I would like to share a pivotal moment in my life. It was early September, 1987. It was my first year attending Roseisle Elementary, and Melanie’s last. As I walked into Mrs. Mckittiac’s classroom for the first time, I remember turning and peering across the hall into Mr. Switzer’s room. There, sitting in a far desk, backlit by the morning light, I saw my sister. We had just gotten off the bus together, but somehow, she looked completely different. Her blond perm pulled back, gently falling over the collar of her acid wash jean jacket, she sat in a halo of light. I’m positive the whole class was looking at her. She had a loud and carefree laugh that was impossible to resist, and her trademark smile never left her face. She was beautiful and popular and funny. I was dumbstruck with admiration, but this faded … into existential panic. So, my sister is incredible…what does that mean for me? Is this what the world would expect from me for the rest of my childhood? Daunting questions for a 6 year old. I DID NOT have half of my sister’s graces. It soon became clear, that if I ever wanted to stand out in this family I would always have to be just a little weird.
It was about 30 seconds after agreeing to write a tribute for today that I started to worry. Number 1, I wasn’t sure I could do it without turning into a puddle. Number 2, how could I possibly write anything shorter than a novel that could do Melanie justice! After helping Darryl start the eulogy (which Trisha and Darryl’s sisters completed), I was able to relax a little. I didn’t have to focus on ALL of Melanie’s greatness. My job is a family tribute, so I’ve tried to prepare a glimpse of how Melanie fit into our small town brood.
Melanie was the apple of my father’s eye. Within our family, Melanie and my dad had a special connection. They shared traits that made them…different. You see, I’m much more like my mom. My mom and I don’t mind sitting back and observing. We are peaceful, and to some extent, are happy to let life happen around us. But not my Dad, and not my sister. Both Melanie and my dad could not sit still. For Mel, life was there to be seized! Sitting still meant possibly missing an ounce of joy that could be squeezed from a moment, and she would never miss an opportunity to laugh, smile, or be thrilled by the wonder of the world around her. That’s exactly like my dad. I know he will miss that connection. I know Melanie’s death is all the more painful for my dad, because just like Melanie, he may be stoic, but he is filled to the brim with emotion. And while his words may be fewer than Melanie’s, his love is just as big.
To my mom, Melanie was simply a best friend. Melanie and my mom would spend an unnatural amount of time on the phone together. Mom knew everything about Mel and Mel knew everything about my mom. Given Melanie’s list of amazing friends, my mom stands in some pretty steep competition for “best friend”. But Melanie didn’t keep it a secret. She told me over and over, “Mom is definitely my best friend.” Mom gave my sister comfort, right to the end. For my mom, Melanie was inspiration. When I listened to my mom talk about my sister’s faith and perseverance, there was immeasurable pride and respect. My mom and my sister’s bond has been passed on to Melanie and Darryl’s girls, and it is special to watch them interact with each other. Her relationship with Kira and Teagan some how feels both new and familiar.
Trisha and Otto
For my wife, Melanie was a comrade. They had so much in common. Both early years teachers. Both would talk your ear off if you let them. Both craved deep, personal connection, and were more than willing to bare their soul. Melanie and Trisha could turn a task like drying the dishes into a two hour discussion. Melanie was always accepting of my wife, and for that I was very thankful. She had a special place in my son’s heart, as well. Even near the end, my son could not be at the hospital without going to say hi to Auntie Mel.
As far as my brother Jason is concerned, I can’t say as much. I was always slightly jealous of the rest of my family, because I was the only one that never got to meet him. But I did get a sense of Jason when Melanie talked about him. Even though Melanie was only four years old when he died, she could describe the way they played so vividly. Melanie’s big brother was clearly one of her first loves, much the way Melanie was one of mine. Despite everything, we can rest assured there is a special Klassen family reunion taking place at the table of Christ Jesus.
Mel’s In-Laws (We weren’t Melanie’s only family)
Just after Melanie was admitted to Riverview, she was visited by Terry. She told him that in the few days after her admission she was discouraged that she was still alive. She wanted to go to Heaven and she wasn’t sure why God was taking his time. I don’t know Terry’s exact words, but he impressed upon Melanie that even in that hospital bed, too weak to walk, and struggling with pain, she had an impact. She was still changing the world, and anyone that knows Mel would know that this would give her so much encouragement. My wife and I were reflecting on this episode in Melanie’s admission after the smaller service we had on Wednesday. Trisha had an amazing insight. We feel that at least a small part of Mel’s purpose in the 3 weeks she spent at Riverview was to bond two families into one.
Before July, Darryl’s family and our family were two groups, connected by marriage, acquainted and friendly. Over the three weeks we spent in Riverview, we were forged into one family, by prayer and circumstance, fuelled by Mel’s love for us and our shared love for her.
Our family is so thankful for Hilda and David, Darryl’s parents, Anita and Ramona, Darryl’s sisters, for Anita’s daughter, Kai, and also for Anita’s boyfriend, Marlon. They have gone beyond the extra mile, no matter what needed to be done. It is no mystery how Melanie came to love you all.
