Living the Dream: The Shannon Court story

This last week has been a struggle. So many exciting things have happened… and yet one sudden and tragic event has overshone them all. It’s been tough, trying to figure out how to process it all and trying to figure out how to talk about it. The words haven’t come easy. But there’s a small, dim, flickering light at the end of this unspeakably long and dark tunnel, and it’s from there that I feel the need to tell the Shannon Court story. Hold on to your seats – though well worth it, this will be a long one.

I grew up in the house my parents built just after they got married, in a nice neighborhood in a nice town. We’ve always had neighbors that were close, but not necessarily neighbors we were close to. Late in elementary school was the last time I remember being somewhat close to my neighbors: one of my best friends lived two houses down, some of the moms had a book club and got together on a regular basis, and we all danced the night away at a wedding in which I was a “junior bridesmaid”. As I am in my family, I was one of only a handful of younger children in the group, only older than my best friend. It was fun, until her and her family moved away, and slowly but surely all the families I knew had long left.

We had a number of questionable characters wander in and out of nearby houses throughout the next few years, but above all, they were families that kept to themselves, mostly due to a lack of younger children. But then, one fateful day nearly 10 years ago, a family moved in with 4 kids younger than me. Then, another family with 4 kids younger than me moved in next to them. Soon, more families, all with at least one or two younger children, moved into our court and the surrounding area. Kids started to play with each other. Parents got to know each other. We started to get together one day a week, which soon turned into two, which soon turned into gathering for holidays and birthdays as well. Traditions were born, and invariably, come rain or shine, weekend evenings extending early spring through well into fall were spent at one house or another, each family bringing a dish, a drink, at least one kid, perhaps some friends, but always a smile and joy to share. Before we knew it, 16 parents and 18 kids (and 5 dogs and 2 cats!) became like family.

For the first time in my life I found myself the oldest, and I was thrust into a “big sister” role for so many kids who looked up to me; slowly but surely, I started to find my place between playing with them and sitting back and talking with the adults. And my mom and dad? They’d all but forgotten the days when their house was new and their only child was young. Suddenly the ‘matron’ parents of the court, Dr. Luke attended to cuts and bruises and flus while my mom lived vicariously through parents confounded by growing and aging and changing children.

Still, inseparable and incomparable bonds formed between children and parents alike. Lot lines faded as we moved seamlessly from house to house each night, treating each other’s homes as if they were our own. While the kids were off playing night games, pretending to be in the army, or amusing themselves with other shenanigans, the dads found common interests in all things manly: “lumberjacking,” planting the biggest communal garden our neighborhood had ever seen, and grilling (and competing for best backyard bbq pit), all while imbibing the finest lagers and brandy. Meanwhile, the Ladies of the Court bonded over wine, fondue, pottery painting, and simply enjoying watching our families become so close. Each family came from a different walk of life with a different story to tell; each was unique in its own way and varying in size, yet made up equal parts of our newfound Neighbor Family. Though no blood lines connected us, the support system we’d built was unbreakable, and the deep connections between us were undeniable. We all knew we had something special; our Family of 34 was as real as any other, and nothing could break us.

Emotions were tried as two families with the youngest kids moved away last summer. A mild winter somehow felt colder than it should, and gatherings became a little smaller. Our once rowdy bunch had begun to dwindle and the kids found themselves a bit calmer as they aged ever so slightly. Things seemed to be settling down as the newness of it all faded away, though we never lost touch.

As fate would have it, soon after one family visited this summer, we found out they’d be moving back within the month – and that the other family was soon to follow! We couldn’t believe our luck. We were all so ecstatic to have the old gang back together.

Just as the families had started getting situated back home – in different houses, but home nonetheless – our world came to a screeching halt on Monday, September 3. The husband of one of the first two families to move in, Vladimir Novak, passed away after being stung by a bee and suffering anaphylaxis, even though he’d been stung several times before with no reaction. To say it was unexpected is potentially the grossest understatement there ever was. To say he will be missed is an even greater one.

Let me tell you something about Vladimir Novak. He was a big Russian man, not even 50, and he smoked. If you had asked any of us last month what we thought he’d someday die of, I guarantee you a bee sting is the absolute last thing any of us would have said. He would listen to us nag about his chain smoking, then sweetly smile and light another. He had a zest for life that was unmatchable, and his smoking was the least of his concerns. His pride and joy were first and foremost his wife and children, followed by the rest of his family and friends. Currently ranging from the ages of 14 to 22, his children were lucky they had a chance to truly know and remember him – but never well enough.

No matter the circumstances, weather, or latest drama to be circulating amongst us, the one man you could count on to have a smile on his face and a bear hug waiting for you when you arrived was Vlad. He had an answer to everything that made the world seem more peaceful, more palatable. He traveled a lot, and it was bittersweet because it was clear he’d rather be at home with his family. But inevitably, he chose to see life in the best light possible, and if you’d ask him how things were going, nine times out of ten you’d get the same honest answer with the most genuine cheery smile: “I’m just living the dream.”

