Melissa was beautiful, with large expressive eyes, peach-colored skin, and hair like honey. She had a sunny disposition, loved to dance and sing, and was always happy. She especially enjoyed birthday parties. My Aunt Caroline was smitten, but Melissa was the apple of my Uncle Gene’s eye. His love was so great for his little girl that he wanted to give her anything her heart desired.
She had two siblings, her sister Paula, and then her brother Walter. Melissa was ten years old by the time Walt was born. He told me it was kinda rough growing up with two big sisters. One night, for example, they talked their parents into going to the drive-in to see Nightmare on Elm Street, and taking Walt with them. They hadn’t been at the drive-in long when the girls found boys to hang with, and of course they left their little brother in the car. Walt has never forgotten that night.
Melissa entered a beauty pageant when she was thirteen – that’s how pretty she was – and she grew up to be a gorgeous woman. She was a good-hearted person. She had a heart that was full of love and she wanted to be loved. She was generous to a fault. And she was very smart, with a notably high IQ. In fact, she attended Kerr Business School at the same time as her mama and sister, and she loved the fact that she scored higher on her entrance exam than both of them.
Now the story of Melissa’s life takes a terrible turn. She got pregnant and married young – too young – and badly. In fact, the day she went into labor with her first child she had gone fishing with her husband. He had punched her in the belly when she wasn’t able to bait her hook. Eight months pregnant, she gave birth to Charlie Gene Wenner. A couple years later she found the strength to leave that relationship, only to fall into a more abusive one. Her second husband, insanely jealous, beat her almost daily. With him she gave birth to a second son, Mark Bryant, Jr., but it would be eight years before she could get away from that relationship. Finally she decided to leave him when he shot all four tires out of her car.
Melissa was married three times, after which her family joked “three strikes and you’re out.” She gave birth to two more children – Jimmy Minichella and finally a little girl, Maggie Alyssia Minichella.
Beyond the violence and betrayal, and probably because of it, the story of Melissa’s life has a deeply sad thread running through it, a cross that many people in my family bear – she was touched by mental illness. My family is slowly conquering this disease, but it has taken a devastating toll on many of us. Melissa’s psychiatrists said that although she carried the genetic predisposition, the illness might have lain dormant in her had it not been for the daily trauma and pain she suffered as a young woman and a young mother. She struggled much of her adult life to overcome mental illness, and later she struggled with physical illness brought about in part by her battle for mental health.
There is a theory that people we label as mentally ill are actually people with a huge amount of wisdom and authority, people willing to move between two worlds, from the rational into the irrational, willing to be themselves, willing to step out of boxes. I think about that a lot with Melissa, and some of it rings true. But the fact remains that Melissa suffered inordinately because of mental illness, and so did her family, all of us included, especially her children.
Galatians 6:2, “Bear ye one another’s burdens.”
My cousin Walt was heartbreakingly honest when he spoke with me about this. “Early on,” he said, “I really just saw Melissa struggle with domestic abuse from her husbands. I was frustrated and angry, watching the choices she made and what she put my mom through, and mainly that was because I didn’t understand her, that she was ill.” As time went by, his heart changed, and for the last 10-15 years he was relieved of his anger and frustration, and instead what he felt for his sister was empathy and then love until he was reconciled, and free, and at peace.
In Matthew 25 Jesus is speaking on the Mount of Olives: “For I was a hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in. Naked and ye clothed me: I was sick and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me…Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
One of the affects that bipolar disorder had on Melissa was that she had a different sense of time than most of us. She wasn’t necessarily sleeping at 2 a.m. And she didn’t mind using the telephone to call people at any time of night. As her sister-in-law April Herron Ray said, “I will miss the 2 a.m. phone calls when she would call just to ask what I was doing. If you knew Melissa, you know that she had no concept of time, so if she thought about you at 2 a.m., she was going to call you at 2 a.m.” Our first cousin Sandra Ray Jones said the same thing, “She would call at all hours of the night. Sometimes she woke me out of a dead sleep. She would talk to me about whatever she was thinking about. Every time we were getting ready to hang up she would say, ‘Hey, Sandra, don’t hang up yet. I need to tell you something.” And every time she would say, “I love you, thank you for talking to me.”
This is also what Sandra said – “Every time I saw her she hugged me and told me she loved me.” April said, “Melissa was full of personality and loved with all her heart. She would always give me the biggest hugs and tell me how much she loved me.” Walt said, “She would call at all times of the night and tell me she loved me.” It was that enormous love, and her willingness to express the profundity and vastness of it, that softened Walt’s heart. Now he misses those 2 a.m. calls when he was awakened, alarmed, to hear his big sister over and over and over expressing her gratitude and great love for him.
She loved us.
And we loved her back.
