TW: involves terminal illness
You’d think with how little stuff I’m bringing in my duffle bag, I wasn’t going off to college after living with my parents for 18 years. Maybe part of the lack of stuff is that my parents’ place has become my storage unit for all I won’t be taking with me. My mom actually seemed pleased I left so much, probably because, as she said, “you’ll visit often,” which I know she meant to say with confidence; it sounded more like a question choked back with tears. She added “I’ll pray for you every night.” And dad added “be careful on the road,” and I knew that was his way of saying he’ll miss me.
I know my major is wishy washy at the moment, but I feel ready to face life just the same. Well, life within the confines of collegiate dorms and no parental rules hovering over me, that is. It’s not like I had a hard life, but I don’t even know much what I like, what I want, what I believe. It’s almost better I’ve not locked in any major yet. Besides, most of my classes are like high school 2.0, only likely harder, more independent, but with the option (hopefully) to skip class at times so long as I make it for finals. It’s what I hear anyway, from my older brother, Sam. He graduated a couple years ago, so if he can, I know I can. I did okay in school so far in life, so we’ll see. My first two years in college are mostly math, English, science… the basics, really.
ONE WEEK LATER
“Derek!” Daniel shouted, from across the main lawn.
My quickly-forming friendship with my dorm roomie Daniel is welcomed. We so far seem alike in the important ways, but differ enough in taste for music and food that we have some natural things to explore around campus and in conversation. We both are fairly introverted, so I expect most of our time will be spent cooped up in our room. I know some people around campus are chattering about their less-than-favorable roommate situations. And others maybe worked it out ahead of time to reside with their already-chosen friends. But me… I sort of started anew here. It’s not as bad as it sounds. I didn’t have a ton of close friends back home. Some, I guess, but they all aren’t at my college. It’s how life goes, I guess. We still see life highlights on socials, but I’m more of an occasional observer of posts, not an active participant in updating others.
To many people on campus, we quickly became a bro pair, Derek and Daniel, and we clicked over the small thing of our names starting with a D.
“Daniel, hey!” I responded.
“Let’s grab some eats at this hole-in-the-wall Asian place just near the dorms!” Daniel suggested.
“Sure, meet me in maybe 10 minutes at our place and we’ll walk over?” I requested.
15 MINUTES LATER
For a small place, Chopstix was swarming with obvious college newbies, like Daniel and I. I’m not a natural extrovert, but part of me was okay with this kind of bustle. Maybe it was the smell of extra-orange-smelling chicken and woks soaked with oils and spices. Or maybe it was…
TIME STANDS STILL
Daniel quickly picking up on my drooling gawking face became my wingman and I somehow drifted next to him toward this girl. She’s obviously thriving in this social setting and has a few friends around her. When I realize I’m face to face (well, face to cheek) to her, I find myself speechless. I watch her mouth say words to people, though I can’t seem to hear much.
Is my brain working?
“Hi, what’s your name?” I hear Daniel say to her. He could tell exactly who my drool was for, I suppose.
“Hi,” she says to Daniel, while glancing briefly at me, probably trying to decipher if I’m a functioning human. “My name is Melanie. And you are?”
She’s definitely talking to me now.
“I’m Derek, and you are?”
She giggles and I realize now I blanked the last 10 seconds when she obviously said her name. I think to myself was it Moriah? Maddie? There’s definitely an M in there…
“Hi Derek, it’s Melanie.”
She shakes my hand. I normally cringe at hand shakes, but lightning shot up my arm when she touched my hand.
“Want to grab some coffee tomorrow?” I find my mouth asking Melanie.
She glances at her friends with what looks like glee, and says “sure thing! Is 8am okay, before my first class?”
As I ignore my not-morning-person-ness, I agree. I feel sweat bead down my head as I try to remember to set three alarms, just in case.
“See you then!”
