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The Aftermath of Crime
24 Years Later
In 1989 I attended a small private, Catholic junior high and high school on the South Shore of Massachusetts. I was 11 years old and nervous about beginning seventh grade with new people and at a new place. After a couple of months of meeting people and being the shy, introvert that I am (at least at first), I met a group of girls, whom to this day are still the best friends I could ask for. We watched the same TV shows, had the same odd sense of humor, loved New Kids on the Block and weren't as concerned as some of our peers with images. Everything was carefree and innocent. Sleepovers, trips to the mall and the monthly dances ensued. We had the whole world in front of us and were enjoying our time together.
The group of us went on this way for the remainder of 7th grade and through the summer before 8th grade. Eighth grade began in its usual way. My friend Melissa and I were in the same homeroom with the kindest teacher of the bunch. All 5 of us had tickets to see NKOTB in December, and Melissa and I were heading to the Patriots v. Dolphins game for the first game of the season. The week after the game, however, our world would never be as wholesome or worry-free again.
It was around this time of year - mid-September when the mornings are cool and the days warm. My parents headed to Arizona for a business trip. I was originally supposed to stay at Melissa's house to get back and forth to school, until my grandmother was able to stay at my house. The Saturday morning after the Patriots game, Melissa and I were on the phone, watching the New Kids cartoon and discussing what we saw. "Who's cuter? Joe or Jordan?" or "That's not what they sound like in real life.." Towards the end of the show, Melissa hung up saying she was stopping by her neighbors, then heading to the cemetery near her home where her father, who passed away the year before, was buried. "I'll call you after lunch," she said putting down the receiver.
The day went on, I was stuck with my grandmother, who didn't drive. I was bored out of my mind. I couldn't wait for Melissa, or one of my other friends, to call back. About supper time, the phone rang. I answered and it was Melissa's mother, Mrs. Benoit, "Have you heard from Melissa?" I told her we had talked during the New Kids on the Block cartoon and she was heading to her neighbors. Mrs. Benoit had gone to the store when I was talking to Melissa previously. That would have been about 10:30 in the morning (This detail became more crucial than I ever could fathom.) because that's when the show ended. "I just checked with the neighbors. She's not there. Well, if you hear from her, please have her call me," she replied. I hung up the phone. My grandmother asked who it was. When I told her she looked worried, "Well, you can call tomorrow and check on Melissa."
At this point in the story, the details are fuzzy. They have always been fuzzy. I'm not particularly sure if that is my brain protecting itself from the pain of what happened or if it is the fact that all of our worlds turned into total chaos. Either way, this is what happened next, to the best of my recollection. I called my other friend, Annette, the next morning. I didn't want to hound Melissa's family. If Melissa wanted to talk to me, she'd call. Annette hadn't heard from her. So I told her about my phone call from Mrs. Benoit the night before. She had received the same call as well. By lunchtime, I called Melissa. We never went too long without calling each other. Remember, this was the day and age before cell phones and Instagram. Her sister, Erin, answered, "We don't know where she is." At this I didn't know what to say. I heard the hubbub of people in the background and knew it wasn't good. By that Sunday evening the TV and newspapers were plastered with Melissa's photograph, her statistics and where she was last seen. The worry had become a nightmare and it drained every ounce of life out of everyone who knew and cared for her. My parents were paged at their function in Scottsdale. They couldn't get home and were calling constantly.
The stories for my other four friends were similar. We all were in shock. I still cannot wrap my head around what her family went through. The days dragged on and on. Each moment felt like an eternity, waiting and wondering. It is a longing and worry that cannot be compared to anything else. My mother being sick with cancer, waiting for my daughters to be born, these were long days too; but nothing like this. The unknown is far to unkind.
We were good kids. We had never even smoked cigarettes, let alone do anything worse. We all knew the chance of it being something licentious was not an option. We weren't that clique. Whatever happened to Melissa was horrible, and we just prayed it would end well.
Two days after Melissa went missing, a police officer knocked on my door late at night. The policeman was a friend of mine from elementary school's dad, Officer Abbott, and Melissa's uncle, whom I had met at her family cookout, was with him. They knew my parents were out of town and wanted to see if Melissa was at my house. My grandmother and I welcomed them in, as we obviously had nothing to hide. At the time I was hurt that they thought I may help Melissa try to pull off something like running away. However, now I realize they were hoping it was as easy as she ran to my house. Officer Abbott asked me if Melissa had been there? Who she dated? Was she pregnant? The words out of my mouth were, "Melissa has never even kissed anyone. How could she be pregnant?" He apologized and said he had to ask.
