“I don’t care what you’re working on, get home now,” Heather said on the phone. Then came the words that shattered everything.
Melanie was gone.
Melanie was my wife’s 21-year-old cousin, kind and sassy, stubborn and compassionate, a night owl full of conversation on any topic or none at all. For the last 14 months, she had been staying with us as she put her life back together from a number of challenges and became a full and vivacious member of the household. She swapped stories, played games, helped around the house, even began to crochet a blanket in Hogwarts colors for Missy, our disabled ward.
All that ended on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018.
We thought Mel was sleeping late. She often did.
She was still in bed. But this time she wasn’t waking up.
There are moments that the words don’t reach,
There is suffering too terrible to name …
— “It’s Quiet Uptown” from Hamilton
There are a lot of questions that chase through your head when someone dies so young. “Why? How?” are the obvious ones and sometimes the easiest – those are the ones that at least have a chance of being answered with patient work. (Eventually, that is; we’re still learning those answers ourselves.)
But the most pernicious ones, the most painful and useless questions of all, are the ones that begin “What if?” You know the litany, I’m sure:
“What if we’d taken her to the hospital when she came home feeling sick?”
“What if I’d checked on her sooner?”
“What if I’d said something different … done something different … been more concerned about this … paid more attention to that … ?”
It’s self-torture, running in place on a treadmill made of knives. You get nowhere except to hurt yourself worse than before. But we all keep getting on.
If we’re not careful, we can drown out the question that really matters. “What next?”
It’s a question that Mel was an expert at.
Every day, you fight like you’re running out of time …
— “Non-Stop,” from Hamilton
Melanie seemed to fill every moment she had. Sometimes drawing or writing. Sometimes making a friendship bracelet or a brightly-colored rice bag for someone she cared about. Sometimes chatting in the kitchen or over Skype until well past midnight.
None of it was easy. Mel had severe Crohn’s disease and the autoimmune complications that often come from that. Mel had many other struggles and the repercussions that often come from those. But she faced it all with a quirky sense of humor and a heart that could never be anything but genuine.
This is the woman who kept photos of her latest colonoscopy in her wallet, where baby pictures would normally go.
This is the little girl who, when told by her granddad to stop opening and closing the back door as she and her friends raced in and out, simply left it open. “Well, you said …”
This is the friend who had plans to work in a veterinary clinic, and was genuinely excited to receive an animal anatomy coloring book for Christmas.
This is the relative who would trade silly Snapchat photos with her mom and little brother, seeing who could turn each other into the most ridiculous image.
All of which means this is the friend whose absence leaves a hole. A silence. A gap in the story that aches to be filled.
And, perhaps, a reminder.
And when my time is up, have I done enough?
Will they tell my story?
— “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” from Hamilton
All of us work to a limited clock. None of us are promised tomorrow. Most of the time, we’re good about not thinking about that.
But when a loved one leaves too soon, it hits you right in the face.
You look at the choices that you made and that you didn’t make. The things you’ve tried and the things you were too scared to do. A different sort of “what if,” perhaps, but one that looks forward instead of backward.
“What have I not done that I should have done? That I still could do?”
I use the word “choice” and it starts that way. But the funny thing is, the mind and the soul have a muscle memory, too. The more you choose an action, the more reflexive it becomes. That can be the start of a lot of bad habits – but it’s also where things like bravery, diligence, kindness and generosity come from. You do the right thing often enough, and eventually it leaves conscious thought. It just becomes what you do.
When time is short, those reflexes matter. And time is always short. Train them. Sharpen them. Reach out. Welcome in.
And in her absence, I hope we all can, too.