the university Study Abroad office about volunteer opportunities outside of campus. She wanted to learn about real Americans, she said. Beth had worked at that office in her seeing days, and one of her former colleagues suggested that Sheelagh contact Beth, who needed a volunteer reader.

On September 3, 1986, the ob-gyn doctor said it was early, but it was time, and scheduled a Caesarian section. Gus was born, he nearly died in the delivery room, and he ended up being in the neonatal intensive care unit for a month. It was crazy, and I took to leaving status updates on our answering machine for concerned family and friends. During that time, young Sheelagh called our number and was treated to a message with a crisis-filled report on Gus and Beth’s condition.

She admitted later that she wondered what she might be getting herself into. “Bloody Americans,” she said, astounded that we’d share personal details on an answering machine. But she left a message. Beth returned it, and eventually, Sheelagh was coming to our home all the time. Ostensibly, she came to read to Beth — mail, bills, and other printed stuff I couldn’t keep up with. But Beth and Sheelagh hit it off riotously from the beginning and became partners in crime. They were two jigsaw puzzle pieces that somehow, serendipitously, fit together perfectly.

I had a lot on my plate back then, so I wasn’t always tickled to learn that somehow walks with Gus in the pram or visits to coffee shops had replaced reading that day. I’d come home, there’d they be. I’d ask how the reading went, and they’d both break into laughter. Reading?

Beth — and I — had a new friend. An interesting one. A vibrant, cherubic, impish, knobby-kneed, twinkly blue-eyed, red haired force of nature who talked a blue streak in a beautiful lilt. She was just good to be with in a room. Beth had been laid pretty low by going blind and then a year later giving birth to a baby with a genetic disorder. Sheelagh was unfazed by it all. And that meant everything to Beth, and really, to me, too.

Sheelagh took road trips with us, had dinner at our place, met our families and friends. And charmed pretty much all of them. When the academic year ended, we gave Sheelagh a hearty farewell party, and she was off for the finale of her American adventure: hiking the Grand Canyon. Beth was despondent. Sheelagh was the first friend she’d made after losing her eyesight. That hadn’t occurred to me until Beth said it. And it really drove home how, for just awhile there, Beth had lost her mojo. With Sheelagh, it’d come back, but Beth thought she’d seen the last of wee Sheelagh.

I, on the other hand, had no doubts that we’d see her again. And I was right.

By 1988, our lives had settled to the point where we could take a trip, with Gus in tow, to Europe. Beth’s sister Marilee and her family were living in Germany then, and they generously agreed to care for Gus so that Beth and I could take off for Berlin to meet up with Sheelagh and our mutual friend Gerald.

A lasting memory from our arrival at the West Berlin train station: I told Beth I could see Sheelagh and Gerald walking toward us on the platform. Sheelagh’s lilt was easy to distinguish from the other accents on the platform, and when she called out a hearty “Hullo! Beth spread her arms for an embrace. At that very moment another woman rushed by to catch a train, and Beth joined the stranger in a perfect, figure-skating pair twirl. They came to a rest, both broke into laughter, and the woman ran on toward her train. Sheelagh saw it all and arrived in a stitch, as she would say.

We sort of traded off continents from then on. We visited Sheelagh in her hometown, Belfast. We met her parents, ate shepherd’s pie cooked by her mom, heard the story of how her dad had been hijacked by an IRA operative, and got a taste of Belfast life during the troubles (it was actually pretty normal, save for the troop carriers). Sheelagh visited Urbana and joined us on a driving trip to the North Carolina coast, helping with Gus. We listened to Country Music, explained–as best we could–about the South and the North. She was entertained, if not also a little stunned. (“This country is so bloody big!”)

And so it went. We traveled back to Berlin after the wall came down, and we took a holiday in Italy together. Beth visited Sheelagh on her own in Rome once, too, and then with a friend years later, after Sheelagh became an occupational therapist and resettled in a lovely lough-side town in Northern Ireland called Portaferry. Sheelagh met her loving companion Beni after she moved back to Northern Ireland, and the two of them were married in 2011. We met up with them in Warsaw, Poland, for our friend Gerald’s wedding. And when Sheelagh and Beni visited us in Chicago we spectated at the Chicago Marathon, attended a gospel choir rehearsal at a friend’s South Side church, and biked the lakefront.

