Essay by Stacy Bolt
My friend Melissa died last week. A nicer way of saying it would be that she “passed away.” But I’ve always believed that passing away is what old people do. There’s an implication of inevitability, of appropriateness. My grandmother passed away. She was 95 and had great-great grandchildren. She decided she was done and so she went. Melissa was 42. She had a 7 year old daughter and a husband who loved her more than anything. She wasn’t done and she didn’t pass away. She died.
I’ve spent the days since then trying to find a reason for it. I’m one of those people who believes things happen for a reason. But Melissa’s death is sorely testing that belief. What possible reason could there be for this person — kind, smart, loving and loved — to die?
I used to work with Melissa in the late ‘90s at an advertising agency called Elvis & Bonaparte. Melissa was an account executive, which means she was the person who deals with the client so people like me (the copywriter) don’t have to. There aren’t a lot of really good account executives out there because there aren’t a lot of people who are willing to stand up to a client and tell them they’re wrong. But Melissa could do it in a way that made the client feel listened to and respected. That almost always worked. And when it didn’t, she just wore them down. Melissa never gave up, and that made her one of the good ones. She was also exceedingly pleasant to be around (another rarity in the ad industry). Melissa would hate me for saying this, but she was perky. Bubbly, even. But not in the kind of way that made you want to smack her. She was just a happy person, and being around her made you want to be happy, too. If you were having a bad day and you went into Melissa’s office, you usually left wearing the same huge smile that was her signature.
If Melissa had been nothing beyond cheerful and good at her job, we probably wouldn’t have become close. But she was other things, too. Important things. She was funny. And sarcastic. And she could hold her liquor. On a trip to New York to attend some focus groups, Melissa and I crossed over from co-workers to friends. Our office manager Sallie had finagled the reservations so we would have the maximum amount of play time in the big city. On our first night we met Melissa’s friend Pam at a bar on the Bowery called Marion’s. It was early December and snow was just starting to fall as we stepped out of our cab. Inside, the bar was dark and kitschy with spinning aluminum Christmas trees and plastic light-up Santas. Tom Waits’ Closing Time played on the stereo while the three of us sat in a corner booth drinking Cream Sodas, which were not cream sodas at all, but vanilla vodka and ginger ale. They went down like candy and we drank them accordingly. I don’t remember much of what we talked about that night, but I remember very clearly the feeling of being in my favorite city with my new friend Melissa, the snow dusting the streets and the vodka warming my blood. We closed the place down and charged our bar bill to the agency.
The next morning, as our wake up call bounced off the walls of our Times Square hotel room, Melissa groaned in the next bed.
“Bacon,” she said. “Need bacon.”
Did I mention that she was wise, too? After ordering a greasy room service breakfast with extra bacon, we struggled through our focus groups and then went out and did it all over again. We were young, and our livers were mighty.
A few months later, in the Spring of 2000, the agency went under. This was mostly due to an overabundance of deadbeat dotcom clients, but our New York boondoggle probably didn’t help. Neither did the bachelorette party I organized for Melissa and conned the agency into funding. Again, the details are hazy. I remember there were drag queens, and karaoke, and a stretch limo that dropped me off just as the sun was coming up. But mostly I remember Melissa, smiling her big, open, joyful smile. She might just be one of the happiest people I’ve ever known. And that night, as she was counting down the days until she married her beloved Matt, she was radiant despite the idiotic bride-to-be veil we made her wear.
After they got married, Melissa and Matt moved to Seattle. We kept in touch via email and saw each other every once in a while. She had a baby. Then I did. Life and time and distance took over and before I knew it, a couple of years had gone by since I’d spoken to her. And then, on a July afternoon in 2008, my husband looked up from his computer where he’d been checking email.
“Melissa Peterson has lung cancer,” he said.
If he had told me my mother had decided to go to clown college, it would have made just as much sense. Lung cancer? That was an old person’s disease. Melissa was young. And she didn’t smoke. Then I heard a ping and looked down at my own computer screen. There it was, an email saying that Melissa had Stage 4 lung cancer, a death sentence.
Naturally she had a blog, and as I read over the entries, I smiled when I saw that she wasn’t wasting any time feeling sorry for herself. She was fired up and attacking cancer with the same tirelessness she applied to every project she’d ever worked on. “Female never-smokers are consistently more likely to develop lung cancer than men,” she wrote, schooling her many readers on the realities of the disease that was taking over her body and her life. And she kept going, joining advocacy groups, recording educational radio ads, organizing fundraisers. It was like cancer was the client and she was very patiently and logically trying to tell it that it was wrong, it was not going to kill her. In the comments section of her blog, one of her friends had written, “Does cancer know what a BITCH it’s dealing with?”
I followed her progress through radiation and chemotherapy, hair loss and bad wigs. We traded emails and Facebook posts, and she took the time to send me a note of encouragement when my son was having surgery. My husband and I talked about driving up to Seattle to see her, but we never did. We thought we had more time. We thought she did. Because even though I knew Melissa had a terminal disease, I also believed that if anyone could beat it, it would be her. And for just a little while, she did. For just a little while, she felt good and happy and alive. She got to spend time with her daughter and her husband and the gigantic cheering section that was her family and friends. She lived for two years beyond her diagnosis. And then last Saturday evening, as the last amber-colored streaks of a beautiful summer day passed away, she died.
Any reason that I’m likely to come up with to explain Melissa’s death isn’t going to be good enough. I can’t think of any lesson important enough to justify leaving a 7 year old without her mother. So if anything, I’m just going to have to change my mind about things happening for a reason. Some things just happen. And they’re horrible. And all you can do is hope like hell that it doesn’t happen to anyone else you love. Life is temporary. Death is indiscriminate. And it’s all just so fucking unfair.
“We’re going to feel like shit tomorrow,” Melissa said to me as we left Marion’s that night, tilting her head up and smiling at the snow landing on her face. “So let’s try to remember how much fun we had tonight, okay?”
Okay. I’ll try.
April 26, 1968 – July 31, 2010
So goodbye, so long, the road calls me dear
And your tears cannot bind me anymore
And farewell to the girl with the sun in her eyes
And I kiss you and then I’ll be gone.
“Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards)”, Tom Waits