Melanie was our family’s hub. She was the organizer, the planner. The one that bought the Christmas gifts for mom and dad by October. Any family decision was run by her. When there was conflict or indecision, it was Mel who laid it all out on the table and made things clear for us.
If you asked each of us separately who we could relate to most in this eclectic bunch, we would all probably say Mel. I think it’s because we each saw the best of ourselves in her. Not only that, she brought out the best in us. She was challenging. She would not let you settle, or become stagnant. She saw what we could be and that’s what she expected.
In the last two years Melanie took on her most profound role in our family. We all watched in frustration as she caught a disease that she didn't deserve, a disease she had no risk factors for, a diseases she did everything she possibly could to avoid. And despite her tenacious, almost military like response to this cancer, we watched it take her away from us. I can't speak for everyone else, but I wanted to scream. I wanted to blame and turn bitter. But Melanie wouldn't let me. Get angry? Sure, for a little while. Get frustrated? Okay, maybe for a few minutes. Ask questions? Of course. As many as you like. Worry? No. Mel would fight off the worry as hard as she fought the cancer. Through all her suffering, suffering that we know was deeper than she ever let on, there was never self pity and she never turned sour. What she gave us was encouragement and the persistent reminder that whatever happened…God had her. She was grace and faith personified.
Jeff (it’s my tribute, so I’m allowed to save myself for last)
As for my relationship for Mel, there was one constant. Whenever I thought of Mel, it was with pure and utter admiration. When we were young, Melanie used to call me “Jaff.” It must of been her strong mennonite heritage shining through. She rarely got in trouble for anything, but I do remember numerous occasions when my mom got on her case for using me as a slave. “Jaff, get me something to drink.” “Jaff, clean up these toys.” For me, though, it wasn’t slavery…it was devotion. Melanie existed on another level, she always seemed to float somewhere above me, and I would do anything I could to be close to her.
Melanie and I were 5 years apart, not an insignificant difference. It meant we didn’t really “play” together the way a lot of children do. I remember one time she allowed my Ninja Turtles to hang out with her Barbies. I felt so much pressure to impress her with my maturity, I said a four letter word that I’m sure I didn’t know the meaning of. Melanie’s jaw dropped, and I began to sob…not because I thought I would get in trouble, but because I had totally blown it! My one chance to play with my super cool older sister and it was out the window!
Even in our teenage years, my sister had a powerful hold over me. I could be infatuated with some girl…head over heels, ready to profess my undying love. Mel would find out and say…”Really? Her? Hmm.” And that would be the end of it.
Our age difference did have benefits. I got to watch Melanie artfully navigate each stage of life. Melanie became my template…my prototype for my teenage years, my marriage, and parenthood. And what better example could I have had?
Unfortunately, Melanie and I weren’t always close. Sometimes I admired her from far away. In the last year Mel and I talked numerous times about a phase in our adult lives where we know we weren’t as close as we should have been. And, in a mysterious way, we both felt a need to be closer in the year leading up to her diagnosis. In the last two years, we shared some deep and life changing moments together. A lot of them were painful, but a lot of them were wonderful and all of them are meaningful.
In Melanie’s last few months, she told me how much she admired me and thanked me for taking care of her. To give an analogy of what this was like for me…imagine Wayne Gretzky praising you for your stick handling or Brian May thanking you for the guitar lesson.
Melanie was struck by the words of her oncologist on the day he told her she was terminal. He told her to start “building a legacy.” We all know that those words were misspoke. Melanie’s legacy of love, faith, and unapologetic honesty was already well established.
But Melanie leaves behind a different legacy that continues to impact the world. That legacy is in the way she loved and raised her family. Her two amazing daughters bear an image of Melanie that goes way beyond physical resemblance. In Kira, I see Melanie’s commitment to her friends, her thoughtful introspection, her insightfulness and her attention to detail. I see Mel’s exuberance for life, her joy, her empathy, and her ability to brighten your day in Teagan. Girls, you’ve been told this a thousand time already I’m sure, but it cannot be overstated…your mom loved you like crazy. And then, there is the amazing man that Melanie chose to share her life with. Darryl has been a part of our family for two thirds of my life. I could not have chosen a better, more committed person to care for my sister in sickness and in health. Melanie and Darryl’s marriage was a shining example of what a Christian union should be, and I am thankful for bearing witness to it. Melanie’s imprint will always be on Darryl’s life, and I am so happy and proud to call him my brother, now and forever.
This last Christmas, Melanie made something for each person in our family as a special keepsake. For me, she wrote a letter. I’d like to read you the closing of that letter, and keep in mind, this was months after being told her cancer was incurable:
“Finding God’s will is hard. Depending on Him and waiting on Him is hard. I have discovered a verse that has helped me understand God’s immediate will for my life:
1 Thes. 5:16-18 “Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
If you can learn to do these 3 things daily, you start to see God’s hand in all you do. I pray for you daily. I pray God will continue to use you and bless you. I pray you rely on His strength. I love you very much. Merry Christmas. Love Mel.”
Melanie, your love and faith have made me a better person. I have a feeling, thanks to your writing and your family, you will continue to change me and challenge me for years to come. I love you more than you ever knew. Your suffering has ended, Hallelujah, and amen.