Eulogy for Melissa McFarland
I'm writing this to honor my friend, Melissa McFarland, who died earlier today, so it seems appropriate to begin by writing about the first time I knew we'd be friends. I'm sure that if she were here, she'd tell me I was remembering this all wrong. Memory is fallible and subjective, especially when a couple decades have passed and the one doing the remembering was blind drunk, so some of the specifics of this story may be inaccurate. But the essential truth of it is intact.
Sometime around the year 2000, I was having a terrible night. I don't remember exactly why. Maybe it was some long-forgotten relationship drama. There was a lot of that going around back then. Maybe there was nothing in particular wrong, and I'd just had too many bourbon-and-cokes. There was a lot of that going around, too. Whatever the reason, I was hammered and alone, staggering down the street in Five Points, the nightlife district of Columbia, South Carolina, where we were both in graduate school. I must've been in a bad way, because, even in a place where nearly everyone was at least half-drunk, I'd attracted the attention of a policeman, who grabbed me by the arm and was about to arrest me for public drunkenness. That's when Melissa, who'd seen me through the plate-glass window of Delaney's, the not-so-Irish pub that was a favorite haunt of the English and Creative Writing departments, came to my rescue.
"There you are!" she said, making like I'd been with her inside the bar. "We've been looking for you." She smoothed things over with the cop, assured him she'd make sure I got home safe, and, when he was gone, she put on a voice that was almost maternal and told me to get my ass inside. I went, and right then and there I knew she was good people.
I didn't know Melissa well before that night. We were in different programs, but we'd had a class or two together. We'd hung out in big groups once or twice, bummed cigarettes off of each other before class, chatted about inanities. She could've watched through the glass, nudging the people with her to gawk and laugh while that guy from class got arrested. But she didn't. She came out to help me because that's who she was.
That's not just who she was that night. That's who she was the whole time I knew her. It's customary to speak well of the dead, to gloss over the flaws and foibles that make us human. But this is true: I can't think of a single bad thing to say about Melissa. I can't speak about other people's perceptions of her, but that is mine. There's enough division in the world right now, so this is not a political statement, but on the morning following the 2016 election, she called me sobbing, unable to fathom how rhetoric she found so hateful and spiteful had managed to win the day. I tried to comfort her, but I couldn't really share her shock. The world had gotten to me long ago, and I was and am deeply cynical about the state of things. She never was.
I don't want to give the impression that she was some kind of saint. There was a lot of debauchery permeating the circles we moved in back then, and we both had our fair share of it. Through all of that, through the dissolution of her first marriage, through my own ups and downs, we remained friends. I lost touch with her for a few years after I moved away from Columbia and started my new life. Then several years later, I happened to get a job at the community college where she was teaching, and our friendship took up pretty much where it left off. She became my boss, the head of the English department, got married again, this time to a man who deserved her, almost died from a random aneurysm on top of a heap of other medical problems she'd been dealing with most of her life, took off for Oregon, and finally made her way back to South Carolina with her husband. Through all of that, we remained friends, the kind of friends you don't make often in life, the kind who give you their Amazon Prime password and answer the phone when you call in the middle of the night when things are going bad.
Now she's gone, the victim of a freak accident so random it seems absurd. She was left with extensive spinal damage, and I know she would not have wished to live the only kind of life she could've hoped for following the accident. I'll never get to call her on my hour-long commute from work to talk about Doctor Who or the books she was reading or the movies she loved. I'll never get to send her a story in early drafts to have her pick it apart and tell me flat-out when the writing just isn't that good, and I've lost one of the biggest champions of my writing life I'll ever have. I'll never get to listen to her jokingly tell me how stupid it is for me to get worked up about sports. I'll never get to hear her distinctive laugh again. But all that is just me being selfish. The real tragedy is that this cruel, brutal world heaped so much suffering on one of the brightest lights it ever knew. And when she stood up to it all, resilient through things that would've killed most of us or rendered us cynical and spiteful, it snuffed that light out long before it should've gone dark.