A possum named Peanut visited Julie Melnyk’s back porch every night. Dr. Melnyk gave the marsupial its name, and she’d leave it food each day before sunset. She would rest in her black armchair, watching through the window as Peanut ate.
Cancer stole Dr. Melnyk’s comfort, her job and her mobility. It made her weak. It wore her body down. It took her life in the early hours of Friday, Dec. 22.
But Dr. Melnyk wouldn’t let cancer steal dinners with her family or her Wednesday afternoon chats with me. Hell, she wouldn’t even let it steal her nightly appointments with Peanut. She wasn’t one to overlook life’s simple moments.
I took Dr. Melnyk’s British literature course in the fall of 2016. We had this big, bulky anthology stuffed with poems from Wordsworth and Rossetti and Blake. Dr. Melnyk loved teaching, and she loved the pieces we studied. When she read aloud, her voice carried a whisper of an English accent.
She found out she was sick a few weeks after our class ended. She stopped teaching the next semester, and I visited her house a few times before summer break. She introduced me to her bunny and always offered me a cup of water.
The details from those spring afternoons have slipped away, but I kept notes of her book recommendations. There was “Middlemarch” by George Eliot — one of her favorites — “Atonement” by Ian McEwan and E.M. Forster’s “A Room with a View.”
I wanted my talks with Dr. Melnyk to continue when I came back from summer break. By the time the leaves were changing colors, I was visiting her house almost every Wednesday. I stopped needing to email her ahead of time. I’d just show up at 4 p.m., ready to chat for an hour or two.
During one of my visits, she talked about a weeklong trip she took to Wales when she was younger. It rained the whole time she was there, but she made the most of it. That was how she lived her life. Even as her body failed her, she went to science presentations with her husband. She bought movie tickets with her son and pored over books.
She continued to learn, continued to grow, continued to live in the face of death.
Each time I visited, Dr. Melnyk sat in her black armchair in the corner of her living room. I’d watch the Wednesday afternoons fade to nights in the window behind her. It was a beautiful room, a perfect place to read.
It was an overcast December afternoon when I drove to Dr. Melnyk’s house for the last time. The sun shone through gaps in the clouds, and I felt a sinking feeling in my chest. I knew I was driving to a goodbye.
Conversation didn’t flow as easily as usual that day. She did not want to talk much about herself, and I think we both knew it was our final conversation.
Moments before I left, Dr. Melnyk gave me one last reading recommendation: “In Memoriam,” a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. He wrote it a few years after a friend died. It’s about overcoming sadness and embracing the beautiful aspects of life.
“Ring out the grief that saps the mind/ For those that here we see no more/ Ring out the feud of rich and poor/ Ring in the redress to all mankind.”
Ring in Peanut and English lessons and that bulky Brit lit anthology. Ring in life’s simple moments, my Wednesday afternoon chats with my favorite teacher.
“Ring in the common love of good.”