I had a post lined up for today. Then I learned late last week that a friend of mine, Melissa Keller, died after a long battle with ovarian cancer.
Today, in Bloomington, Indiana, her family and friends are going to meet at the local Unitarian Universalist church to celebrate her. She should be celebrated far and wide.
I do not live in Indiana anymore. I am sitting here in Virginia with an ache in my heart and a smile on my face as I think of Melissa.
I did not get to know her for as long a time as some of her friends. She actually reached out to me 5 or 6 years ago. She was a professor at Indiana University who taught early childhood courses. She read in the local paper about the work I was doing with an agency called Visually Impaired Preschool Services to bring early intervention for infants and toddlers with blindness in Indiana. She had convinced IU to rent a bus and had taken her early childhood class on a field trip 2 1/2 hours away to Louisville, Kentucky where the VIPS office and preschool facility is.
She emailed me after the fact. I was surprised and amused that a bus full of Hoosiers showed up on VIPS’ doorstep. I had known nothing about it.
She and her students toured the facility. They observed some of the preschool classes. She appreciated the reverse inclusion model at VIPS where typically sighted peers attend classes geared toward children with vision loss. Everyone benefits from a more tactile approach. Everyone learns empathy. Everyone is celebrated for who they are and for what they can do. Everyone learns at their own pace. Simple as that.
She wrote me a complimentary email after the tour and invited me to speak to her classes which I did. She wanted her students to become aware of the possibilities of a career in early intervention. After a presentation one year her classes made tactile toys and books for the VIPS welcome bags we provided to new families.
Melissa and I had known each other for a few years when she sent me a Christmas card. In the card, she wrote that it had just occurred to her that I may not know she had a connection to a famous woman I mentioned sometimes when explaining the urgent need for improving educational services to blind children. She included a copy of a picture of Helen Keller. On the picture, in square neat letters on the lower right corner was a note to a family member (I can’t remember the name. I think it was a cousin.) and signed, Love, Helen Keller.
I was honestly stunned. Her last name was Keller, for Pete’s sake, but I had never even thought to make the connection. We talked a little about the family a couple of times and that was that.
I wondered if her distant relative was a factor in her interest in VIPS.
It is possible although she had a long career as a champion for children as a teacher, principal, and professor in her own right.
Melissa Keller was a loving mother, grandmother, daughter, wife, friend, and teacher. She was also a terrific writer. Her CaringBridge site kept her fans entertained and informed as she and her husband, Thomas, traveled all over the world in a modern day hero’s journey to keep cancer at bay. She made us laugh while our hearts broke.
She wrote a book about her experiences with her husband’s family called Crazy is Relative. It is funny and bittersweet and very revealing about how people are shaped by their experiences in ways we cannot know unless we tell our stories.
I just wrote that Melissa Keller “was”. I am struggling with that.
She is. She remains in my thoughts and in my heart.
She liked to end her Caring Bridge posts with lyrics from songs she loved or was listening to at the time. Here are some of my favorite lyrics with Melissa in mind and in heart.
Joyful Girl by Ani DiFranco
I do it for the joy it brings
Cuz I’m a joyful girl
And, the world owes me nothing
We owe each other the world.
I do it cuz it’s the least I can do
I do it cuz I learned it from you
I do it just because I want to
I want to.