We were lucky to reassemble the crew this past July in Portaferry.

We were lucky to reassemble the crew this past July in Portaferry. That’s the beautiful Strangford Lough in the background.

Through it all, whenever Beth and Sheelagh would come together, they were immediately joined in rhythmic chatter. I have no idea what all they talked about — at least partly because Sheelagh talked very fast in her accent — and I gave up trying. Eventually I knew to learn to get out of the way for at least a couple hours a day and let them pick up from wherever they had left off, whether that was yesterday or last year.

We’ve communicated by sending old-fashioned cassette tapes back and forth over the years, and a few years ago Sheelagh sent a tape with some bad news: She had cancer. She underwent vigorous chemotherapy, and by the time we met her, Beni, and our London friend Jim (who generously organized our holiday) in France, you wouldn’t have known she’d had so much as a cold. After a long, tough go of it, she was the little bouncy ball of sunny mischief she’d always been. And we had a delightful time.

Earlier this year, Sheelagh scheduled a Skype call with Beth. Beth knew immediately it couldn’t be good news. I opted for denial. Beth was right.

The cancer was back with an evil vengeance. Not much more that doctors could do. Sheelagh’s wish? She wanted to be with friends. We planned our visit to Portaferry for May, but Beth’s SOB aortic valve tumor canceled that. We arrived in Dublin on the Fourth of July instead, after Beth’s doctors said it’d be safe for her to travel. Sheelagh and Beni met us in a camper van — they’d bought it earlier this year to take trips to see the friends Sheelagh loved so much.

It was a wonderful few days. Each morning, Beth joined Sheelagh in her bedroom while I read downstairs. Our friend Jim flew in for the visit, too, and every afternoon he’d arrive from the B&B he was staying at and we’d all have an outing together — Sheelagh was still mobile, if laboriously slow. “Our house looks like an OT equipment showroom,” she joked — and she and Beni did have walkers, grab bars, and other hardware of all stripes. We had lunch with her parents, who’d come down from Belfast. We took turns pushing her in a wheelchair as we walked along the Strangford Lough. We met the locals, all of whom knew Sheelagh and Beni.

Throughout, Sheelagh was…Sheelagh. I don’t know how, but she was.

This past Wednesday we heard from Beni:  After a bash for Sheelagh’s 48th birthday last week, things had gone bad to worse quickly. Sheelagh died at home, with her sister Fiona and her beloved Beni at her side.

It’s never going to make sense to me. I know that. I just hope I eventually learn to accept it. I’ll take great comfort from the gift of those four sublime, sunny days in Portaferry with Sheelagh and Beni and Jim. The combination of sparkle and spunk in Sheelagh’s face is etched, and I will always be able to recall her beautiful, sing-songy voice. And like all of her friends, I will always ache for just one more visit.

jim On August 16, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Very Moving.

Janet On August 16, 2013 at 4:15 pm

Thank you for sharing this — I know this is a hard loss for you both, and while telling the story of how your friendships came to be and grow will never change the ending, those memories and experiences are so wonderful to cherish and keep alive by sharing with us, many who never met Sheelagh. Love, Janet

srshoemaker On August 16, 2013 at 4:17 pm

A wonderful tribute. Thanks for sharing her with us.

Jenny Fischer On August 16, 2013 at 4:49 pm

Ah Beth and Mike – what a tremendous loss – I didn’t know her and I’m crying -beautiful tribute Mike – thinking of you both.

Catherine Rategan On August 16, 2013 at 4:59 pm

My deepest sympathies, Beth, on the loss of your dear friend. And my congratulations to Mike for a beautifully written blog post. See you in September.


*Catherine Rategan* Writer, Inc. 312-266-8146

Cheryl On August 16, 2013 at 6:57 pm

What a beautiful tribute to Sheelagh…..I’m so sorry for your loss.

Glen H. Martin On August 16, 2013 at 10:41 pm

My condolences to you on the loss of your dear Friend. Mike, my condolences to you also. You have given a wonderful tribute to Sheelagh. Please pass my thoughts and prayers on to Beni.

Maureen Naset On August 17, 2013 at 12:44 am

I am so very sorry for your loss. Sheelagh sounded like an incredible person and wonderful friend. Thinking of both of you during this sad time.

taraisarockstar On August 17, 2013 at 1:50 am

So sorry for your loss. What an intense year you have been through. I’ve been meaning to say this since your scary hospital ordeal…that if there’s ever anything you might need, Roger and I are always around!

