Melissa moved from Appleton, Wisconsin, to Upper Arlington, Ohio, in fourth grade. We were both nine. She lived one street over from my house, and if I took the shortcut through the neighbor’s yard, past the sweetest-smelling lilacs ever to bless my olfactory nerves, I could be at her house in 60 seconds flat. Ninety if I stopped to smell those ambrosial purple flowers, still my favorite just for that very memory. We were both bossy, and we were both always right. We became best friends immediately. And 30 years later, she remains my best friend. (Which proves Einstein’s theory of relativity, since she’s getting ready to turn 27 next month. Again.)
I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not know her. Or need her. Or love her.
She sat at my side and encouraged me through a difficult labor (as my husband slept, a fact he emphatically denies even 14 years later) as I brought my first daughter into the world. Nine months later, I returned the favor, cheerleading for her, as she brought her only daughter into the world. Another daughter followed two years later for us; for them, a rolly-polly, jolly son. We’ve supported each other through bad times and bad decisions and bad consequences. We’ve celebrated a lot of good times.
And if good times were scarce, we made some of our own. Or made the best of what we had. Or rather, Melissa made those times good, even fun, and always memorable. I’m just not that kind of person. She’s one of those kindred spirits who can find joy in a broken hot-water heater with nine people enduring ice-cold showers with just 45 minutes to get to church. What would have led me to a veritable onslaught of curse words had me giggling with Melissa’s attitude. She’s just one of those people, those rare people that people like me (pessimists) are blessed to attract and even more lucky not to drive away.
In the summer of 2011, after I’d had a complicated total hip replacement, and our family was going through a tough time, she dragged me on a two-week oddessy through the Midwest, Missouri being our farthest-most destination, with many points in between. I tasted kettle corn for the first time. I loved it. We suffered a violent stomach bug that laid us out in a hotel room for a day. I hated it. I saw the St. Louis Arch. It awed me. A lot of time in the car. Just the two of us–plus three kids (one being then terrible-two-year-old Maxwell, who broke the skin when he bit Melissa’s daughter for no apparent reason) and the family dog, a “fluzzit” appropriately named Bandit. A friendship that can endure, and even truly enjoy, such an exploit can survive anything. And we’ve had to put that facticity to the test this year.
On November 15, 2012, at 12:19, as I was orienting for a new job at the hospital, desperately trying to coax my shy bladder into giving up a specimen, my 27-year-young (12 times over), vibrant, beautiful, fearless, always-right, nothing-gets-in-her-way best friend sent me the following text:
“Doc called. I have cancer.”
Invasive ductal carcinoma of the left breast with positive lymph nodes. And not a straightforward lump, but a gel-like venom and that permeated the tissue around it and scattered cancer flecks undetectable by mammogram. The cancer had advanced its assault on Melissa’s petite frame and invaded her pectoral muscles on the left side, the tissue between her ribs, and her breast bone. Surgery was not an initial option, as we had originally hoped.
First, Melissa has endured high-dose chemotherapy for five months. And right around her 27th birthday (again) next month, she will lose both breasts, then undergo targeted radiation, reconstructive surgeries, and then an indefinite duration of pills. The major stuff should be done by this time next year. It’s daunting.
But Melissa’s response in an on-line journal on December 5, 2012, just 20 days after this devastating news that might cripple a lesser woman?
“It has been a few days since my last journal entry so I thought I would get my legion of cancer warriors up to date. By the way, that is how I am referring to you all: my legion of cancer warriors. YOU brighten my day, make me smile, laugh and cry at your sweet (and sometimes nutty) posts here, texts, emails, and phone calls, and I feel so much STRONGER with you all behind me. Thank you!!!”
Cancer is apparently ignorant of my best friend’s invincible spirit. It doesn’t stand a chance, as her husband says. And I am sure, as sure as I am that the sun will rise tomorrow, that she will beat it. But I am incensed at what she has to go through to rid her body of this vile poison.
Melissa is a good person. The best. Her faith in God is unshakable–not once has she blamed God or shown Him anger at this cross she has to bear. In fact, she trusts Him, without question, to see her through. “It’s just a small part of the journey in my long life,” she says. So faithful. I wish I could say the same. My faith rests in the oncologists, the surgeons. I am not so strong.
Melissa’s compassion knows no boundaries. When my friend Theresa’s house burned to the ground just weeks before Christmas, Melissa, a 100 miles away no less, was on the job, gathering toiletries, bedding, clothing–all for a family she had never met. And this just six days after her first chemo treatment.
Melissa is a forgiving person. I’ve gone months not returning her calls–not out of malice, but because my life had become unmanageable–but once we reconnected, she never held a grudge. She didn’t even ask the reason for the long silence. It was like we had talked every day during my self-imposed sabbatical from friends, family and the world as a whole.
I frequently do that. Depression is my cross to bear, and I do not bear it well. Not with strength and courage, like Melissa. Often, I throw my cross down, and slump down on it and rest or cry, withdrawing from friends and family who would, no doubt, help me. But Melissa understands and lets me be me without judgement or vexation. She gets me.
Melissa did everything right. She had her two kids before age 30, breastfed them both, had no family history of breast cancer, did regular self breast exams, which will ultimately save her life. She doesn’t smoke. She doesn’t even have the breast cancer gene. Her oncologist assures her this is not her fault, there is nothing she could have done differently. Then whose fault is it? What is going on in this crazy world?
But Melissa doesn’t need an answer. She’s just working toward her cure with grace and humor, her signature traits. We’ve had some epic Uno tournaments during chemo. I don’t let her win, even though she tries to play that cancer card. No mercy, sister. It’s Uno, after all.
And while we both lose our fair share of hands, we won’t lose this battle with cancer. I’m just a small part of a large support crew. But with Melissa at the head, victory is a certainty. Of this, I am absolutely, positively, seriously sure.