I think it was this love that others saw. There was one nurse, Millie, at her doctor’s office. Millie was kind and caring, and Melissa really liked her. Melissa would call Millie’s phone and leave messages. When she called, you never knew what she was going to say. Some of her messages were wildly imaginative and very funny. Millie told Aunt Carolyn that she saved the messages and when she was having a bad day, she listened to them. They made her feel better. She did the same kind of phoning to the Wal-Mart Pharmacy. “What are you doing?” she’d say. “We’re working,” they’d say. “But if we’re not busy we enjoy talking to you.” Her calls brightened their days because they were different, they were creative. She’d call the bank and tell them that she $100,000 was missing from her account. She’d call the pharmacy and say she had her doctor’s license. Once she called the Savannah River Nuclear Plant and asked where her retirement check was.
In order to use the telephone in this way, Melissa had a great mind for numbers. As my brother Dell said, “If you told her a phone number – if she ever heard one – she wouldn’t forget it.”
April told this story: “I’ll never forget the time she pulled $20 out of her wallet to give Nolan just because she loved him. I tried my best to get her to keep it, but she insisted on giving it to him. Not five minutes later, she asked me to borrow $5 for cigarettes! I will also never forget the time I thought I was going to end up in a fight with some young punk for making fun of her. I let him have it (totally out of character for me) and got her shoes and purse and told her to get in the car because I wasn’t leaving her. She got in the car and just cried. She said, ‘Thank you for loving me, April.’ Melissa was an easy target for some but she was a good soul and I’d defend her to anyone.”
Living with this level of mental illness is difficult for a family, but if you think of it with accommodation and acceptance in mind, it can be hilarious. And a laugh is worth a lot. Laughing lifts you up. Laughing gets you through. Laughing heals.
Aunt Caroline told me a story about taking Melissa to church with her at Baxley United Pentecostal Church, which she attends. Taking Melissa in public was an iffy proposition because she would often say inappropriate things. On this evening she went up to the preacher and said she wanted him to marry her.
“You want to marry me?” he said. “I can’t do that. I’m already married.”
“No,” she said. “I mean to say that I want you to marry me. I mean perform the ceremony.”
“Who are you marrying?” the preacher said.
“I want to marry that guy right there,” Melissa said and pointed to a man sitting on a pew, a guy named Curtis.
“Me?” Curtis said. “Oh no, I done been there and done that. No.”
But the next time Melissa went into the church and sat right down by Curtis and scrunched up to him. Aunt Caroline kept telling her, low, “Come on, Melissa. We’re gonna sit over here. Get up and come sit with me.” But Melissa wouldn’t budge.
Curtis looked at Aunt Caroline. “Leave her alone,” he said. “Don’t you worry one minute about it.”
A couple of years ago Melissa’s physical difficulties got so advanced that she needed to go into a care facility. During this last period of her life, she was hospitalized a number of times for respiratory failure, COPD, congestive heart failure. Every time she pulled through. She got COVID, and even with all the co-morbidities, she survived. It was amazing. Every time the nurses called that Melissa was sick, Aunt Caroline started praying hard, harder than she usually prayed for her children. “She was a fighter,” her mom said. “She was tough. She was a survivor.”
The last time I saw Melissa was a month or two before the pandemic hit, a year ago. She had recently been hospitalized, when she again had come close to death. That day, she was still too weak to walk, but she wanted to be in the middle of things, so the nurses had rolled her hospital bed into the corridor in front of the nurse’s station.
When she saw me, Melissa rubbed her eyes. She kept wanting to know if it was really me, and I kept telling her it was. She would say how happy she was I’d come to see her. Then she asked a strange question. “Am I dead?”
“No, you’re not.” But she wasn’t convinced. She had come so close that time.
“Are you sure I’m not dead?” she asked.
“No, we’re still on earth,” I said. “We’re both right here, very alive. Feel this?” And I would take her hand.
Hebrews 4:16: “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”
Last Thanksgiving all the family was able to visit her. As April wrote, “We were able to visit through a fence and with distance, but I am thankful for that time.” That day Melissa was able to see the love her family has for her. She could see it on their faces. She could hear it in their voices. She could feel it, even though the fence.
In this moment I want to express my honor to have known Melissa and my gratitude for her life. I am grateful for all the joy she brought to her friends and family, and to me. I acknowledge the tragedies that befell her and the lasting suffering wrought upon her. At last she is free of it, free at last.
I want to acknowledge the loss of two of her children in the past two years, Charlie, who died in April 2019, and Maggie, who died in February 2020. They had their own heavy crosses to bear. We miss them.
We offer our deepest gratitude to Melissa’s nurses, doctors, social workers, and care givers over the years. Thanks to all the extended family and all the friends who treated Melissa with kindness, who helped bear her burdens.
Thank you to Gene and Carolyn Ray for giving Melissa life. Thank you to all our ancestors who lived so that we might. Thank you to Melissa’s immediate family – Paula, Walt, Little Mark, Jimmy, April, Nolan, Hannah, Rachel, Cadence, Jared, Ava, and all the rest. Please remember this family as they heal from the loss of two grandchildren and now a daughter.
Keep them in your thoughts.
Keep them in your prayers.
Keep them in your arms.