Friday, April 8, 2011

Mourning Brown Eyes

A door opened and light from the apartment within spilled out into the dimly lit hall where I stood, next to my future husband, waiting to meet his oldest sister. Joel had shown me pictures of Melissa from her wedding where a small, thin, beautiful woman stood beaming next to her handsome husband. Her smile spread from her lips to her eyes and poured out of the photo. So it was a bit of a shock to see the person before me: still small, but with black frizzy hair where once had been light brown, a face bloated from prednisone. As soon as I looked into her eyes, though, that same love and warmth poured out and I knew this was the woman from the photos. Melissa was battling her second round of Leukemia and her body showed the effects, but her voice was steady and her smile constant.

When people are diagnosed with cancer, the response is often, "I'm going to fight this." I've considered this statement and have often, unfairly, thought that the fighting lay more with the doctors and the treatments than with the person themselves. Melissa taught me how wrong that assessment was.

Over 22 years, Melissa actively fought and survived six cancers. But being a fighter is hardly what defines her. When I asked family members to share a few thoughts with me, they all spoke of how she was courageously noble in mind and heart, generous in forgiving, and was unselfish, almost to a fault. That is the very definition of magnanimous.

What she wanted more in life was to have a family. The cancers seemed to make it impossible. I can only imagine how heartbreaking that was for her, because she never spent much, if any, time lamenting her own disappointments. Instead, she immersed herself in others. As a sister and aunt, she remembered every birthday with cards and phone calls. She volunteered for charities and in elementary school classrooms. She spoke about what she had learned from her trials with others. She never accepted that she was a hero, but would acknowledge that her life had a purpose and her duty was to share it.

After years of being cancer-free, she and Rich began to think of adopting. And then everything fell into place. I know few people trying to adopt who get a baby so quickly. And then two years later it happened again. Melissa was a mother, and the ease with which her babies came seemed like a reassurance from above that this was what she was supposed to be doing. Last year, as cancer returned, she shared with me her confusion about why adopting was so easy for them, and her fears for her children.

I've never known a mother who spent so much time reading to her children. It was her passion. And when cancer loomed, she continued to read to her children, but spent their sleeping hours reading some more, this time into a recorder. When they had to perform a tracheotomy, she cried not from pain, but knowing that she would no longer be able to read to her children.

When the doctors found the cancer had returned, Melissa knew she had fought all she could. There was nothing else that could be done. But Melissa wasn't content. She picked up a pen and began writing birthday cards for the children she would not raise to adulthood. She wrote and she wrote, sometimes taking a couple hours, in her weakened state, to write a few lines. She wrote notes of gratitude and love to family members. And still she wanted to know how others were doing.

As her body weakened, she slept far more than she was awake. Family members would talk to her with no response, but the minute her children touched her, her eyes would open. A few nights ago, Rich thought she might pass in the night, so he brought the children to hug her and say goodbye. She opened her eyes for the first time that day, saw the loves of her life, and wept.

How is this ok? What "plan" is this a part of? How on earth do I explain to my children why something like this has to happen, when I don't fully understand it? Donovan asked why Melissa would get sick, "Is it because she did drugs or something?" I doubt anyone lived a cleaner life than she did. But it's natural for us to want to point to something and say, "That's why." But in this instance, there is nothing.

I don't know how to walk the fine line between letting my children see and know grief, and not traumatizing them. I don't know how to comfort my husband who is losing his beloved oldest sister. I don't know the first thing to say to a brother-in-law who wonders how "this single parent thing works." I don't know, and it sucks.

Rich had called a couple weeks ago to ask if I would help write Melissa's obituary. How do you respond to that? "I'd love to!" Um, no. But yes. But no. How could anything I say equal the woman she is? A week later he called and said he was sending the information to me. He said, “I thought Melissa wasn't doing so great and maybe she would go soon, so I started to write something. When I showed it to Melissa, she scanned it, and then walked over to her iPad and typed just one word: Sarah." I will hold those words in my heart forever. Her regard means more to me than she will ever know.

Melissa is not one to go quietly. She is small, but she is determined. She is quiet, but she is feisty. Even at the end, as family members discussed her life at her bedside, unable to open her eyes, the rise and fall of her eyebrows indicated that she could hear them.

There are levels of tragedy with her passing. I cannot really envision a world without Melissa. Often it is easy to remember only the good in those who have passed. In this case, there is only good to remember. For me, her passing is a call to do better. The world has lost goodness, and we need to try to make up for that deficit.

