Certainly, as reasonable people, we all understand that superheroes are figments of a fantastic desire to believe in people with greater abilities than our own. They are, for lack of a better understanding, our projected hope for salvation and the embodiment of our trust for being saved in our time of need. For some of us, it might even be characterized as a desperate anticipation for redemption from past failure when we were perhaps defeated by a personal nemesis formed through insurmountable challenges.
And, when we are blessed to share portions of our existence exclusively with someone who embodies extraordinary character, we are all too often absorbed with the wonderful revelation that we were indeed, in super-heroic form, saved by them.
In the 1980’s, I began attending college in Monmouth, Oregon, where I was introduced to Shelley Beattie by a mutual friend. Being athletes, we found that we had much in common, and struck up what I consider one of the most influential relationships of my life. It was influential not only because of our shared interests in bodybuilding and athletics, but also, more effectually, because of our mutual discovery of faith and hope through youthful exuberance and our resonant, mutual struggle for understanding about the greater purpose for our lives. Shelley was a catalyst in many of my decisions during the early years of my adult life.
By the summer of 1987, Shelley and I had developed a friendship within which we shared a slew of intimate details about our lives. She was never shy to open her heart, nor was I with mine to her. We did all the things that friends do. She always seemed to have a higher wisdom with regard to life’s more difficult questions, and I found myself admiring her for more than her tremendous physical abilities. She had a keen sense of respectful encouragement and requisite dominance over the external implements of the human condition. And, more so, for me, she brought a sense of calm and peace to a very difficult chapter of my life. She blessed everyone with an example of independence, which, in turn, instilled in me an inspiration for my own future. And, she taught me sign language to aid my discussions with her in the company of her other deaf friends.
She was fiercely committed in her efforts to become better and better in her endeavor as a bodybuilder and an overall athlete, but more so, in her life’s purpose as a giver of truth and encouragement to the less advantaged. She possessed a soulful maturity and understood that such accomplishments in physical performance demanded the respect of our society, while helping the weaker and challenged was divine.
And, make no mistake. These definitions of Shelley are not contrived or forced. She was abundantly gifted to pursue success in them. Her commitment commanded my respect and stole my passions, while invigorating my own pursuit of excellence in my endeavor as an athlete, scholar and professional.
One of the most hilarious memories I have with Shelley was in 1992. We were training together as she was preparing for a competition, and I for minor league tryouts. And, as is the practice with natural bodybuilders and athletes, we were taking large amounts of amino supplements and protein powder shakes at the time. Well, as any serious athlete will attest, these dietary enhancements have a profound, and often……flatulent effect on the digestive system. To say the least.
Anyway, since we were forced to accept that it wouldn’t just go away quietly, or odorlessly, we turned the whole affair into a competition, and spent the next several days, while about our daily schedule, bursting forth in each other’s presence with some of the most offensive expulsions ever to emit from the human body. Laughing every time.
In one particularly brazened instance, Shelley sat on my pillow, farted and then proceeded to hold the pillow over my face while torrents of her laughter filled the apartment. I nearly threw up.
Shelley laughed harder during those few days than any other time in the years I knew her. It was profound because I was blessed to witness firsthand the transfiguration when this wonderful girl became a liberated, actualized woman of purpose and genuine intent. Right before my eyes, I saw Shelley Beattie attain victory over the wounds of her youth and become one of the most admired and highly regarded icons in her respective endeavor.
Those times were an inspiring contrast to some other less enjoyable revelations earlier in our relationship, however. In one instance, Shelley called me one afternoon in tears. I was at such a loss to console her, and could not convince her to discuss the reason for her sadness at the time. She struggled to calm herself and ended the conversation by thanking me for “being a friend to her”, but, I was reluctant to hang up because I sensed that the matter was far from resolution in her. I invited her over for a movie and we spent some couch time milling over the status of each of our lives and bad mouthing my lazy roommates. Shelley was a true motivator.
Later, in one of our late night discussions sometime in 1990, Shelley told me about her years in foster care and the difficulty she had with memories of abuse. When she began to cry, I found myself momentarily helpless, again. I just wanted to make things right for her. I wanted to fix the problem and get on with our friendship. But, I didn’t know how. Until that moment, at 22, I had never seen myself as the one to readily provide “good counsel” to her. That was always her job. She was always the superhero in difficulties like that.
So, remaining patient, having found another precious moment with her, we began to discuss things in terms of a higher power, and salvation. After a few hours, she was once again her effervescent self, teasing and laughing at my impressions of “Hans & Frans” from the Schwarzeneggeresque Saturday Night Live bit, showing me her muscles and putting me in my inferiorly masculine place.
