I present this not as a proud father - which I am - but as a person that stands in awe of a young lady whose life was just beginning when she was told it was about to end. Our goal is for you to feel just a little of Melissa’s passion for life, caring for others and her wisdom which laid the foundation for Melissa’s Wish.
On March 11th of 2003, at the age of 26, our daughter Melissa was diagnosed with pseudomyxoma peritonea, a rare abdominal cancer and was given six months to live. Her young world was rocked and life as she knew it would forever change. Even though she defied the odds by persevering six years beyond her original prognosis she lost her battle with cancer on October 6th, 2009. I have a great deal of difficulty saying she “lost” her battle because there was just no quit in her at all. Yes! As courageous and inspiring as her fight with cancer was, we would be doing Melissa a great injustice if we allowed her illness to define her brief life and form her legacy. We believe her legacy is her compassionate spirit, embodied in Melissa’s Wish.
Melissa was born to my wife Fran and me on May 7th, 1977 joining her older brother Brian to complete our family. Both of our children were a blessing, each possessing very different energy. Brian was constantly on the go and Melissa was a gentle soul.
In retrospect Melissa’s life was a challenge for her from the beginning. As if it was practice for what was to come, she suffered a grand mal seizure at one year old. This frightening experience affected the entire left side of her body. After a battery of tests over several weeks, she was put on medication and monitored for four years. No one was certain if she suffered any permanent neurological damage. However, it was clear she overcame this issue in the first grade when she was chosen to participate in the Challenge Center, a program for gifted children. Later on, she represented her school in a national science fair sponsored by Brookhaven National Labs and was one of the finalists. She was on the Honor Roll in High School and went on to get her college degree in Horticulture.
Melissa was well on her way to doing many wonderful things and touching many people. Her love of life and compassion for others seemed so natural to her at such an early age.
In junior high school, she volunteered as a candy striper and worked at the St. Catherine’s Senior Citizen Center. She would spend countless hours sitting with the elderly, pushing them outside for some fresh air or simply holding their hand and talking to them.
In high school she gave her time to help a young woman who was in a serious car accident that had left her in a coma for months. This once popular girl found herself alone and severely challenged. Melissa would go to her house weekly to watch movies, play games, and read with her. When Melissa got her license, she would pick up this young woman and take her to the mall for a few hours so she could get out of the house.
Melissa never hesitated to take on a challenge or a cause she believed in. Her love of nature led her to help start an environmental club in Kings Park High School that was active in cleaning the beaches at Sunken Meadow and the Kings Park Bluff. This club also led to other initiatives, such as reducing pollution and respecting the Earth. When she had summers off from school, she sought enrichment, taking courses in photography, sculpting, horticulture, and landscape design.
In March of 2003 everything changed.
Melissa was rushed to Stony Brook University Hospital for emergency surgery with what was believed to be ovarian cancer. As bad as that disease is, we were about to find out that it was much worse.
After four hours of surgery, the doctor came out to tell Fran and me that Melissa had a very rare cancer and needed to get to Memorial Sloan Kettering as soon as possible. He had only seen one other case of this cancer and Sloan was the only hospital in our region that had the ability to deal with it. He spent thirty minutes showing Fran and me pictures and slides of Melissa’s surgery. He warned us that this was very graphic, but we needed to understand the magnitude of her illness. I sometimes question the wisdom of that moment as those images are still etched in our minds.
Fran and I accompanied Melissa for her first of many trips to Memorial Sloan Kettering for a consultation with her surgeon and oncologist. It was during this trip we all received a dose of reality. She was told that there was no cure for her illness, she required additional surgery, and she likely didn’t have much time to live; in fact, she was given maybe six months to live. Her simple reply to her surgeon and oncologist was “that’s just not good enough!”
On the way home, we decided to stop at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to light a few candles. Standing on each side of Melissa, Fran and I lit our candles first. Melissa lit her candle next, and it flipped upside down and went out! She looked at Fran and me and burst into tears and said, “is this how it’s going to be?” Little did we know this was pretty much how it would go for the rest of her life.
As with most obstacles in her life, she challenged the obvious, questioned the authority, and beat the odds. It was always difficult – never impossible. This was to be Melissa’s world. She mounted an incredible fight for the next six years that inspired many people around her and showed others what a courageous and amazing lady she was. But those of us close to her already knew that.
Much of Melissa’s world revolved around brutal rounds of chemotherapy, multiple abdominal surgeries, and substantial time in the hospital. Amazingly, this is where her true spirit shined the brightest. Some of the most precious moments I shared with Melissa revolved around her hospital stays. We were often alone and had very deep and frank conversations that frequently left me in awe, and I treasure them deeply. Her most profound statements were always innocent and never calculated:
When it became clear that surgery was no longer an option and further chemo was unlikely I had asked her where she got the strength and courage to fight as long and hard as she did. Her answer was “there wasn’t a choice; I had too much life to live and too much love to find.”
