Life Includes Death

I learned just minutes ago that a good friend died yesterday.
She was over a decade younger than me, and we had little in common except for our very broad and eclectic interests, an intense interest in curiosity about how people behave and a shared sense of (very dry) humor.  And that was enough.
I first met Melissa in 1996, when I was seeking an HRIS (human resources information system) project manager.  She was my first Generation X hire: cynical about corporate America, fiercely independent, adamant about work/life balance… and incredibly tech-savvy.
She was a lifelong learner — she possessed at least two Masters Degrees at the time, and in her short career she’d already built, run, and sold her own tech company.  She was smart, creative, and knew about 100 times more than I did about technology.  I was scared of her.  And I desperately needed someone like her on my team.  So we began a dance, she and I.
I’ve actually told stories about Melissa on many a stage when speaking about the challenges of leadership and the issues of conflict between generational values.  Here’s my favorite:  She’d been on the job just a couple of weeks at this fairly conservative company.  The norm was that everyone worked 8:30 till 5.  Period.  All parties had to be present during the standard work hours.  And into my office walks Melissa, the new “kid.”
“These hours just are not working for me,” she says.  “I can’t get up this early!”  I’m a mid-generation Baby Boomer, nose to the grindstone and all, and I was working for a boss who believed in form over substance.  So what she was saying to me was… foreign.  She was hitting me with something new: an employee who valued life balance AND who had the guts to speak up about it!  I remember being incredibly stressed.
Let’s keep it short, tho.  I took a couple more weeks to watch how she worked.  She had a computer at home, and had figured out how to tie in to the systems from home (remember — this was 13 years ago, before Wi-fi and broadband) and was sending me emails and project updates at 2AM on Saturday or midnite on Wednesday.  Clearly, she was working hard, just not on what we considered a Traditional schedule.
I knew my boss would never support an off-shift schedule (tho he later came around…).  So we quietly shifted her hours so she didn’t have to arrive till 10:30.  In exchange, she had to take the West Coast calls that used to go in to voicemail.  In no time at all, our Seattle division fell in love with her, and by the time my boss found out, she had proven beyond all doubt her value to the company.
Melissa challenged me on many, many levels.  She would listen to what I said, but then argue with me.  She proposed radically different ideas that made my head hurt.  And over the course of a couple years, she helped me become a much better leader.  She forced me to become a better team player, a better collaborator, and a better negotiator.  She also modeled a better approach to Life Balance  than I’d seen before and taught me a TON about technology.  (She is also partly responsible for my subsequent addiction to doing all my shopping on
After I left the company to start my own firm, we stayed in touch via email several times a month for the past ten years, and occasionally I talked her into leaving the office so I could buy her lunch.  A few months ago she put out a note about taking a medical leave of absence, and then… disappeared.
Two weeks ago I received a holiday card from her with the following note:
“Life kinda exploded & I got a bit overwhelmed, so I’m sorry if it seems like I disappeared from the face of the earth.  Know, though, that I carry with me your friendship, and it has meant the world to me.  Have a wonderful Christmas and a great 2009.”
I remember that the message gave me an odd feeling… what did she mean?  Where was she going?
On Monday, I sent her a note about getting together for lunch later in the month.  I guess it’s a note she never read.
Today a mutual friend called to let me know that Melissa Joyce died suddenly yesterday.  Too young.
I am sad, right now, thinking about how much I’ll miss her annual (and always unpredictable) contributions to my Summer Reading List.  Who do I have, now, to introduce me to eccentric websites and odd British authors?  Who will have the chutzpah to put me in my place when I’m being jerky?  What will I do with all the cat jokes I used to send to Melissa? Sigh…
Death, of course, is a part of life.  I’m not talking about life after death… I’m talking about how, for those of us who remain behind, death is a part of what we must endure.  People live, people die.  Many people I’ve known and loved are no longer with us, so we work hard to keep their memories alive.
I choose to remember the happy ones, the memories that will make me smile.