The next day my parents returned from Arizona. I was happy they were home. The FBI also came to school that day and questioned the four of us. At this point, I reiterated my story about that last phone call. I was then told by the FBI that I was the last known person to speak to her. "I don't know what to say anymore, " I told them. I started rattling on about her watch and our best friend necklace that Annette, Melissa and I each had a piece of the heart, and she would have been wearing it. All I wanted to do was help. At this point, I wish she had been hiding under my bed because the nightmare and anxiety could end.
Pink ribbons, the color of the shirt Melissa was last seen wearing, adorned streets and people from Kingston to Woods Hole. The press was outside Melissa's home, our school, everywhere. It ended up being the second most publicized story of the year in Massachusetts, after the theft of valuable art at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum. Our nightmare was everyone's business and we weren't able to cope privately. This made it much harder.
Eleven days after this nightmare began, it turned into something far worse when the worries we had were confirmed. Melissa's body had been found. She was now an angel, and taken from her family and friends far too soon by the hands of another person. The how doesn't particularly matter that much anymore. What does matter is the evil inside one person has permanently effected Melissa's life, her family's lives, and her friend's lives. I don't want to use the word "destroy" here because destroying something means it no longer exists, and this is the part of this journey that I want anyone who has been a victim of a crime to understand. Something can only destroy you if you let it. Mrs. Benoit and Erin were a shining example of moving on. It would have been so easy for all of us to use this as an excuse. We could have said, "Well, my sister, daughter, friend was murdered. So I am going to be angry and drink or do drugs." Mrs. Benoit had all of us over her house a few weeks after the tragedy and gave us things of Melissa's to remember her by. I received a silver necklace and sweater. She also went to the trial of the monster who committed this act, wearing her pink blouse and speaking to the press about forgiveness. I remember at the time thinking, "How could she ever forgive this man!" But as I became more reflective about the why of this tragedy, I began to realize that God doesn't give any of us anything we can't handle. I also began to realize that Melissa was here for a reason, as we all are. We are all a gift to the world and the people's whose lives we touch in it, all be it brief in this case. It was through Mrs. Benoit's example and my soul searching that I began to make peace with what happened. I may not like it. It may still make me cry. But it is far beyond my control, and who am I going to help by continuing to be angry. So, I let go as best I could of the anger and believed in due time, the monster would get what was coming to him through the universe.
For years our high school had a road race "The Run for the Ribbon", to raise money for a scholarship in Melissa's name. On this weekend in April each year, we would all gather to work the race, see each other and remember. They no longer have the race now. At first this bothered me too. I didn't want people to forget my friend. I even talked to Erin and our Alma Mater about doing something else in Melissa's name. The school had moved on to another classmate a few years older than us who had lost his life on 9/11. Again, I realized, as a business, this makes more sense perhaps.
So on we went. We still remember her every September 15th. That is why I decided to write this article. Even though you need to make peace with the loss, she has never left us. Her spirit is still here. They dedicated a stone to her at the Garden for Peace in downtown Boston. Her sister shared these pictures with us this week, and it all came back. One of the five of us, Christine, found a pink rose on her street just laying there, nowhere near a rose bush. I have a rose bush that had been choked by vines in my backyard that bloomed a pink rose on September 15th this year. These signs are reminders that she's watching us, making sure we are OK.
The most difficult part of this process personally has been my fear of something happening to someone else I love. As a teenager and college student, I was petrified to be alone. I would sleep with lights on, make sure my door and windows were locked tight, even on hot days. Once I realized how crazy this behavior was through therapy, I started making a point of leaving my door open and turning the lights off. It took a year of making a conscious effort to do this to overcome a lot of my anxiety. At that point I was 24 years old. Some of my fears have returned having two daughters, particularly for my now teenage daughter, who is the age I was when Melissa passed. My friends and I all have daughters and all worry more than a typical parent.
It took years to forget her death, and focus on her life. Now, later in life, losing others I love, I don't think it's any different. If someone you love dies of an illness, it takes years to remember their life and not the suffering at the end. So losing someone in a tragic way does not change the grieving process, with the exception of the initial shock. Grieving someone you love takes a life time. It doesn't leave you. It just changes over time.
The monster who committed this act created a flood of issues, sadness and fear. We have fought everyday to overcome them and for the memories of Melissa to be happy ones. He did get his fair share, as he is no longer with us and if there is a hell, I am sure he is there.
Melissa was beautiful, funny, easy going and full of life. We have all carried these qualities along with us and passed them on to our daughters. She is a part of our being, our souls, and we share that with the world and the people we meet. This way Melissa lives forever. I thank God for the friendship we had, and the friends I'll have forever. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world. To know and love her was far stronger than her loss.