Pick On August 17, 2013 at 7:31 am

So sorry to read this sad news. Thanks for the beautiful tribute, Mike. Much love to you and Beth. I will never forget Sheelagh’s visit to our West Va cabin when she brought along her green boogie board after her beach visit. She was a jewel.

Mike On August 19, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Thanks for having us and I still have great memories from that brief stay. Ha! The boogie board!

Benita Black On August 17, 2013 at 9:25 am

Your loving tribute makes her live forever. Thanks.

Marilee On August 17, 2013 at 10:44 am

Mike, what a beautifully written description of this very special friendship. Beth and Mike, we are so sorry for your loss. Marilee and Rick

Mike On August 19, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Making that trip to Germany with Gus was a major milestone for us and couldn’t have done it without you guys.

Monna Ray On August 17, 2013 at 11:16 am

Beth and Mike,

I’m learning how to respond to the blog, which I read religiously. I always find inspiration. I also am amazed at what full lives you lead despite the road blocks.

My sympathy in your sadness and may you continue the rewarding, inspiring lives you lead. Love, Monna

Mary Rigdon On August 17, 2013 at 12:38 pm

Mike and Beth — This was so touching, I cannot imagine how much you miss her.


glivingstonGretchen On August 17, 2013 at 4:36 pm

Words cannot express. I am so terribly sorry. I knew when I saw the heading to the post that the news could not be good because I recall hearing news of the cancer in an earlier post.

Laura On August 18, 2013 at 4:35 pm

I am so very sorry for your loss. What a wonderful friend she was, and you both were!

Nancy B On August 18, 2013 at 5:52 pm

She sounds like a one of a kind. I’m so sorry for you both and for Beni. What a lovely tribute to her, Mike. On August 18, 2013 at 6:24 pm

Another instance to show us all how fortuntate we are that we are still breathing.  I slept in the same b ed with with her one night at your place.  I am so sorry.

Love, Russ

Mike On August 19, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Russito! We were just talking about that–the crazy farewell party. Glad you remember. She’s pretty memorable.

beckylpc On August 18, 2013 at 10:10 pm

I am so sorry for your loss – what a beautiful relationship. You have such a gift of words in sharing her. Take Care.

bethfinke On August 19, 2013 at 9:06 am

Thanks to all of you for your kind words. Over the years we have come to know Sheelagh’s parents, too. I phoned them Saturday, and the first thing Bob (Sheelagh’s father) said when he realized it was me was, “Oh, Beth, these are sad times.”
Yes. They are.
Her mum got on the phone, too, and we cried together long-distance.
The memorial service for Sheelagh is today, Monday, and is probably going on right now as I write this message. Bob said “all of Portaferry will be there” and I’m sure he’s right.
I thought this tribute Mike wrote captured Sheelagh’s spirit perfectly. All these comments you’ve left here confirm I was right to think that, so I emailed Beni with Mike’s words yesterday. I’m not sure what Beni has in mind for Sheelagh’s memorial today, but I gave her permission to use Mike’s tribute, or any words from it, at the memorial if she finds it appropriate.

bethfinke On August 19, 2013 at 9:09 am

PS: I suppose if Beni chooses to use anything from this tribute at the memorial today, she might leave out the comment above from our friend Russ – if I remember that party correctly, it might be more accurate to say Russ “passed out” in the same bed as Sheelagh rather than merely sleeping there – ah, those younger days.
Also loved Picks reference to Sheelagh’s neon-green boogie board, I think she carried that treasured boogie board on her flights all the way back to Berlin.
Sheelagh is, and always will be, unforgettable. Thank you so much for all these comments, they are very comforting to Mike and me.

MaryEllen On August 19, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Such a moving tribute. Thank you, Mike, for a reminder to cherish every moment with our loved ones.

So sorry for your loss, Beth and all Sheelagh’s friends and family.

Caren On August 19, 2013 at 3:38 pm

So sorry to hear the sad news – I knew her breifly, but she left a lasting impression on me and my taste in music – Thanks Sheelagh.

The Empty Pen On August 19, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Beth and Mike, I am so sorry. Thank you for sharing this story with us. I’m so glad you got to see her in July.

