As many of you know, I was lucky enough to be chosen along with eleven other survivors to go to India last year. All twelve of us, starting out as strangers, went on this adventure not knowing what to expect or what we were going to encounter. I think it's safe to say that we made lifelong friendships on this trip.
This trip was one of perspective changing, of life choices, of commitments, of fulfilling opportunities, and of unbreakable bonds between all fourteen of us (twelve survivors, Terri [also a survivor] and the infamous Hal - videographer extraordinaire).
For two weeks, none of us felt like the 'cancer' girl/guy, we just felt like us. We didn't have to explain or justify our chemo fog, our missing body parts or our lives that were in shambles more times than not. We all got that part of each other's lives without having to explain it. There's an unspoken unity among cancer survivors where we understand the guilt that comes along with a diagnosis, the financial burden, the fertility issues, the stress that we put on our families and friends and the eternal fear that it is cancer, not old age, that is going to kill us.
While in India, we took a trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. We were paired with a roommate for the overnight stay and Terri (the reason we were all in India) put Melissa and I in a room together. Melissa was cool. She was one of those girls who when she spoke, you listened, because something wise was bound to leave her lips. When Terri told me that we were going to be in the same room, I felt like I had to step up my coolness to be on the same level as Melissa - not because Melissa demanded it, but because maybe we could be friends and maybe some of her wisdom would rub off on me.
She was only a year or two older than me. She understood what it was like to have cancer in your twenties. We bonded over that. We both understood what it was like to still relate to being a 'daughter' instead of a 'mother'. Neither of us had children and both of us relied on our parents - we discussed the impact that our cancer had on our parents. Although having cancer when you are younger isn't harder than when you're 50, 60 or 70, it comes with different challenges.
That night in our RajMahal hotel room (that's right, our hotel in Agra was called the RajMahal), was another confirmation that I was with someone who 'got it'. I didn't have to justify anything to Melissa, we were on the same page and our only prerequisite was cancer. And like Terri mentioned, while I was in treatment I had a hard time making it from my bed to the couch or the washroom but Melissa, she travelled across the world to volunteer. That says a lot for who she was.
The following week was spent volunteering and wishing that we could stay in India even longer. We returned from India and all went back to the lives we knew. Some of us went back to work, some went back to their families, and some, like Melissa, went back into treatment. The Delhi Dozen sent her cards and words of encouragement as we could all appreciate what she was going through from our own experiences with cancer.
Thanks to Facebook and Instagram, I was able to stay up to date with Melissa although we were a country apart. The tone of her most recent posts were not good. It was quite clear that things weren't improving and instead were worsening.
On Monday night, her mother posted on Facebook that Melissa passed away that evening. I can't even think of a word that fully expresses my emotions. How can this actually be her reality? How can someone not have done something? How are we still losing our friends and family to cancer?
My own mortality is then thrown in my face. There it is, reminding me not to get too comfortable in remission. Melissa died from something that was growing in my body not too long ago. And I am not free of the disease, I am in remission. It is this experience that amplifies my survivor's guilt. Why Melissa? Why not me? Why have I been spared thus far when so many around me continue to suffer through treatment or are given a stage 4 diagnosis? My fears seem trivial in comparison to what her family is going through right now and yet, I can't seem to make it an hour without crying, without thinking about her saying goodbye and accepting her reality.
I haven't posted anything on Facebook because I don't know what to say. Nothing seems appropriate. Nothing seems healing. Nothing fixes the fact that she is gone. I needed a little time to process. I needed the license to write a proper post about her. And even after finishing this post, nothing feels cathartic. This also doesn't fix the fact that she is gone. I am lost with this loss of another friend.
That night in Agra, the night before we visited the Taj Mahal, we discussed our dads, both of whom are musicians. She told me about her dad (and I have since seen the picture on her Facebook of the two of them with their matching tattoos). I told her about my dad too and I showed her the painting that I had got for my dad, it was of Ganesha playing the drums. My dad, the drummer, introduced me to so many different bands growing up. Some of his favourites include Tower of Power, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and the always-playing-in-our-kitchen, band-we-were-going-down-to-Georgia-to-see-on-my-dad's-hypothetical-motorcycle, The Allman Brothers. They have always had a special place in my heart and hearing their songs throws me back to the summers of the 1990s, when as a little girl, life was easy and naive; cancer free. I have always loved their song 'Melissa' not because of anything in particular, but it just always made everything feel right. It seems appropriate then that I can't help but listening to 'Melissa' on a loop as I write.
I recently sent Melissa a message offering to send her anything from some maple syrup to a beaver from Canada if it would brighten her day. I wanted her to know that regardless of none of us Delhi Dozen being able to stand right beside her, we were all united with her.
Regardless of her physically being gone, her spirit is alive and well in all of us. We are all better people for having her in our lives.
I am sending all the comfort and peace to her family. I can't even imagine that pain.
Hold your loved ones tightly tonight.
Rest well Sweet Melissa.