THREE MONTHS LATER
What began as a coffee date - an awkward one that I somehow woke up in time for - continues as the best friendship with a lady I’ve ever had. She’s not just a girl, but she isn’t an old woman. She certainly is a lady. A lovely lady. I can’t stop thinking about her despite how different we are. She’s a morning person who is a natural extrovert. She is sure of what she wants, has a clear and specific major in music therapy, and I found out quickly that she is an unashamed Christian.
My parents are Christian, mostly in word than action, but I at least had been in church settings. I feel sort of inept at Christian things, and didn’t know as much as I should… she hasn’t seemed to care. I told her “me too” when she told me she’s Christian, but I sort of felt like a liar. Christians are supposed to be truthful, right?
Somehow, our friendship sort of… developed … into a serious romantic relationship without a clear start date.
END OF YEAR ONE IN COLLEGE
“Derek, this thing with Melanie is serious, huh?” Daniel asked.
For some reason, he asked me this every other month or so but he always acted like he hasn’t. I haven’t seen him in a serious relationship all year. Mostly, he flirts with women, and it doesn’t lead to many places. Maybe he’s asking as sort of an observer-watching-animals-in-the-wild might be inquisitive about something foreign to them as a person.
“Yes, Daniel, it’s serious.” I say in a snarky tone.
Melanie has gently gotten me roped into some of the young adult activities with the on-campus church. She seems to have been very involved in the recent past with church in children’s ministry and music stuff on the worship team back where she used to live, and now she sings for our young adults campus church.
I seem to have found a place to ask questions, not have answers, be real about my doubts, and still seem to understand God better. Maybe this is what church is about.
With summer here, we get reprieve from school life, and yet I still feel unsure about what I want. It’s a pressure my friends seem to ignore with little effort.
JUST UNDER 3 YEARS LATER
If I could explain to you how quickly this college life came and went, you wouldn’t believe me. I found myself in my sophomore year hitting my stride. Not only did I discover the major I wanted in Information Technology, but I decided (without Melanie’s prompting) to lead a men’s small group within the young adults group. She seemed impressed by this. Now, as seniors, we both also seem to be sort of passing the torch to people and mentoring the freshman. It’s been a few years of leading this way, and I don’t want it to end. Something else I don’t want to end is me and Melanie…
The most crazy day of this year (and of college life as a whole) is graduation day. It’s supposed to be a weight lifted, but I almost feel like I’m a fraud who got away with graduating, despite my barely average grades. Compared to Melanie, who excels at everything, it feels like I’m somehow failing her. Of course, she has never given me that impression… but I want to propose after our dinner with friends. If she rejects me, I fear I will have failed her by taking such a leap.
“Melanie,” I stammer, after eating too much cocktail shrimp and regretting the breath it gave me, “I wondered if I could have a moment with you?”
She knows my awkward, introverted self enough to know that I’m not big on displaying private, personal things, and humored my weirdly proper question by telling everyone “just a few minutes, and I’ll give you hugs.”
As we stood outside the restaurant, with the backdrop of busy cars in the parking lot and the obvious stares of our friends from inside, I told Melanie things like “our college encounter at Chopstix was meant to be” and “your hair smells pretty” and other equally non-essential stuff like that. When I eventually grabbed her hand, that lightning up the arm returned. I found myself on one knee, looking into Melanie’s eyes, which were wetting her smiling lips with tears, as if she knew before I spoke what was happening.
Duh, dummy, you’re on one knee.
I peer into the restaurant window and choke up because Daniel has his camera phone obviously recording video. I somewhat regret being outside because Melanie seems cold, so I quickly mutter “Melanie, will you marry me and become my wife?” as if I needed to be that redundant.
As she started full-on crying, I wondered for the longest 3 seconds if she would say no and was feeling pity for me as she could rightfully let me down, laughing at my insanity.
“Yes, Derek! I will!”
I blink out some tears of my own as I stand in awe, surprised I not only got the words out, but she actually agreed to this.
We hugged for the best 10 seconds of my life and her tear-drenched lips kissed mine, full of shrimp breath.
I don’t even remember if she hugged our friends after, but I bet she did.