Linda Miller On August 19, 2013 at 4:37 pm

Very sorry for your loss. A beautiful tribute to a special person.

Anne On August 19, 2013 at 5:58 pm

Dear Beth and Mike, I am a colleague and friend of Sheelagh’s and just wanted to say how moved I was to read your blog..and how well you knew her!..such an exceptional person.Weren’t we so lucky to have enjoyed her friendship and company? I hope you are both well and that you have recovered from your illness Beth…Sheelagh mentioned you to me in her stories about her travels and very recently during your illness.The service today was uplifting and very personal.We will all remember Sheelagh for her warmth and genuine friendliness. Great memories of a life well lived.x

bethfinke On August 27, 2013 at 6:08 am

Oh, Anne, Sheelagh spoke so highly of you, it was so reassuring to her to have you there at work reminding her not to fret if she wanted time off. I assume you were able to attend the memorial service, we would have liked to be there ourselves, but were with you in spirit. Just like Sheelagh.

Janet Sterling On August 19, 2013 at 6:24 pm

Thank you Mike for writing so much about her. As a young teenager, I didn’t appreciate what a great friend she was to you both. As the years went on, I just LOVED the stories about visits with Sheelagh. She is in my memories of spending time with her at different occasions for half my life! Thank you for a floodgate of my moments with her rushing back. Love you guys!

bethfinke On August 27, 2013 at 6:14 am

Love you, too, and so glad you were able to spend time with Sheelagh on her visits — wonder what Anita would think if she knew Sheelagh liked to refer to her as “the Chocolate Baby”…?!

Siobhan Senier On August 19, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Perfect. I only wish I’d have seen more of her and the Wrinklies. Happy she found Beni, and that you guys got to see her that one last time. What a sublime shooting star she was. xoxoxo

bethfinke On August 27, 2013 at 6:16 am

Ah, yes, the “wrinklies”! Towards the end, Sheelagh started referring to her parents as the “olds.” Both descriptions make me smile, thanks for remembering.

Trisha Cochrane On August 20, 2013 at 9:10 am

Thank you so much Beth and Mike for posting such a wonderful tribute to Sheelagh. And actually for posting about her at all, as it was through you that I was able to reconnect with her. Sheelagh and I had been volunteers together in England in the 80s and had spent very happy times together there, as well as staying friends for many years afterwards. Sadly, we’d lost touch about 15 years ago although I’d often thought of her. I’d googled her over the years, but it wasn’t until May that I found your post and you kindly put us in touch. Her recent emails to me talking about how she was living with her death sentence were a real inspiration, and I will hold them very dear. It seems that her incredible joie de vivre stayed true until the end. I am so very glad that you managed to get over to see her and Beni in July.
Thank you again – I know you will both miss her very deeply.

bethfinke On August 27, 2013 at 6:10 am

Trisha, part of the reason Sheelagh was so comfortable with me and Gus (and with Mike, too, come to think of it!) was due to her experience volunteering at Cornwall, I assume that is wehre you met her, Cornwall? So pleased to hear that my little blog brought the two of you together again, and you are so right: we are all going to miss her.

ojdohertyny On August 21, 2013 at 12:14 pm

What a beautiful post. She sounds like an amazing person from reading your posts.Thinking about you both.

Anne Hunt On August 26, 2013 at 5:34 pm

I haven’t been able to get this experience out of my mind. I was looking for a greeting card today and found this saying on one of the cards in my collection. “We will never be the same as we were before this loss, but are ever so much better for having had something so great to lose.”

bethfinke On August 27, 2013 at 6:18 am

Love that, Anne. Have heard that during the memorial for Sheelagh, Beni quoted Dr. Seuss. Thought you might like what he had to say, too: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

Julie mcneill On September 14, 2013 at 11:07 am

Hey beth!Mikes post sums sheelagh up completely.She was a lovely person and a great friend to have.And i wudnt of met u if it wasnt for her.Was really nice to catch up with you,when you came to visit sheelagh!xx

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Mondays with Mike: Far and away | Safe & Sound blog On January 23, 2017 at 10:30 am

[…] and John and their two handsome sons, Andrew and Douglas. You may remember that Fiona is the sister of Sheelagh, our longtime friend who died from cancer several years ago. Fiona visited us last year. We are lucky to remain connected. We had a lovely evening, starting at […]

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