“I’ve got a different perspective,” Tom Dodd said.
The engineer from Seneca, S.C. became a widower almost three years ago. Dodd and his two adopted sons moved closer to his parents, took a new job and remarried after the loss. He received support from friends and strangers, and now can reflect on the unanticipated blessings of his changed life.
“I see things from the other side of it,” he said.
Tom and Shannon met and married as graduate students at Clemson University in 1997. The Dodds moved to Raleigh, N.C. so Tom could study and work in the Research Triangle, and found a church there. They adopted two boys – Jakob from Azerbaijan and Tae from South Korea – because Shannon was unable to have children of her own.
Tom described himself as a “practical kind of person.” His engineering mind addresses situations realistically, he said. When problems arrive, Tom said he likes to assume the worst, hoping to be surprised by better news. Yet that strategy didn’t necessarily work as planned with his wife’s cancer.
“I’d prepare for the worst, and that would be exactly what happened,” Tom said.
Shannon was having shortness of breath in fall of 2007, and it turned out to be caused by melanoma. She underwent a PET scan that did not find other tumors in the rest of her body, but there was still a chance there could be lesions in her brain. Sure enough, that’s where they were. In September, a separate scan found four tumors in Shannon’s brain.
“At that point, I was pretty sure of the outcome of this,” Tom said.
The Dodds’ church assisted, and so many people volunteered to bring food that Tom and Shannon had to turn down offers. Tom’s job let him spend more time at home, and his recently retired father put his free time to use.
Yet Shannon’s health progressed steadily for the worse, and she grew more fatigued with chemotherapy treatments, Tom said. Jakob and Tae, respectively 6 and 4 years old at the time, understood their mother was sick, but their parents didn’t share all of the specifics. Tom said he struggled most with being both optimistic and realistic when talking with his wife and sons.
Shannon began having seizures and losing consciousness a year after her melanoma diagnosis. She went into a coma for 10 days and passed away at 32 years of age on Sept. 30, 2008. It was Tom’s birthday.
“That was her way of saying you will remember this day,” he said.
Tom said he needed help in his expanded parenting role, unable to provide the same emotional support that Shannon gave to Jakob and Tae. He moved back close to Clemson, took a job with a firm that trains engineers and married Jennifer in March 2010. Jennifer now focuses on caring for the boys, and Tom drops Jakob and Tae off at school on his way to work.
The biggest challenge these days is talking to Jakob and Tae about their mother’s death without sounding too pessimistic, Tom said. While they usually don’t have planned sit-down discussions, the boys ask questions about “Mommy Shannon” and look at pictures. The Dodds have plenty of ways to remember Shannon, Tom said, including memories from their Inheritance of Hope Legacy Retreat.
The Dodds knew a woman from their church who also served as a children’s counselor during the Legacy Retreat. At her recommendation, Shannon, Tom, Jakob and Tae attended the first IOH Legacy Retreat at Lake George, N.Y. in August 2008. Tom said he remembers the volunteers who assisted his family, the helpful group therapy sessions and the special activities for his sons. The Dodds took home a photo album that still sits on the coffee table.
“It was all set up to be about creating a memory that would stick with both me and the boys, and it definitely has,” Tom said.
Exhausted by chemotherapy, Shannon still chose to join her boys on trips to theme parks during the retreat. She also recorded a Legacy Video message for Jakob and Tae to watch after her anticipated passing.
Tom still has that Legacy Video, but hasn’t shown it to his boys yet.
“I am waiting until they are a little older and more settled,” he said. “I know that will be something that will be greatly treasured, but I just have not brought myself to let them see it yet.”
Shannon’s words are also preserved in a blog she and Tom started after her diagnosis in 2007. A talented writer, Shannon updated the site regularly during the year before her death. Countless friends and strangers commented on Shannon’s posts, which were sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious. (“I know my face is puffy from the steroid. If you point it out, I will poke you in the eye. Consider yourself warned,” Shannon posted on Aug. 16, 2008)
Nearly three years after his wife’s passing, Tom said he still battles with questions of faith and fairness. Despite recent hardships, Tom said he strives to appreciate God’s gifts in every aspect of his life, seeking goodness from his new perspective.
“It’s not an easy road to walk down, but coming through the other side and being able to see God’s hand working through the hard times is an encouraging thing,” he said.