“We didn’t get a miracle. Or maybe we did.”
Bryan Burgess sits across the table with pencil-straight posture telling the story. Bryan, 46, looks left and right frequently, nonverbally sorting the details with his daughter, Isabel, 15, and keeping tabs on his son, Wes, 10, with a quaint warmth. It’s a story the three of them are still processing, a story with far-reaching impact. Life is becoming quiet again which Bryan says is normal, but life for the Burgess family — now a family of three — will never be normal again.
Shannon Burgess, Bryan’s wife and Isabel and Wes’s mother, passed away last May after a bout with an aggressive form of cancer commonly found in teenagers and young adults — not a 40-year-old woman. The disease confounded doctors at UAB and M.D. Anderson in Houston as it spread from her hip to her lungs, eventually overtaking most of her body late in her fight. Bryan is so viscerally proud of her courage — “Once you’re on chemo, you never leave the room. She looked at the doctor one day and she said, ‘Today’s my physical therapy day. I’m supposed to go downstairs to keep working on learning to walk. Can I go?’ And [the doctor] said, ‘I’m not supposed to stop your chemo, but today, I’m going to stop your chemo and let you go do it.’ It’s things like that. She was just so strong,” he says — but he’s even quicker to boast in God’s hand in all things.
“I knew we could do this because He was there for us,” Bryan says on a mild, sunny day in mid-January, having just passed eight months since Shannon went home to be with the Lord. “The amount of friends and the amount of people He put in our lives at the right time, at the right place to help us through this all, it was crazy.”
Bryan visibly loves God and loves his family, and if you observe the interactions between him, Isabel, and Wes, it doesn’t take much time to understand those are two core values of the Burgess family. And even though I never met Shannon, it’s profoundly evident that that’s her legacy.
November 2014 began as if it would be a peak month for the Burgesses. Bryan was coaching cross country at John Carroll High School, and his team had just captured the state championship. Isabel had been invited to run cross country on the varsity team at Homewood High School which finished second in the state. Shannon was complaining about hip pain, however, which Bryan and the kids chalked up to side effects from her days as a cheerleader and gymnast.
In late November as the holidays approached, Shannon got a call from her doctors after a round of tests. The results were what she and Bryan feared most: cancer. She was diagnosed with a high-grade osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. There was no debate about the path. Shannon would begin immediate rounds of chemotherapy. From the start, her chemo was what Bryan described as “potent.” The chemo took such a toll on Shannon’s body that she spent four days in the hospital trying to get her vital signs regulated. Her next doctor’s appointment to see if the chemo was making an impact was approaching during that hospital stay, so Shannon convinced her doctors to go ahead and conduct the necessary tests.
“That was one of the only appointments I missed,” Bryan says.
The cancer was intensifying despite her treatments. Bryan rushed to the hospital where he and Shannon were told she’d have a better way of life in Nashville at Vanderbilt. “I remember getting into that doctor’s office and him telling me what’s going on and just looking out the window and I could see his mouth moving but hear nothing.” he says.
Weather in the South can be wacky – an ice storm one weekend, golf temperatures the next. That God used not one, but two, winter storms to direct the path of Bryan and Shannon is a holy form of irony. Per the recommendation of Shannon’s medical team in Birmingham, they decided to enroll at Vanderbilt and see what this better way of life would be. Eight inches of snow, a half-an-inch of ice, and two cancelled appointments later, it was clear to them that God was closing the door at Vanderbilt.
“We got a phone from the administration at M.D. Anderson saying, ‘We need you here now. Get on a plane. We have a doctor that has an opening. He wants to see you,’” Bryan explains. “We knew God was shutting the door to Vanderbilt and sending us to M.D. Anderson for whatever reason.”
The doctor Shannon saw in Houston only sees 80 patients per year. When the opening came, she was the 80th name on the list. Upon making the decision to fly to Houston, a family approached Bryan and Shannon offering to pay for their airfare and meals. Physical blessings began to manifest, but it’s the love and care from their community — from his now-former employer John Carroll, to Isabel’s friends and Bryan's colleagues at the Homewood City School System, to their Sunday School class and student ministry at Shades — that Bryan and his kids still can’t quite fathom.
“I didn’t know how to cook, but then people just started dropping meals by the house,” he says self-deprecatingly. “His hand was in all this, because for the entire eight months in Houston, I don’t think we paid for a single hotel room. It was incomprehensible. Only God.”
Following surgery to remove her pelvis – that’s where the cancer began and where it had attacked most – doctors focused on her lungs. Shannon got to make a rare trip home during her stay in Houston after nodules were removed from her right lung. Despite improvement, the same procedure was necessary on her left lung.
“I remember in October putting her in the car to go back for that left lung surgery saying ‘Sweetheart we are one surgery away from whooping this,’” Bryan says recollecting with the same hopefulness I can only imagine he had that day. “They were telling us from the beginning we had less than a five percent chance of surviving this.
“I told her, ‘If you can just hang on, we got this.’”
Shannon flew back to Houston on a Monday. On Wednesday, Bryan had gotten a phone call, and it was Shannon on the other end. “We’re done,” he recalls her saying.
“And of course I’m thinking, ‘Are you kidding me? It’s gone?’” Bryan says. “Because you hear the stories of they pray for miracles and they go up one day and get the scans, and one day it’s there and the next day it’s not.
“And she said, ‘No, sweetheart. We’re not that done. The nodules in my left lung have increased, my left lung is partially collapsed, and all the nodules we removed from the right lung have come back.’ And she says, ‘We’re done.’”
Shannon’s doctor had exhausted every ounce of himself to cure her. There was nothing more to do. That was October 2015. She returned to Birmingham and lived until May 15, 2016.
Following Shannon’s memorial service, the ensuing three weeks were a blur. Suddenly thrust into a role as a single father, Bryan was unsure how to make it one day to the next. He was the one to now guide Isabel through her teenage years, while she felt a responsibility to help care for Wes. He wanted them to lead normal lives, which he knew is what Shannon would have wanted also.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Bryan says. “There are days where I look and think, ‘How am I going to do this?’ You spend a lot of time praying, ‘How am I going to manage two kids, allowing them to keep their normal lives and me work?’”
Did Bryan, Isabel, and Wes get a miracle? It’s hard to know if they’ll ever answer that question this side of eternity. God emphatically answered prayers of His faithfulness and sovereignty through the Burgesses' journey.
A family friend with a private jet which flew Bryan and the kids to Houston to surprise Shannon. A pill that had no known treatment of osteosarcoma slowing its growth giving her time. Teachers donating days so Shannon never had to miss a paycheck. Even for Isabel and Wes – her friends dropping everything to love and care for her, his baseball coach keeping life normal. There are more moments that Bryan could recall – “There are so many moments He’s honored throughout all this, it’s just hard to pinpoint,” he kept saying during our conversation – of God’s faithfulness in their lives that they each can say today they’re at peace.
“We’re so much at peace,” Bryan says. “Do we miss her? Yeah, we miss her. God’s been in control. Why go back on Him now?”
And so Bryan and Isabel round up Wes, who’s playing in the field at the south end of Shades’ campus, another day passed on this journey. They’re close now, not that they weren’t before, but close only in the way in which you hold tight to each other after losing a loved one. But they knew the hope Shannon held close, and it’s a hope to which they cling daily.
“Whatcha cooking for dinner, bud?” Bryan asks Wes as they head back to the car. He was joking, of course, but that playful question encompasses the new chapter – a blank page already with several plot twists – for Bryan, Isabel, and Wes Burgess.