22 YEARS LATER
I thought raising 3 kids, leaving my good friend Daniel behind over a decade ago in our college state, and fights about God and church and prayer would be hard. Little did I know that the last few years would be the hardest for another reason. You see, while I had so much growing to do as a leader and husband, learning more each year about actually being a man of God (not just a church man), Melanie had so much grace, even when things sprung up into arguments.
We always got through the petty stuff, and the big stuff paled in comparison to her cancer diagnosis. To soften the blow, we called her cancer “stupid,” like a name. She first got it about 12 years ago. Somehow, the diagnosis felt overcomable back then. When she fought it for about a year, she went into remission, and that lasted several years. For some of the best two years we’ve had, near the end of her remission, we felt it was behind us, finally. We got to explore more around our city and state, because she was gaining strength in those two years. We laughed over many of our meals. Our kids seemed to be closer to us than ever too, since they were all still living at home with us.
But “STUPID” has been aggressively back for three years. Her hair has thinned from the treatment, but her spirits seem lifted as ever. Our kids are mostly grown into actual adults, with our youngest, Daisy, being 16, and the others being 18 and 19. The oldest two, Mason and Miles, actually are rooming together as they go to the same college. Daisy lives at home and seems to be struggling most with her mom’s cancer. The kids don’t know what I know, that she wasn’t given long to live. I sometimes forget Melanie knows too, because she seems well, at least in most ways, when you look past her frail body.
I refuse to believe she won’t make it to age 45…
THREE YEARS LATER
Melanie made it to 45 (47 in fact) and overcame so many odds and is still with us, but this time, I’d be a fool to believe she will make it much longer.
“Derek, honey, I know I’m not long for this world.” As she saw me bow my head and cry as I listened to her loving, sharp words, she continued:
“Thank you for befriending me in college. I’d take all our hard moments, difficult years, and awkward conversations if it meant I could stay. You've been so good to me. It's your greatest legacy. You might think I led you, but you led me. It took time, but most good things do. You’ve been the husband of a lifetime. I’m glad to have been your first and only. You are still a father, no matter how old our kids get. Make sure they know that. They’ll need you. Now follow your greatest calling, which is to follow God and His ways. He's the purpose for life, and He's my purpose as I die.”
Somehow I didn’t blink that whole speech as my red-blotched eyes took her in. I didn’t say anything for a full minute or so, but I eventually said “I know. I will.” I embraced her as she sat in her favorite chair in our living room. She sat so much more these days, and her social life lately only continued mostly as friends visited the house. I was thankful Daisy was at a friend’s home this day as my wife and I spoke. I wasn’t ready to face this, and could barely stand the idea of any of our kids seeing me cry. They may have to see it a lot soon.
5 DAYS LATER
My dearest Melanie hung on long enough for all our kids to get home and have some time with her. I was overcome by many feelings: thankfulness we had extra time with her we didn’t expect, anger that she wasn’t hitting perhaps the most climactic adult years of our life, and deep grief as I couldn’t hold, see, hear her again.
Her favorite sweaters smelled of her so I kept them unwashed, and I had many videos of her doing virtual music therapy sessions to watch. They barely were enough, but they were everything.
“Derek…” I heard Melanie say, in my head.
“Follow your greatest calling…”
As I fell asleep, after just listening to one of her videos, I found myself overwhelmed with Melanie’s words about my purpose. I prayed the most real prayer I had prayed since first hearing of her diagnosis years back.
“Lord, I know you’re real since you gave me Melanie. You gave us children, and a marriage that overcame hardship and growing pains. We were opposites in many ways, and it made us better. I can never thank You for her cancer and for taking her. I know in my heart it’s the best place for her to be, but for me it’s a personal hell. If I am meant for more, show me what it is I should do with the rest of my life. Melanie taught me, even before her cancer, that tomorrow isn’t promised. If I must live so long without her, I can only survive with You. If you take me much sooner, I’ll be ready, especially if it means I see Melanie again. Use me, God.”