At the time, neither of us had ever confessed a Christian faith. I guess we had always assumed that our lives were obviously the creation of something far more important than our own intentions and desires. But, on that night, Shelley told be something that remains seared in my memory, and will remain so for the rest of my life.
Now, I have read and heard many of the accolades and compliments conveyed upon Shelley. I wrote about her experiences as a bodybuilder and, later, as the first version of “Siren” on the 1990’s show, “American Gladiators” and used the exalting quotes of interviews with her family, friends and competitors. Her image is grand and beautiful and her dominant capacity as an athlete was witnessed and well known by many.
Now, please understand, it is not my intention to make this into some evangelical opportunity. But, one thing that many may not have known, or maybe they knew but never acknowledged, was that Shelley realized a need in herself for a better relationship and understanding with Jesus Christ. Not in some fake, religious sense. But, in a genuine, objective, though desperate inquiry, into the viability of possible salvation through the expressive hope from the loving father she lamented to have never had.
She said, “I need Jesus.”
It was significant for me, because she was the first person to ever present the issue of Christian faith to me, in that way. She simply conveyed an authentic moment that had a genuine and lifelong affect on me. And, I shall carry those words she shared with me forever. Not for their potentially oppressive armament, but because they were real, and honest.
I never had the impression, or heard from Shelley herself, that she was suffering from mental illness. I always knew she wrestled against internal conflict and physiological imbalance, but it was never manifest into something as clinically defined. I always considered her mild moodiness a product of her brutal training regimen. In normal times, I only recalled her reverence and zest for life, and hope for greater things.
Keeping in communication after college for several years, I gradually lost touch with Shelley in 1997, as friends sometimes do. It’s never intentional, or meant to abandon the loves of our past, but it just happens that we contently hold them in high regard through remembrance and joyful recollection. I was so lucky. For nearly 10 years after we met, despite decreasing contact, she remained a significant figure in my life and is still loved and honored as a life altering, apocalyptic friend.
Sadly, I learned earlier this year that Shelley passed away last February at age 40, succumbing to the ravages of a long battle with severe bipolar disorder.
And, after the tears and joyful stories, perhaps we should also take from it that often, the pitfall in being such a prolific, strong figure as Shelley was, it is sometimes very difficult for the rest of the common world to understand or believe that they might need help sometimes from us, as well.
“Shelra”, a name I gave her in reference to the He-Man superheroine companion, She-ra, carried more than her share of life’s burdens. Upon learning of her passing, I began to search the detailed memories I have of our past together for some insight, or “forensic” evidence, posthumously, that might lend comfort to my selfish, ignorant misunderstanding.
I guess a part of me always believed that Shelley and I might get to see each other again, and, perhaps share laughter and conversation about our years in perpetuity.
But, therein rests the final, most significant conveyance from "Shelra", the mortal. She used to tell me to not be afraid and to live life to the fullest without apprehension when I knew I was right.
And, she believed in me, even when I did not. Evident in the time when she abandoned me halfway through a 29 mile, excruciating, bike ride in order to force me to finish the torturous event on my own, without her help.
At the end, I was near collapsing and had to stop along the country road between Monmouth and Falls City to rest. As the sun began to set, I was content to lay there and die. But, she would have none of it.
Suddenly, on the horizon, at the far end of a long, hot stretch of road, Shelley appeared. She had made it home ahead of me and waited just long enough to see if I would make it on my own. When it became apparent that I was not going to make it, she jumped in her car and came to the rescue.
"I just wanted you to make it as far as you could on your own," she said, "I would never actually leave you out here all night. Good job."
I was sore for a week. But, Shelley saw me home safe.
And still, she remains my personal superhero. She made my life better than it would have been otherwise had I never known her. She improved the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of people, and made my experiences as a young, naïve, pretentious collegian, and young adult, not just survivable, but fully victorious.
I owe a lot of my current success, and peace, in life to the years I spent with Shelley Beattie. I regret missing the opportunity to express to her how significant she was to my life in those “lost” years. I know she knew it, innately though, based on our profound time together. But, like any loss of love, through our unavoidable mortality, we always seem to think we could have done more to make the one in passing understand and value the experiences of our shared commonality more.
But, we are never able to do so.
I can scarcely find the words to express the love and admiration I have for my friend. It will forever be her overflowing laugh, that glaring, cute curl-lipped smile, and her festive personality, through which she birthed upon an undeserving world her example of selfless purpose, personal tenacity and loving commitment. The memory of her reassuring embrace after our last conversation sometime in the mid 1990’s will be the framed icon of her life in my heart for the rest of mine.
She will forever be the Ambassador of my salvation.
Everyone should have the blessing and privilege of a “Shelley Beattie” in their life, as I did.
It just might save you, too.