My wife, Mélanie Chalmers, passed away on Saturday, August 8, 2015 – just after 5h30. She died in our home, with her parents and me at her bedside. She was as comfortable as possible, and the last stages of her suffering were very brief. There is some solace in that for all of us who cared about Mélanie.
Since losing Mélanie, my focus has been on the seemingly endless list of tasks (banking, licenses, online accounts, etc.) and the important work of connecting with all of those who are processing this loss. I am grateful for how completely this is consuming my days, as I am not sure how to deal with silence, choice, or free time. I can’t begin to conceive of how to return to work, or any other aspect of ‘normal’ life. Our friends and family have frequently heard me say I refused to think of ‘after’… I do not regret my previous choice of focus, and I accept my current struggles as partial payment for the pleasure Mélanie and I were able to extract from the time we had together. We knew that our singular focus on squeezing the most out of the time we got together was going to leave ‘Future Rob’ with some struggles, but that’s a bill I am satisfied to pay.
I cannot begin to make sense out of such a painful and senseless loss, so I will instead share with you a couple of thoughts about Mélanie that have given me some solace when I have been inconsolable. They have helped me to focus on the beauty in her life rather than the tragedy of her death. I hope they will do the same for you.
FIRST – while we are all struck by the unfairness and tragedy of Mélanie’s passing – too soon, and too fast – what matters most is not how she died, but how she lived. Mélanie believed that your life, if you were lucky, was the accumulated result of the choices you make and the actions you take. She always found it odd when people responded to one of her adventures by saying “I wish I could do that” – because she believed that, if you really wanted to, you could… as long as you accepted what it meant you could not do. She did not accept that life just happened, and she was not afraid to pay the cost (emotional, financial, or otherwise) to change paths if she was not happy with the results she was getting. There are many examples of this in her professional and personal life – far more than I can share in the time and space we are sharing now.
On a personal level, I took it as a great compliment that Mélanie stuck with me for over thirteen years – as I am sure that, if she were not happy, someone else would be sharing their perspective with you today.
SECOND – Mélanie never settled, and she never stopped. Even as her disease progressed and her doctors warned us of the associated risks, Mélanie insisted that we squeeze the most we could out of the time we had. When her Medical Oncologist told us we were getting a ‘chemo vacation’ for the month of July, Mélanie immediately responded that we would be spending that time in Australia. When our doctor said he was worried, and asked us what we would do if her disease progressed further and things got worse while we were on the other side of the globe, Mélanie responded that we would do the same thing we would do if we were in Toronto – but the difference is that we wouldn’t be sitting there waiting for it to happen.
As it stands, we had an amazing twenty days together in Australia, with some experiences that Mel ranked among her best ever (and that is saying something for someone who visited 47 countries in the past ten years!). Furthermore – Mélanie had not only planned our next trip (two weeks after Oz, we were supposed to head to England for a ‘Downton Abbey’ inspired tour), she had already begun thinking about the next one – trying to see if she could wedge in another trip before TIFF, so she could get her lifetime country count up to 50.
THIRD – Mélanie both inspired me to be a better person, and insisted that I strive to do so. Mel constantly pushed me to not accept ‘good enough’ results. I think she learned this from her parents (who used to greet a 98% test score by asking her what happened to the other 2%).
While some of this ‘push’ was overt, most of it was by inspiration. Simply by loving me, Mélanie made me want to be better – to be deserving of the love of someone so committed to getting the most out of life. She deserved a partner who could help her do that… and I pushed every day to be that partner (remember – I DID know she was willing to make changes!).
Mélanie was pushing me right to the end of our time together, and insisted that I go on. On one of her last healthy days, we were snorkeling with whale sharks off the West Coast of Australia (rereading and reflecting on that sentence makes me shake my head – I lived it with her, and I still can’t believe it). Mélanie got uncomfortable in the open water, and called for the safety boat… but she insisted that I stay, saying (with a snorkel hanging from her mouth), “Just because I can’t go on doesn’t mean you should miss this. If you stop, it will make me feel like I failed.” So I helped her into the safety boat, and then swam on to see the 20-foot long shark. Then I came back to the boat and held her while she warmed up. I didn’t stop. I won’t stop. That is what she taught me.
FINALLY – Mélanie didn’t just make me better; she had a positive influence on many people, extending far beyond close friends and family. The day after Mélanie passed, I received a note from a high school acquaintance of mine who had not even met Mélanie, but still felt my wife had made her life better:
“I have followed you and Melanie as a wall flower through your [FaceBook] posts. I have been inspired by you both to live and to love and to be present, because that is all one ever really has.
I wanted to reach out to you to let you know that I think your love for one another made the world a little bit better of a place; some kind of butterfly effect – love oozed out of your lives and into the lives of others, that you didn’t even know – like mine. I wanted to thank you for that. Your challenges that you shared helped me be present in my life and not to live in fear of the future or in fear of our circumstances. That kind of thing can’t be measured and can never be undone, so in a way, you two started something that will never end.”
For the past few weeks, I have been resisting saying things like “Mel would have liked that”… but I truly think that she would have been touched to reflect on how she had inspired so many people to be present, and to get the most out of the time they get. That’s what ‘F Cancer’ – what beating cancer – means. It’s not about not dying; it’s about living while you can. I don’t have to guess at this; I know it from Mel’s own words.
In 2014, we embarked upon six months of traveling that we called our ‘F Cancer Trip.’ As we began, Mélanie started our travel blog by sharing her entire treatment journey to that point (diagnosis, surgery, chemo, radiation), baring all of her emotions and finishing with this:
“…now, as treatments are finally over, we’ve decided that we deserve to live it up. We had always said that we would take time off to go travelling once we both turned 40. Having gone through what we have this year, we didn’t think that waiting made any sense. The reality is that, based on the tumour pathology, my age and other factors, I have a 15-20% chance of lifetime recurrence. I don’t spend my days thinking of this, but it is always somewhere in the back of my mind. My biggest fear is not death – it is not having a chance to live life to the fullest.
So a few days following my last radiation treatment, we sold our house. At the beginning of December, we moved all our belongings into a storage unit and only kept with us the bare minimum to get us through 5 month of travels. When we have told some folks of our plans, some have reacted by saying that we are ‘lucky’. Luck has nothing to do with it, unless you consider winning the cancer-lottery lucky. The decision to uproot your life, sell your house and become nomadic for a period of time is all about prioritizing. For Rob and myself, seeing the world is a priority. Taking time to reconnect and “shake the etch-a-sketch” is a major priority.”
We knew that cancer would take Mèlanie at the end, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t beat it. I am proud I got to travel with her through it all. Thank you, Mélanie, for choosing me to be your partner in this adventure. Merci et je t’aime – toujours.