No Regrets

When tennis star Pam Shriver met the man of her dreams, it didn't matter that he had cancer -- or that their time together might be tragically short.

November 21, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

Baltimore tennis star Pam Shriver has chartered a small sailboat for Dec. 5. On that day, her husband's birthday and the date of their first wedding anniversary, she and a handful of their closest friends will sail out three miles from the shoreline and scatter his ashes over the waters of the Pacific.

Joe Shapiro died on Sept. 23 at age 52 of complications related to cancer, nine months after he married Pam in a celebrity-filled wedding in Palm Springs, Calif. Pam had known, of course, that her fiance had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, in 1994. The cancer was in remission when the two started to date, but they both realized it was unpredictable.

"There's always a time in a relationship when you can pull back," she says now. "Three years ago when I realized I was falling for a guy with a complicated medical history, I decided not to exit. Believe me, I made the right decision."

Even though she's a widow at 37, Pam Shriver seems remarkably at peace with that decision. Little more than a month after Joe's death, she's able to talk about their life together and the long weeks of his final illness without tears -- although unexpectedly vivid memories cause her to stop, take a breath and visibly gather herself together before going on.

"I've come a long way," she says in an interview taking place in her Towson office. "Even a week ago I couldn't have sat here talking about it like this.

"The first few days it's like a physical pain," Pam says. She holds her hand to her chest as though the pain is located right there.

Mourning hasn't changed the persona she presents to the world. Her curly brown hair is drawn back from her face -- a small, pretty face with no makeup. But she's never worn much in the way of makeup. She was always slender, so it may not be true that there's even less weight than usual on her 6-foot-1 frame. Her khakis, polo shirt and sneakers are typical business wear for her.

Her mother credits their strong, close family for helping Pam get through the worst of the last few weeks. (She and Pam's father, Sam, live in Lutherville; there's also a younger sister, Eleanor.) Margot Shriver has no regrets that her daughter married a cancer survivor, even though Pam's older sister, Marion Shriver Abell, died two years ago of cancer.

"She knew what she was getting into," says Margot Shriver. "But once you find that special person, you have to grab him. Right now there's a little pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel. She'll get to the full sunlight."

Joe and Pam started their bicoastal romance in 1996. She was working as a TV commentator at tennis tournaments, and Joe traveled with her as much as he could. On the surface, the former pro athlete and the businessman had little in common; but both had been successful in highly competitive careers, had a tremendous ability to relate to people and, perhaps most important, had similar senses of humor.

The two had met five years before they started dating. He was married (he and his first wife divorced about the same time he learned he had cancer), and Pam was still very much involved with her tennis career.

Mutual friends, Liz and Pete Smylie, brought them together again over dinner. It was August 1996, and Pam was in San Diego for a tournament. The two hit it off right away. Until she met Joe, Pam had always looked for someone at eye level. Joe was 5 or 6 inches shorter than she was, but she found his height simply wasn't an issue for her.

After dinner he took her back to La Costa, the resort where she was staying. They were lingering outside Pam's door talking about what they wanted to do together the next day. He looked at her and said, "Would you mind standing downhill?"

"He was very funny about his height," she says. It was a running joke between them. "I'm 5-8, but my wife says I'm 5-7," he would tell people.

"The last day I was with him in the hospital," Pam adds softly, "I told him he was 5-8."

A career at Disney

Joseph Shapiro was born in New York on Dec. 5, 1946. His father was an attorney and his mother a housewife. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania at the top of his class and then from Harvard Law School.

"He was very bright, a little too short for his liking, and very driven," is how his sister Beth describes him. "Pam brought out the absolute best in him, a sense of calm and a huge sense of generosity. There was such a sense of ease between them."

Shapiro was the first member of his law school class to make partner in a law firm -- at Donovan, Leisure, Newton and Irvine in New York. His specialty was corporate law. He moved to the Walt Disney Co. as general counsel in 1985 and was chief negotiator on the company's theme park and hotel in France.

"It was the deal he was most proud of," says Pam. "He flew to Paris 50 times in 18 months."

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