As I consider her presence in my life, I see her eyes behind the camera as she took a picture after Joel proposed; as she prepared Thanksgiving dinner; as she walked along trails in the mountains; as she spoke of her children; as she told about her experiences with cancer; as she quietly spoke of her unwavering faith; as she laughed, cried, and grimaced; as she shook her head in despair, unable to comfort her child when she was too weak to pick her up. But mostly I see her eyes as she listened. She was an incredible and intense listener. She heard everything you said and actually cared.

I do believe in the afterlife, and I do believe in the Resurrection. I do believe she is in a better place, and I do believe we will see her again. But that's a long way off, and she has left a lot of people behind who will miss her terribly. Right now -- right now I'm incredibly sad, because those wonderful, beautiful caring brown eyes closed for the last time today.


celeste said...

to say that our thoughts and prayers are with you seems trite...but it's true. so very sorry for your loss.


Melin said...

so sorry sarah--you've already done her well with such a lovely (a couple lovely) tributes. I am sure God will bless her family---as someone who lost a parent at a young age, goodness, knowledge, understanding comes back in various and unthought of ways.

NancyO said...

A lovely post - and very sad. I'm sorry I wasn't able to know her.

Angie said...

I'm sorry...thanks for sharing your beautiful thoughts.

Kristen said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. She sounds like an amazing woman. Your words portray her wonderfully.

Natalee said...

I have to confess, I haven't read anyone's blogs in a very long time - I haven't written, and I haven't read. But I looked yours up today to see if there was a status. I am so sorry that she did in fact pass today and my prayers continue to be with all who are mourning her passing - in particular her small children. I only met Melissa once - your bridal shower - and also talked with her beforehand about it (tracking down a recipe I think??). Anyhow, I liked her instantly and felt her kindness and warmth. She was just that kind of person.

I love your words, your insight and your perspective. You are just that kind of person.

Jo said...

My deepest condolences to you, Joel and your family.

Lisa said...

I am so sorry. What an incredible life, and what an incredible woman. My prayers are with her family as they deal with this horrible loss.

Sarah Burgoyne said...

Sarah your post just breaks my heart. I'm glad its naptime so I don't have to explain my tears to my girls. You are all in our prayers, especially Melissa's husband and children.

Mom/Grandma Smith said...

Sarah, your post is so perfect for Melissa. She was blessed to have you as a sister-in-law. You write beautifully. Thank you.
We have known Melissa since she was a teenager in New Jersey. She was just as you remember her - beautiful and bright, inside and out. We have been so saddened by her challenges and will miss her.
We send our best to Joel and to the whole family.
Louise Smith

RYNJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shira said...

Oh Sarah, I am so, so sorry for your loss. Melissa's husband and children and your whole family are in my thoughts and prayers. What a terrible, terrible loss for the world.

Marci said...

Hi Sarah, I went to church with Joel and Melissa in NJ and I have been lurking and reading your beautiful posts for some time now. My brother died as a young child and so I know how hard it is to understand an innocent, beautiful person's passing; my heart absolutely breaks for her family. I have been praying for all of you and will continue to do so. Hopefully some day I will have a chance to meet you; you seem like an absolutely delightful person. All my love to everyone.

loewymartin said...

I'm so very sorry Sarah. My thoughts are with you and Joel. Much love to you all.

Allison said...

I'm so sorry. I only met Melissa once or twice, but hearing you and Joel talk about her, I felt like I knew her well. The world has lost an amazing woman, and my heart breaks for her children. We're praying for Rich, the kids, and your family.

Rachel said...

Sarah, my love and prayers are with you and Joel and your families, and most especially with Melissa's children at this sad and difficult time.

Melanie I. said...

Your Sister in Law sounds like a wonderful person. Sometimes I think there are people that Earth is just not good enough for.

Your ability to tell a story is so rich, that I feel as if I knew her, I know you will more than live up to the honor of her choice.

My thoughts are with all of you.


Janet T. Perry said...


Your sister-in-law is blessed to have your words capturing some of the essence of who she was. I'm sure her children and husband will be increasingly grateful for your gift to describe so eloquently a woman they will love forever.


Anne said...

so sad and beautiful, sarah. i am so sorry for your loss.

Annie said...

Sarah (and Joel), So sorry to hear of your loss. You'll be in my thoughts and prayers.