How to Die

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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!”

9 Replies to “How to Die”

  1. I have no words. Thank you so much for sharing Melissa’s story with us AnnMarie. May she rest in peace.

  2. What a beautiful testimony of loving God and trusting in His Divine will. Thank you for sharing with us. This is a subject many of us don’t like to talk about but really we should. We are born and one day we die…why not be prepared and die with dignity and surrounded by prayer and forgiveness and love? Each of us are given crosses, it’s not the crosses that are the problems in life, it’s the way we accept and embrace them. Lovely story!

  3. This story is as compelling today as it was when it was happening. May we all die with the faith in God, the love of life and grace she demonstrated to us in her last days before she went home to the Father.

  4. What a heartbreaking yet joyful story. It seems like there are so many people I know with cancer. My f-i-l died of it last year and it is so harrowing. To know that your friend made her final journey surrounded by love from her husband and friends is so consoling.

    I found the quote from Melissa to be very meaningful: “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.” I just finished a book called Wrapped Up, that is about the gifts God gives us, and one of the gifts is a little surprising: suffering. One of the authors of the book, Cheryl Dickow who has Lupus, writes about how her disease has brought her closer to God and that she would have not progressed in her spiritual life if not for the disease. She talks about it here: It is a lovely book. Teresa Tomeo of EWTN is the other author.

    Forgiveness is mentioned, as well as the friends God puts in your life, which are also gifts listed in “Wrapped Up,” and that is what made me want to mention the book. “Forgiveness is the key.” Is very meaningful to me. God gives us so many gifts but they are only blessings to us if we accept them. So many times God offers us gifts and we don’t think we are worthy. Suffering brings us to God, but hopefully we try to strive to be united with him before the bad things happen. Thanks for this beautiful memory of your friend.

  5. What a beautiful story!! I have a 4 year old daughter who prays over people when the are sick or hurting. She lays hands on them and prays. God has blessed her with a gift. One day an ambulance came by a neighbors house. She asked what was going on and immediately started to pray for this woman. as they took her away, Mu daughter asked Mommy, why are they taking her away…”Jesus has healed her” Sure enough she was back later that day. I wish that I could have the endless doubtless faith of a child….she will grow up to be someone very special…not because of me but because God has called her….

  6. Lydia – I have read Wrapped Up and it is such a beautiful book! I think every woman should read it!

    Sue – How amazing tha the Holy Spirit has manifested Himself in your daughter at such a young age! God works through those who are open to His will to glorify His Kingdom, and He is obviously working through your daughter.

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