I lost one of the most important people in my life Friday.
In 2001, I began my college career. I say career, but anyone who knows me knows that it was just 5 years of goofing off. I didn't know a single person going into UMass Lowell and years of being a dork in Middle/High school had ripped away at any sense of self-esteem I had in me. Needless to say, it was a terrifying time in my life. I remember thinking that I'd need to hook up with some kind of collegiate ministry of some kind, growing up in the church meant that the majority of my social skills were brought out in youth group environments, they tended to be the most accepting.
To clarify, however, I don't see myself as the awkward Christian guy who walks around with his Bible and says annoying things like, "Man, the Lord really spoke to me today" or uses words like "Fellowship". That wasn't me then, that isn't me now. However that same faith is the single most important factor in my life and the only grounds from which I get my strength or truly define myself. I say this because it plays a role later.
I walked out of my dorm room after wondering what groups were at the school, and wouldn't you know, right across the hall there was a flyer taped to the wall for a group called "Abundant Life Christian Fellowship"… Yes, it used the word Fellowship, but I was willing to overlook that. They met on Thursdays and I believe this was a Wed. So I was pretty excited to not have to wait too long to make an appearance and check it out.
Thursday night came, and I walked across the street to Fox Hall where the group met and proceeded to the 6th floor. (at least I think that's what floor it was, doesn't matter really). Upon entering I was immediately cornered by two heavier set guys, Brandon and Earl. Low on confidence, I squeaked out, "Is… Is this the Christian group?", Brandon replied with his arms stretched as if to offer me the world, "This is Abundant Life". I admit, it was a little quirky, but I liked that he distinguished it from being 'just some Christian get-together'. People were pretty quick to greet me, something I look for in any gathering, not cliquey, etc… I had enough of cliques in High School and was pretty much done with that nonsense. The leader of that group was Melissa Chelaris. I remember the first time I met her, she came running over to me to introduce herself. She was the giddiest human being I had ever met, I was a little taken back by it, to be honest.
The night progressed and all went well. We introduced ourselves, had snacks, mingled and the night was over. I went back to my dorm room rather satisfied and looked forward to the following Thursday.
Then next Thursday came. I walked across the street, a little more confident then the last week and again, took the elevator up to the 6th (6th, right? meh, it was 10 years ago) floor and walked into the room. The set up had completely changed. Chairs all around, arranged in a fashion similar to a Sunday Morning church service, people mingling who had now broken off into mini-cliques, and a projector set up. Feeling out of my comfort zone again, I rushed to the nearest person I could identify from the previous week and said hi. It went well, but it wasn't the same, as only a few Q&A's in to the conversation, somebody else interrupted to talk and I was quietly removed from the conversation. I remember just sitting down by myself, fearful that I was about to experience High School allover again. You could say I shut down, but what was really going on was mass amounts of judgement and bitterness running through my brain and I needed to focus my efforts on being pissed.
The group ended and I walked out feeling unseen/unwanted, deciding I was done with that group and wouldn't go back. The thing was, I went into college hoping to reinvent myself, as most unpopular kids do, and Abundant Life was my chance to prove to myself that I had more to offer, that there was something about me that people liked and genuinely wanted to get to know. So when I was butted out of a conversation and then basically ignored afterwards, it was defeat in my head. I assumed there really wasn't anything about me that was memorable or desirable. Seriously, I thought like a teenage girl.
Now, my perception of days and weeks is a little fuzzy at this point, but in the following days, I either received a phone call, or an email or an Instant Message (remember those??) from Melissa, the head of the group. I was ready to brush it off as and obligatory "Thanks for coming to our group!", but that's not at all what it was. Melissa was going to see the movie "O" that night with two other girls from the group and asked me if I wanted to join them.
Let me take a second and explain why this caught my attention. There's a few reasons, the first being that somebody remembered my name, the second being that somebody wanted to do something with me and the third thing being that that something wasn't "come to prayer group!" or "do some Christian volunteer thing next week!"… It was to see a movie that would make my old Pastor shiver. This woman, who was head of a Christian organization invited me to do something… Normal. As friend and not a student, or 'disciple' if you will.
That night was a good time. I still remember thinking, "I just watched a 10 minute long, borderline-rapey, sex scene with my campus minister and wasn't obligated to leave the theater and pretend to be offended!" There's three things about this night which have changed my life tremendously: 1.) I got to get to know three people who would come to be three of my closest friends in life. 2.) My self-esteem took a new direction, and I came to be very comfortable (and even a little proud) in who I am. 3.) My entire perception of Christianity and faith changed. Suddenly being a Christian wasn't about singing old hymns in a building full of old people and the socially inept, nor was it about following a list of things you can't do, like having a drink or seeing a movie that ISN'T rated-G. It wasn't about how often you read your bible or who knew more scripture verses. Most importantly, it wasn't about judgement and condemnation. It was something deeper, something more genuine and something just a little more honest. I could write a whole post on that alone, but let's just sum it up with it's more about relationships and love than it is about rules and judgements. That's another post for another time…
Needless to say, I came back to that group the following Thursday. I came back every single Thursday for the next 4 years unless I was too sick to do otherwise. 12 people from that group are now some of the closest friends I'll ever have, three of them were groomsmen in my wedding. My first drink was with that group and they even inspired a comic book series which helped develop whatever skills I have as an artist. Basically, the person I am now was molded from my experiences and hardships with Abundant Life. That's all thanks to Melissa.
