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He lived like every day might be his last, and then one day it was

Kathleen and Nyall Sheldon with their son, Dylan.Sheldon family

When my niece Kathleen told me she was dating some guy named Nyall Sheldon, I couldn’t decide what surprised me most: that he was English, or that he had a lip ring.

He lost the lip ring pretty quickly, thank God, but you never stop being English and Nyall Sheldon was English.

He came to this country as a 3-year-old when his father got a job teaching at Ohio State University. Nyall lost his accent but gained so much else growing up in the United States.

Nyall would talk to a telephone pole. He loved to fish and watch Premier League soccer games and play lacrosse and eventually he came to love my niece, Kathleen Cannon.


They met in Ohio, where they went to university, and got married on the Jersey Shore, where my wife and her sisters frolicked as children on the precious week or two that my mother- and father-in-law could afford.

When I first met Nyall, I was deeply suspicious. Kathleen was our oldest niece, the daughter my wife and I never had, and we were fiercely protective of her. But then Nyall told me the two things he loved most in this world, besides my niece, were beer and Manchester United and I realized I was looking at a younger, far more fit and handsome version of myself. From that moment on, we were budzos.

Because they fell in love in Columbus they decided to settle in Columbus, leaving Ohio only to see friends and relatives. After their first child, Dylan, was born a couple of years ago, they stopped traveling as much and everybody went to them.

Dylan has a head full of shocking blond hair and an appetite that means he would eat the next cow he meets, and I have to tell you that we love that kid to death.


When we found out that Kathleen was pregnant with their second, the only question was would we go out to Ohio and help before or after the birth. I had suggested the name Caoimhe, which in the Irish means gentle and beautiful and precious. Kathleen liked the name but kept saying they didn’t even know the baby’s gender so that maybe it was best to wait on names.

And then we got the call a few weeks ago.

Kathleen was puttering around the kitchen when she heard a crash in the basement. She rushed downstairs and found Nyall in a heap. He had fallen off their exercise bicycle.

Nyall was rushed to Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, where the doctors found that he had a brain aneurysm. He had no brain activity. They put him on a bunch of machines to keep him alive and Kathleen had to figure out what to do.

In the end, there was nothing to do except what he and Kathleen had talked about doing if the unthinkable happened, and that was harvest his organs and give them to other people, so they might live.

As the doctors tried to figure out if there was any chance for Nyall, I postponed a business trip to Ireland. My wife gripped my hand and told me to go, while the medical staff at Ohio State gripped Kathleen’s hand and examined their options.

I have flown to Ireland from Boston maybe 50 times, and this was the first time I ever flew there feeling lousy. I was in Connemara, where my grandparents decided to chuck everything and take a shot at America, when I learned that Nyall had died.


I flew home from Ireland and my wife and I spent a sleepless few hours in our bed in Hingham before heading to Logan for the flight to Ohio.

I dreaded the funeral service, because there is nothing so sad, so utterly soul crushing as to be witness to the death of someone so young and so full of life. But the service for Nyall was anything but depressing. It was life affirming. It was beautiful.

Nyall’s casket was draped with three scarves: Ohio State, Manchester United, and Brighton & Hove Albion, the last being the soccer team of his dad’s hometown.

Nyall’s dad, Ian, a professor at Ohio State, spoke first and explained Nyall’s love of Man U, one of the most storied sports franchises, and Brighton, one of the least.

He had wanted to name his first-born after Nile Rogers, the musician who founded Chic. But he also wanted to name him after Niall Quinn, an Irish soccer player. So he compromised and named him Nyall.

Ian Sheldon, a marvelous academic, spoke movingly of his son, concluding his remarks with the words of John Lennon, another Englishman who died far too young:

There are places I’ll remember.

All my life, though some have changed.

Some forever, not for better,


Some have gone and some remain.

All these places have their moments.

With lovers and friends I still can recall.

Some are dead and some are living.

In my life, I’ve loved them all.

But of all these friends and lovers,

There is no one compares with you.

And these memories lose their meaning,

When I think of love as something new.

Though I know I’ll never lose affection,

For people and things that went before.

I know I’ll often stop and think about them.

In my life, I love you more.

And we cried because it was as if Nyall was speaking to Kathleen from the grave.

Nyall’s brother, Luke, noted that Nyall and Kathleen had introduced him to his wife Marisa, who is Kathleen’s best friend. So best friends married two brothers and the couples became inseparable, their sons born months apart, so that Dylan and Conway will mark every milestone, from playing Little League baseball to renting tuxes for their high school prom, together.

Luke sat at Nyall’s bedside before he died and promised his big brother he would look after Kathleen and Dylan and the baby that will be born at summer’s end.

Bernie Kooi, one of Nyall’s oldest friends, recalled that he and Nyall had been buddies since high school, that they went from doing stupid things together, chasing girls and playing sports, to trying to be husbands and fathers.

“Being a good husband and a good father was all Nyall cared about,” Bernie said.


Nyall’s sister, Rebecca, got up and read a poem by Maya Angelou, called “When Great Trees Fall.” And it was so apt that we all ached listening.

When great trees fall,

Rocks on distant hills shudder,

Lions hunker down

in tall grasses,

and even elephants

lumber after safety.

When great trees fall

in forests,

small things recoil into silence,

their senses eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,

the air around us becomes

light, rare, sterile.

We breathe, briefly.

Our eyes, briefly,

see with

a hurtful clarity.

Our memory, suddenly sharpened,


gnaws on kind words,


promised walks

never taken.

Great souls die and

our reality, bound to

them, takes leave of us.

Our souls,

dependent upon their


now shrink, wizened.

Our minds, formed

and informed by their


fall away.

We are not so much maddened

as reduced to the unutterable ignorance


dark, cold


And when great souls die,

after a period peace blooms,

slowly and always

irregularly. Spaces fill

with a kind of

soothing electric vibration.

Our senses, restored, never

to be the same, whisper to us.

They existed. They existed.

We can be. Be and be


For they existed.

Nyall’s organs and corneas were given to people without regard to their race, religion, politics or sexual orientation. Others will live and be able to see because of him.

I loved him not just because he loved my niece, not because he loved Man U, but because he loved life and lived it like every day might be his last, and then one day it was.

Nyall Sheldon got 32 years on this earth, which seems terribly short and unfair, but he made every minute count. That’s a pretty good legacy.

And someday, when their children are old enough to understand, Kathleen will hold their hands and introduce them to the people who lived because Nyall died and we as a family will take some comfort there, because at times like these you’ll take comfort wherever you can find it.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com