While sitting at Melissa’s bedside in hospice one night watching her sleep, I felt her hand on my arm and a little voice ask, “You OK, need a hug?”
In the final months of Melissa’s life Fran and I would take turns staying with her while in hospice. She was on huge amounts of morphine and for the most part was confined to her bed - or was supposed to be. Much to my surprise, I got a call from Melissa asking me to pick her up on my motorcycle for one last ride. I wasn’t sure I heard things right, so I reminded her that she was in hospice, on morphine, and under a doctor’s care. I also asked if the people in hospice knew what her plan was. Her response was typical Melissa. When she told them that she wanted a pass to take one last ride with me on my bike, they told her that they thought it was too dangerous. She replied, “What am I going to get, cancer?” We took that ride. As Melissa got on the bike she raised her arms up to the sky and let out a yell! It was a short ride down to Northport. We sat by the water for a bit and Melissa had an Italian Ice, which she was not supposed to have. She was too weak to make it back on the bike and had to go in the car with oxygen but she did it her way!
Melissa had received a bouquet of sunflowers while in hospice; these were her favorite flowers. Fran placed them in a vase and was arranging them when Melissa said to Fran “Mom, please don’t fuss with them. What I like about flowers is they are not perfect.”
This innocent statement hit me like a brick as it summed up Melissa’s life. Melissa had the ability to look past the imperfections of her life and find the goodness, joy, and beauty in each painful day.
Some other words of inspiration in her final weeks:
We were not allowed to say goodbye. If you said goodbye, she would admonish, “I’m taking you with me. It’s See You Later!’
“Fighting cancer is not the hard part, not winning is.”
“If you spend all your time worrying about what other people think you won’t have enough time to enjoy life.”
“Never be afraid to give someone a second chance.”
“When you treat someone with beauty and respect you can expect the same.”
This young lady made all her funeral arrangements, picked her prayer cards and even picked her coffin. She asked if I could help her get her coffin pinstriped! She promised no flames, but wanted it striped. I reminded her that she often crosses the line and she reminded me that it was her line to cross! She was one of the few people that could leave me speechless.
What a unique combination of dignity, grace, and compassion, mixed with a ferocious thirst for life and love of others this warrior had. There are many more examples of how this young woman lived her life and I could go on and on.
She was keenly aware that her clock was ticking faster and faster and despite all the medication she was on, she worked on gifts to leave her loved ones. We could see that the intensity and urgency were increasing as she knitted scarves, painted picture frames and hand wrote letters to her loved ones. I watched her try to write something for me, and I couldn’t read her normally beautiful penmanship. She laughed, meditated for a few minutes, and proceeded to finish writing my note and then continued hand painting picture frames, all perfect!
It was at this time that she asked Fran and me if we were to do anything in her name, to please help the caregivers of those suffering catastrophic medical events. Between her own experience fighting cancer and the experiences of others who she met in the process, she witnessed firsthand, the hardships that families endured while trying to care for their loved ones.
We all knew the end would come, but none of us were sure how it was going to go. As you might expect, Melissa was the conductor of this orchestra, and it was going to be on her terms. She tearfully told Fran and me that she could not endure anymore physical pain as the cancer took over her body. She wanted to say, “See you later”! As Melissa was hugging Fran with tears in her eyes, she looked at me and said, “Want to start a pool?” I was speechless once again, and she reminded me that it was her line to cross.
I will spare the details of what was supposed to be the last few hours of Melissa’s life, and simply say it took almost two days and numerous events of Melissa getting out of bed and the nurses chasing her down the hall. She had things that needed to be done!
Just a few days before she passed, Melissa asked that I share her last sentiment with you. It took her three times to write this and in her own words, she said: “If you remember just one thing about me, please remember that I was neither a victim nor a survivor. I was a cancer warrior.”
We will always have a huge hole in our hearts by the passing of Melissa, but please don’t feel sorry for us. We were blessed for 32 years with a true gift, and we have a lifetime of loving memories and inspiration. We would not change one step of the wonderful journey we shared.
Thank you for reading Melissa’s story. We hope that in the spirit in which Melissa lived and fought for each day or perhaps in memory of someone special to you, you will assist us in fulfilling Melissa’s Wish to bring some comfort to the caretakers of terminally ill loved ones.
Bill, Fran and Brian Blackford and staff at MelissasWish.org.