It is far too familiar a feeling to be going back home late at night, and see the flashing lights and police sirens a few hundred meters ahead. Someone had an accident. One of the horribly familiar cliches all around the world. If you’re not out that late usually, you’d probably here a 10 to 15 second account and short clip on the evening news, shake your head in sadness, say what a shame it is, and forget about it 45 seconds later. I can’t blame you, I do the same myself.
But last night, that 15-second clip, that paragraph on a website, that newspaper clipping, was a face and name I had the privilege and honor of being familiar with…
Melissa Sfeir is my friend, and a dear one at that to whom I owe quite a handful of good memories and unforgettable experiences.
Most people get to see each other a couple of minutes at a time, every now and then. If you’re close to a person, maybe a few hours per week. With Melissa however, I spent the better part of two consecutive summers, isolated from the rest of the world.
I had known Melissa from scouts, seen her in a ceremony here, a session there. However, in 2007 we both were moniteurs for a host of 80 deprived children for a 15-day summer camp. In other words, we were each the full-time guardians for 10 kids round the clock, along with 10 or so other moniteurs whom I’m sure miss Melissa as much as I do now. The 16-day period we lived together were ones few people get to experience in their lives. 24/7 continuous physically and emotionally challenging events that I cannot begin to describe to you.
It brings out the very best in you, and the absolute worst. While some broke down, lashed out, or simply got indifferent, Melissa was always around the kids assigned to her and her partner, smiling. I even remember wondering if she ever wore braces to get such a picture-perfect smile. Melissa not only willingly stayed with her group of kids, she loved it. I must confess, at times I felt like being away for a few hours and leaving the monstrous task of keeping an eye out for the pants-pooping, suicidal, vengeful children. Melissa didn’t though, and I was fascinated.
One night, when my day had been as unpleasant as it could get, I sat on a ledge, feet wandering in the air, headphones on my head thinking about life beyond the walls of the Colonie, and within it. A rare moment where I was genuinely unhappy and needed someone to talk to. Out of about 50 people, who all walked by where I was perched, only Melissa took the few minutes to venture out on to the lofty ledge, sit beside me, and ask me what I was listening to, smiling.
You might think that’s a silly detail from a silly event. Well, it was an event we both held dear to our hearts, and a detail that was burned into my memory forever, of when Melissa took the time out of our 20-hour day to sit beside me and ask what I was up to. It was then that Melissa became the person I enjoyed being around, and savored the time we could steal away between meals and baths, where our responsibility to the kids was shifted temporarily to the charges.
The Colonie came and went, and with it we went back to our normal lives. Our exposure time was cut to just a couple of times every few months, and out of those times, we rarely reunited the colonie atmosphere and spirit.
All was not lost though, for 12 months later, we got the chance to reunite again for a similar purpose, and similar time. I was a routiers sent to do a service, and she was an intendante tasked with helping the guides’ summer camp run along smoothly. I did the heavy lifting, she did the fine cooking. Seemed like a fair, evolutionarily-true set of roles. But it was after our chores were completed that the real magic that was Melissa unfolded.
I was supposed to stay awake as night-guard, but did not really appreciate the loneliness in the dark valley we were at. So, every 15 minutes, I’d go to the tent where Melissa was sleeping, and collapse the tent over them. I did this once, twice, three, four, and seven times, till finally, Melissa came out and sat with me, while the others who were still screaming their lungs out at me finally got to go to bed. I admit it was a selfish thing to do, but so worth it. As we waited till 4:00 AM to start the jeu-de-nuit ritual, we had a nice catch-up session, and I realized Melissa had only gotten more awesome. More vibrant, more energetic, happier, basking in the joie-de-vivre so many of us fake miserably.
Usually, I’m the one all hyper and enthusiastic, but Melissa was certainly the more vivacious one between us.
Those 11 days, coupled with the previous 16, gave me a total of 27 days with Melissa. That’s a total of 486 hours not asleep, spent discovering this quiet yet imposing caravelle, whom I had grown fond of in a manner not customary. Why not customary? Well, imagine meeting someone, when you have no car, no internet access, no television, no radio, no going out. You meet the person him or herself, not who he or she is supposed to be or people consider him or her to be. I got to meet Melissa that way, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have done so. I might’ve never gone out clubbing with her, never went to the movies with her, never walked down a street in Beirut with her, never ate at a restaurant with her, never met her parents or friends, but I definitely met Melissa Sfeir.
The news broke my heart, it is not news anyone would ever want to get: Melissa Sfeir has died from an ATV accident…
In this time of deep sorrow and sadness, instead of thinking what Melissa is going to become and where she is going to go, I’d like to focus on the moments that I have shared with her in her life, and celebrate that very thing: her amazing, though short-lived life, that enriched my life and the life of all those around her. Melissa will be missed, she already is. Let us keep her close at heart and think of the times each of us shared with this wonderful girl. I know I will, and it will be ambivalent: I will rejoice in past memories, yet also deeply regret the realization I will not be able to make new ones.
For those of you who know Melissa, you will understand what I’m talking about. And for those of you who did not, please don’t dismiss this tragedy as the thousands of others that shake Lebanese families to the core, but take the time to get to know Melissa, her friends, her family and the legacy she has left behind.