8 thoughts on “Life Includes Death”

  1. I heard this on Craig Ferguson’s show after his mother died and was so impressed by its beauty and meaning. It is by Van Dyke and I share it with you in your moment of sorrow.
    A Parable of Immortality
    by Henry Van Dyke
    I am standing upon the seashore.
    A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze
    and starts for the blue ocean.
    She is an object of beauty and strength,
    and I stand and watch until at last she hangs
    like a speck of white cloud
    just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other.
    Then someone at my side says,
    ” There she goes! ”
    Gone where?
    Gone from my sight . . . that is all.
    She is just as large in mast and hull and spar
    as she was when she left my side
    and just as able to bear her load of living freight
    to the place of destination.
    Her diminished size is in me, not in her.
    And just at the moment
    when someone at my side says,
    ” There she goes! ”
    there are other eyes watching her coming . . .
    and other voices ready to take up the glad shout . . .
    ” Here she comes! “

  2. Hi Jim,
    Thank you for writing about Melissa, she’s a fabulous and gutsy woman 🙂
    When I’ve lost someone dear to me, I change my life in some way that reminds me of how they chose to live. Like when I began treasuring my friendships (versus just “having” friendships), after I lost a friend to cancer. That friend, Lan, treasured and took care of his friendships, and so that became part of who I am.
    On a more practical note, I just posted some (small) reviews of some books I read in 2008, on my blog http://www.sharpeningmymarketingedge. You might enjoy reading ’em.
    Sending you hugs, Andrea

    • Andrea, thanks for the lovely idea about bringing a part of a departed friend’s “being” in to my own life.
      And how appropriate that you included info about a book list here — as Melissa (a voracious reader) is partly responsible for the eclectic nature of my own reading habits today!
      In happiness, J

  3. Oh Jim, I’m so sorry for your loss. Melissa was clearly a remarkable woman who touched your life in a significant way. Your words here are a wonderful tribute to her and speak volumes about her.
    Her influence will live on in your annual summer reading lists. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know the “ecletic” nature of the books on the past few lists have inspired me to read books by authors I’d never heard of previously. And given me the courage/freedom to branch out and seek out authors beyond even the new ones on the SRLs. Before finding your lists I never knew the Man Booker Prize existed. And now I try to read as many of the winners and “short list” winners as possible each year. What a remarkable wealth of stories I’ve been able to expirence!
    The influence Melissa had on your reading choices has influenced countless readers–including me. Perhaps you could include in future SRL’s a “Melissa Joyce” category for books you find that she would have really enjoyed as a way to honor her and share her life and love of reading with others.
    Thank you for sharing Melissa’s influence on your life with us. May you carry her memory and influence with you always.

  4. Jim
    So sorry for your loss. Death is indeed a part of life, but it is always a shock and always painful. It leaves a hole.
    A piece of her is already living on in you as you push yourself to become more wired and tech savvy. Clearly she made a difference in your life, and you are spreading that influence to those you meet.
    May memories of here bring a smile to your face.

  5. I too knew Melissa Joyce but in a different way. She was my best friend of 33 years. We grew up together, her friendship and the life difficulties and the good times we shared have shaped me into the person I am today. I have her to thank for this. No matter what was going on in each of our lives somehow we always made it a point to keep in touch. Through the death of my Mom to the death of her parents, through divorces broken relationships, through good times and bad the one constat through it all was my friendship with Melissa. Even during the times when life got in the way and we didn’t see each other or talk to each other as often as we liked, it nevere mattered we always picked up exactly where we left off. It was as though those gaps never existed.
    There is a hole in my heart since she has gone and on Tuesday I will meet with her family and friends to say our good byes. Melissa was the sister I never had and I will grieve with her family as they have always made me feel like part of the family.
    I know that Melissa is with her parents and my Mom as well, she is now my guardian angel who will be watvhing out from me in her righful plave in heaven.

  6. Lisa, Sherry, and Kathy: your beautiful comments remind me of the very thing that led me to write this post — that Life includes death.
    When we notice the hole in our heart from a loss, that is in many ways a confirmation that we are, in that moment, very much alive. When we savor a memory, we are being uniquely human, since we are the only species on earth that can imagine something that is past. And when we feel sadness as well as gratitude in the same breath, as you did Kathy, we are truly experiencing the emotional stew that is being alive.
    Thank you, all for your comments and for your kindness. J


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