The Medium of Personal Memoir: Words about and from Melissa

IT’S NOT MY TRADITION – indeed I don’t really have one – but I appreciate the Jewish practice of Yahrzeit, honoring the dead one year after their death, in part by lighting a candle.

Here’s my lighted candle.

My wife for a quarter-century and more was Melissa Huff Bellinelli Tereshchuk – what a plodding polysyllabic procession if I line up all her names, as she once did for a lark on a business-card. She died on October 15th last year. Her death came after seven years of being treated for ovarian cancer. I write now simply because I can, while before I couldn’t.

Melissa is a force. A force for change. I’ve been utterly altered since marrying her, way back on the fourth day of the fourth month in 1991. And through the years we lived together, she changed herself almost beyond recognition – conquering many deep difficulties, some with internal origins and others created by hard circumstances. I loved and love her … and I remain awed by that power to change.

Unlike Joan Didion after losing her husband John Gregory Dunne (two writers Melissa enjoyed, singly and as a couple) I do not feel I’ve had A Year of Magical Thinking. It has felt astonishingly real – and inescapable. The grief has been deep and severe. Unbearable, in fact. But perhaps not literally – since at the same time, here I am bearing it. Go figure.

Many of my assuredly reality-based thoughts have come from people Melissa has put me in mind of. There are many whom I would never have been interested in if she hadn’t introduced me to them.

STRANGELY, OR PERHAPS NOT, some of them form a cohort with her – in that their deaths also came in 2016. Carrie Fisher, for instance, died on 12/27/16, one day before her mother Debbie Reynolds. Fisher had words for us that would spark Melissa’s knowing, loving smile behind her signature oval, tinted glasses: “If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true – and that is unacceptable.

Melissa admired Muhammad Ali (died 6/3/16) – although she had super-fan enthusiasm for Rafael Nadal, his athleticism and personal grace. We both valued the older boxing-champion’s adage: “Anybody who sees the world the same at 50 as they did at 20 has wasted 30 years of their life.

Melissa admitted Ali was generally more quotable than Nadal. Except that she never forgot the quiet response she got from the tennis great (pictured below with Melissa during the US Open 2015) after she’d told him how much his on-court fighting spirit had inspired her through some arduous cancer treatments. He simply asked: “How are you feeling?

Leonard Cohen (died 11/7/16) was by contrast a figure whom I, in my turn, brought to Melissa’s more appreciative attention – for she initially had her doubts, mainly about what she called his sheer lugubriousness. I was helped in my persuasion by the ever-loyal, ever-lyrical Judy Collins. We could all agree on this insight of Cohen’s: “There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.”

But my ‘prime source’ for insights – if I can revert to journalistic argot – is turning out inevitably to be Melissa herself. Her Memorial event, held a month or so after her death, bore many imprints of her own devising. She had been greatly taken with some words of her dearest New York Times colleague, the photographer Bill Cunningham (another in the cohort - died 6/25/16), and she wanted to add her own take on a particular phrase he was fond of repeating. We printed Melissa’s variant, her signature belief in fact, beneath her picture on the Memorial program:

Bill Cunningham would say ‘Whoever seeks beauty will find it’; the same is true of love and friendship.”

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