Shannon Smiles

Remembering Shannon's Spirit
By Laura Hutchison
The Free Lance-Star

She was taking her time.
She wanted to find something where she'd be able to help other people. She wanted to know her life would make a difference. She never got a chance to find that perfect job. She died May 1, 1998, from injuries suffered in a car accident. She was 23. But this is not a story about death. It's a story about life. And how one life, though short-lived, has touched countless others. Shannon Broom was an artist. Her works decorate the walls of her parents' Spotsylvania County home, where there are photos of her everywhere. Even visitors who never knew Shannon get a sense of her. Her room remains much as it was two years ago, filled with stuffed animals, CDs and tapes. At the foot of her bed is a journal. It is that journal that has helped Jan and Jules Broom survive their only child's death. And it is through that journal and Shannon's artwork that the Brooms have introduced their daughter to the world.

  • Thank you for drives alone.
  • Thank you for time to enjoy life.
  • Thank you for dreams and goals to accomplish.

  • For nine months before she died, Shannon kept a gratitude journal. A concept made popular by "The Oprah Winfrey Show," the idea is for people to write down each day five things for which they are thankful. Shannon and her mother started the journals together, but Jan lost interest after a while. Shannon never missed a day. As the Brooms tried to recover from Shannon's death, they found comfort in the pages of her journal. After Shannon's funeral, her parents began writing thank-you notes to people who had helped them through their initial grief. They decided to include some entries from Shannon's journal. "We wanted people to get to know her better," Jan said. "It was so uplifting for us, we thought it might have the same effect on other people." They even sent thank-you notes to some of the people Shannon had mentioned in her journal, including TV-show hosts Oprah Winfrey and Rosie O'Donnell. "We thought they'd like to know how special they were to her," Jan said. The note to Oprah prompted a call from her staff, who asked the Brooms to appear on a show about gratitude that aired in the summer of 1998. "We thought it was something Shannon would have wanted us to do," Jan said.

  • Thank you for art supplies that don't get lost.
  • Thank you for bookmarks being done.
  • Thank you for giving me my mom and dad instead of someone else's.

  • After the thank-you notes, the Brooms decided to make bookmarks, something Shannon had started before her death. Pairing Shannon's art and journal entries, they began crafting the bookmarks on their home computer. "She was so bashful about her art. A lot of people never got to see it," Jan said. They took some to the nurses at Mary Washington Hospital who took care of Shannon, and gave some to the people at Lifenet who handled Shannon's organ donations. They sent hundreds to organ-procurement organizations across the country, and shared others with friends and family. "I would wake up every morning with a thank-you note in my head, and every time I wrote one, I felt better," Jan said. "Each time we made 500 bookmarks and put them in the mail, we felt better." The bookmark program has taken on a life of its own. On a good Saturday, the couple crafts 1,000 to 1,200. By the end of last year, they had given away 20,000. "Helping people helps us," Jules said. "The bookmarks pretty much saved our lives. We call it bookmark therapy.' And the bookmarks are helping other people, too. A stack of them sits on the counter at Jabberwocky, a children's bookstore in downtown Fredericksburg. They're not for sale, but those who want can have the bookmarks and make a donation. The money helps buy books for children at Hope House, a local shelter for battered women. 'This has no parameters, no boundaries,' Jules said.

  • Thank you for bubbles in the park.
  • Thank you for letters from friends.
  • Thank you for gratitude; it makes you feel good to be thankful for things.

  • The thank-you notes the Brooms wrote after Shannon's death have come full circle. Now they get notes almost every day, mostly from strangers. The people tell them how Shannon has touched their lives. How it feels like entries from her journal are speaking directly to them. How they love her. Susan Garnett-Spears, an Este Lauder representative at Belk in Spotsylvania Mall, never met the Brooms' daughter, but Shannon has touched her life. Susan is a member of the Fredericksburg Women's Club. Just before Shannon died, she entered a picture called 'Eternal Autumn' in the group's annual art show. The picture won second place in its class, as well as Most Popular of Show. That was the first time Susan heard of Shannon. A few months later, on the day of Shannon's funeral, a friend of the Brooms' who also is Susan's client brought in some pictures of Shannon that had been enlarged for the service. Then Susan saw Jan and Jules on 'Oprah.' For the art show the next year, the Brooms sent bookmarks to club members. Susan began using her bookmark in her client book at work, and gave them to other cosmetics representatives. Earlier this year, just after Susan learned her grandmother was ill, Jan was the guest speaker at a Women's Club meeting. "Susan wrote me the most touching note after the Women's Club luncheon," Jan said. "Shannon just kept coming into her life at various times." Even though writing to someone she didn't know was awkward, Susan said sending the note was something she had to do. "I had to let her know how wonderful I thought it was that she honored her daughter in that way," Susan said. "I think it's incredible what she did. They've chosen to share their daughter in such a positive way."

  • Thank you for me, down deep I like me, I just need to learn to like me from the surface to the down deep.
  • Thank you for night shadows.
  • Thank you for new beginnings.

  • 'Oprah' got in touch with the Brooms again earlier this month, asking them to be a part of another show. The show does a segment most days called 'Remembering Your Spirit,' which it says is about what brings peace and joy to people's lives, and "being reminded about the best part of who you are." Oprah wanted a segment to focus on the impact of Shannon's life. In addition to the bookmarks, the Brooms shared Shannon's life by donating her organs. A woman in North Carolina is alive because she has Shannon's liver. Melissa, in North Dakota, got one of Shannon's kidneys, and is now hoping to have a baby. Shannon's heart recipient lives in Richmond. He had been in the hospital for 500 days, waiting for a heart. "Shannon believed that we were all the same inside, no matter how we look on the outside," Jan said. "Knowing that other people are alive because they have part of Shannon inside them makes that so real for us." Crews from 'Oprah' were in town last week recording the Brooms at their house and Susan at work. The show airs today. The Brooms agreed to the taping, even though this is a particularly difficult time of year for them. April 5 was Shannon's birthday; May 1 is the anniversary of her accident. But grief has a way of bringing people together, and since Shannon's death, her parents have found hundreds of others who have lost a child. To mark Shannon's birthday this year, they hung pictures of Shannon and the other children on a potted weeping-fig tree on their front porch. They call it an angel tree, and each time the wind blows, music from dozens of tiny wind chimes on the tree fills the air. It reminds and comforts them.

    On Shannon's 25th birthday, her parents scattered some of her ashes in the mountains. They plan to take her ashes to both oceans, as well. They think that's what she would have wanted.

    • Thank you for things that inspire.
    • Thank you for life.
    • Thank you for the feeling you get when you finally get back home.

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