In the years to come, my relationship with Melissa became like that of a brother and sister. She became family to me. She was the first person to include me, the first person to befriend me, and the first person to see past the shyness and awkwardness of a boy with no self-esteem. She never once judged me when I came to her with my stupid problems, or when I whined to her about drama between me and others in the group. She prayed with me, she talked with me and she listened to me. Melissa ALWAYS had time for me, no matter how busy she was.
For a campus minister, she had a good sense of humor. I used to sneak on her computer in her office and change the backgrounds to things like this. She was a good sport… She got me back the following week when she changed my cell phone's language to Spanish. Took me over an hour to change it back… Thank God for bilingual friends! While I'm sure my antics got annoying from time to time, she never made me feel stupid or ever put me down, and I KNOW she forced a laugh here and there when I told a bad joke. It's the kind of person she was. Encouraging. She made you feel good about yourself.
And she was thoughtful. She used to send out newsletters and updates, the snail-mail equivalent to forwards… I hate forwards and certainly had no problem expressing to her that would throw away any mail that wasn't personal. Jokingly of course, but dead serious. The following week I got a letter in the mail from Melissa. I opened it. It was one of her newsletters, but at the top she wrote a little message to me in pen so that it could be personal and I would read the newsletter. It made me smile, and I remember calling her and laughing about it on the phone. Then I threw the newsletter out without reading it. I wish I had saved it, but you never think you'll need to keep little things like that.
You think your friends are immortal. Like, when you say goodbye, they go into some kind of chamber in your mind where they're preserved until your next encounter. My last goodbye to Melissa was last August. After she moved to Virginia, she'd come up once in a great while and I'd meet up with her and grab a coffee, or a group of us would get dinner. She came up last summer and the old Abundant Life crew grabbed dinner together. It was a nice night, but nothing special. It was a regular goodbye, we said our usual:
"Move your butt back to New England!"
"Psh! Why don't YOU move to Virginia!"
"Well, Virginia's boring!"
"K, I love you, bye!"
I'm not even so sure I remember telling her I love her. And that's the part that hurts the most. I mean, I know we can't end all our talks with everyone we love with, "You're so incredible and here's a list of everything I love about you!", but maybe we should say I love you more.
I say this because I found out last November that Melissa got diagnosed with stomach cancer. I had a feeling I wouldn't see her again, but I thought I'd have time to at least hear her voice on the phone and tell her how important she was to me. I called her immediately after hearing the news, but between treatments, stress and probably a million other people who's lives she touched calling her, I never got through. I sent her a message on Facebook and ended it with "Love ya"… But I didn't want to freak her out with something sentimental and grim. I almost wish I had. She wrote me back with this:
as for how i'm doing. i am definitely feeling better then when i was first diagnosed, but it's a long hard road. keep praying. i know that God can heal me and having others pray with me is a powerful thing.
love you, m
This was the last I ever heard from her. I never even wrote back. As it turns out, it wasn't a long road at all. She passed away yesterday. I thought I had more time… But you never know how much time you really have. Few people ever get the chance to say, "I love you. This is why I love you, and this is what you mean to me." If you are saying this, then chances are you're at the side of a hospital bed. In a way, maybe I should be glad I never said those words… I don't think I could stand the thought of seeing her in whatever condition she was in. My last memory of her is a happy one. She was as I always knew her. She was happy, she was smiling and she was truly alive. Because of this, deep down beneath all the hurt, there's the faintest, tinniest smile. I suppose that smile is the last gift she ever gave me.
Because she salvaged what little faith I had then, I believe in God and I believe in a Heaven. So I know she's there, exactly as we all knew her. Sometimes I think God was jealous that we were hogging her and decided he wanted her back. I can't blame Him for that… But it doesn't mean I'm not pissed off at Him for it. This may be the understatement of the year, but I miss her so damn much.
I spoke to three very close friends yesterday whom I haven't spoken with in a long time. As I listened to the voice coming over the phone, I thought… This moment. This conversation. This friendship. Neither would be happening right now were it not for Melissa. It was her group and it was her act of kindness to me that made these friendships happen. I looked over at a scripture verse I had written down for my wife, sticking to the mirror… The book that verse came from would have been meaningless to me were it not for Melissa. I thought about my wife. I thought about the man she fell in love with three years ago. That man is the end result of the friendships and experiences and confidence that came about from his days at Abundant Life. I owe Melissa for that as well.
I put my glass down, said my goodbyes to the person on the other end of the phone (and you better believe I told hat person I loved them), and I closed my eyes, grateful. I may never hear her voice again, but I'll see a piece of her in every aspect of my life. She was just that important to me. I also know that my story is no more unique or special than the hundreds of other people whose lives I know she touched and changed. I'm one of a thousand people whom God blessed through that woman's life. Maybe her job here was finished and God brought her home. Maybe her job isn't finished and her death will speak to thousands of others... Maybe I'll just have to ask her that when I get to Heaven.
So long, friend. I'll see you again someday.