How to Die

I met my friend Melissa about 14 years ago at a Mom’s bible study sponsored by my diocese. She was an outgoing and vivacious woman and I was completely drawn to her. We became fast friends. However, life was busy and we rarely saw each other, except for our bible study meetings. We spent time on the phone visiting and that was the extent of our friendship. But we would pop in and out of each other’s lives over the years and the contact was always welcome.

One particular time I remember was on one of my daughter’s birthdays. Melissa dropped by with a huge bag of clothes which included several very elaborate ballet costumes in perfect condition. When she showed up on my doorstep I burst out crying because I realized God had used her to answer a prayer. My husband was out of work at the time and money was tight…especially for extras like birthday gifts. I had been praying that we would find something we could afford to give our precious little girl for her birthday and those ballet costumes fit the bill.

Later that same year I saw Melissa at bible study. She asked me how my oldest son was doing. He has autism and Melissa always had a soft spot for him in her heart and prayed often for him. Then she broke the news that she had been diagnosed with cancer of the tongue and asked for prayers. I was shocked but the look on her face made me hold back my emotions. I could tell she didn’t want me to cry or react. She needed strength. After the meeting she asked me for some information. So many years later I don’t remember what her request was; it could have been a phone number. When I rifled through my purse all I could find to write on was a pamphlet on how to say the rosary. Weeks later she called me and told me she had never said the rosary before and that pamphlet had helped her to start. She now had begun praying it every day.

I ran into Melissa at daily Mass some time after that and she looked gaunt. The cancer treatment was taking its toll on my beautiful statuesque friend. She smiled brightly, though, and said, “I thank God every day that He allowed me to have this cancer. Without it I wouldn’t have needed Him and I certainly wouldn’t have gotten my life in order.”

Melissa had been married for a very brief time during her late teens. She divorced but never applied for an annulment. When she met her husband they married outside the church. It was the cancer that spurred her to apply for the annulment, which was granted. Melissa and her husband then had their marriage validated in the church. Melissa’s faith grew as fast as the cancer spread throughout her body. Frequent Mass, confession, and constant prayer helped her live her life boldly and fiercely. When she had to have a part of her tongue removed she praised God that it wasn’t all of her tongue. When she went on to have a part of her jaw removed she continued the praises.

Melissa spent her days in a beautiful garden built for her by her husband. He put a screened gazebo at the center of it and added a soft recliner so his wife would be able to relax and enjoy the nature. She walked the paths he had constructed with her parents and her children who sacrificed each day to make her life comfortable. Melissa humbly accepted any help offered to her with dignity and grace.

I remember the last time I saw her. It was in that garden on a warm early summer day. I was going through a rough time emotionally and opened up to her. By this time Melissa was no longer able to speak intelligibly, so she carried a notepad with her.

“Forgive,” she wrote to me. “Forgiveness is the key.”

Then her eyes rolled up in her head from intense pain. Her frail body leaned on me as I walked her into the house. She injected her feeding tube with pain medicine and I could see the color return to her gaunt cheeks.

She led me to her bedroom and showed me her wig collection. We both giggled when she held up a platinum blonde pageboy. But she was tired and made her way to the bed where I tucked her in. I said my goodbyes but she shook her head and grabbed my hand.

“Pray over me,” she requested in garbled speech.

I put my hands on her head and begged the Lord to save her, although Melissa and I both knew He had other plans. I asked for protection and comfort for her family and friends. Melissa relaxed and her eyes closed as I quietly left the room.

She died just a couple weeks later surrounded by her parents, husband and children. She received Viaticum and then slipped quietly into the arms of Jesus.

On the day of her funeral I wasn’t surprised to learn that Melissa had chosen the music and written her own eulogy, which the celebrant, a childhood friend of hers, read after the Mass had ended.

Her final words, borne of a life of suffering and hard lessons, but resulting in true faith and humility, have stayed with me even to this day.

“Do not cry for me. Instead, draw me a picture, sing me a song, dance me a dance…live!”

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