Our Neighbor Family, but even more so the Novak family, are still dumbfounded and reeling in shock that he’s just not coming home. It still seems surreal; there’s a part of me that just expects he’s off on business, not gone for good. The outpouring of support for this man and his family is absolutely monumental. And if you ask any of the hundreds of people that paid their respects to him, I’m positive each and every one of them will tell you the same thing about him: that he was one of the best men they’d ever known.

From here, we will try to rebuild and move on, and I know I speak on behalf of my entire Neighbor Family when I say that as it’s always been, so it shall be: the Novaks are part of this Family, and we will do everything in our power to keep them safe and afloat. While no person can ever replace who and what Vlad was to that family – and to this world – we hope to bridge the gap at least a little, to share in the grief, and keep him alive in memory, in stories, in pictures, and at our many inevitable bbqs to come. If anything we’re stronger now, more aware of how much we have to lose, and thankful of each other even more. And I know we’ll continue to reassure each other that even despite this enormous lingering hole in our hearts… we ALL have a dream to be lived.

Photo taken by Doug Kobs. Vlad is in the center.


Zumba Basic Training 1

As promised, here’s a recap of how my Basic Training class went! In short: it was WONDERFUL. I had so much fun and learned a ton! More

Faith in humanity: restored

For those of you friends with me on Facebook, I apologize for rehashing this story multiple times in various places. It just seems too great to me, though, not to share…

So in Wisconsin, snow is nothing new. There’s a possibility we have to deal with it around half of the year, sometimes in greater quantities than others. But the first major snowfall is usually a doozy. This one more so, I think, because typically by this time it would have been at least the third or fourth major dumping. The fact that the snow held off for so long means it’s been longer since people have driven in it and it’s given them more time to forget how bad it can be. Luckily I didn’t encounter any accidents on the way home from work this evening, but something else much more heart-warming.

See, I live on possibly the most horrendous hill in Madison, which also happens to be on one of the busiest streets in Madison: Gorham. I was lucky enough to be able to leave work early today, but it still took nearly an hour to cross town (that’s less than 8 miles, for those of you keeping track) and by the time I got closer to home downtown, it was full-on rush hour. I was going around 5 miles an hour most of the time on University Ave, almost got stuck rounding a couple corners, and by the time I turned around onto Gorham less than 2 blocks from my apartment, traffic was at a complete standstill.

Though this is my first year living in Madison, I’ve visited friends enough that I knew it was going to be bad. In fact, the snow storm 2 or 3 years ago that paralyzed the city and shut down the university for the first time in 20some years? Yeah, I drove to Madison the very next day. I even specifically remember driving down Gorham, quite possibly up the very hill that I now live on, and I remember needing to turn my wheel counter clockwise 90 degrees to keep straight. Let’s just say my skills as a winter driver were tested (and proven!) that weekend, and I knew tonight would be no different.

I knew perhaps not all the other drivers would be as familiar with the treachery that is the Hill of Gorham, so I wasn’t altogether surprised to find traffic stopped. Unfortunately, for those of you who know anything about physics or winter driving, if you’re coming up to a steep hill that’s also full of sludge, you’re not going to get anywhere without momentum. I was able to survive the hill the first time because traffic was moving at a normal – perhaps slower, but at least forward – pace. Once you get the momentum to make it over the crest, you’re golden. But if you never have any momentum to begin with, well… good luck.

Coming up to the hill at less than 5 miles per hour, I braced myself for the worst. So imagine my surprise when I looked around and noticed my neighbors – one of them being my incredible boyfriend – standing around shoveling the road and helping to push cars over the hill! If not for them I wouldn’t have made it into my unplowed driveway, much less up the hill.

Let me iterate this for you for emphasis. This was a group of 6 or 7 people, my age, just standing outside their houses with shovels and their own strength to help people out. They weren’t getting paid, they weren’t in it for anything. They were literally running over to cars as their wheels spun tirelessly, digging and pushing them out just enough so they could make it over the hill and be on their way. They had been standing out there in the cold, the wind and the snow for an hour by the time I reached home. If that isn’t an act of good samaritanism, I don’t know what is.

You can bet as soon as I got upstairs and my legs stopped shaking from adrenaline, I rushed out there to help. The plows didn’t make it out until after 5:30, which wasn’t long after I got out to help. But, it was still much later than they should have been out, no doubt due to the unending backup on the road. I don’t want to think about how much longer it would have taken for the plows to get through if not for the group of people helping. Worse, I don’t want to think about how many accidents or injuries may have happened if not for them.

Thankfully once the plows made a couple rounds, things started moving much smoother and we were all able to head back inside. But I’ll never forget the sense of community and selflessness I felt tonight, knowing that despite everything horrible that happens all around the world everyday, maybe there are a still few good souls left. I tried to get some pictures while I was out there but it was just too dark, and when the flash fired, all you could see was snow. Hopefully I can give you at least a little idea of the scene I encountered, and you can hopefully have a little more faith in genuine, kindhearted human nature. :)

Kevin and a few others pushing a van up the hill

The scene outside my front door

Looking down Gorham: a whoooole lotta cars, and the crew off to the right.

Plows finally coming through!!

Roads looking a little better after the plows

Plow, and snow

The crew standing by. Notice how straight (or not) that truck is driving.

Kevin looking like an old man but without the wrinkles. Did I mention he was out there for an hour?!