To be a sentient being in August of 2022 feels like living in a perpetual state of grief. Particularly if you, like me, subject yourself to regular doses of that most toxic of necessary evils, the news.
The world is on fire. Literally. And the ashy debris spirals back home in through the cracks on so many fronts. The abundance of chaos could turn this post into a tome, but that might roll me out into a tomb, so I will try to stay focused here.
Although I haven’t cried in years (I think my eyes are broken) I carry a profound sadness these days, like a pile of pelts, each salvaged from a once vibrant entity, now silenced. Jamie, who was killed by a drunk driver in early 2020. Ludlow, who suffered a stroke at the beginning of the pandemic and is doing well but lives too far away to hug. Earl, whose body was found on the beach in the Far Rockaways, cause of death unknown. Manuel, the warrior activist from UNAIDS who died of fvc%ing COVID. And on, and on, and on… too many names to list of people who’ve died or are forever changed. So much loss. People, places, cultures, even buildings. Ruined.
On July 21st, 2022, the gorgeous 120 year old mansion diagonally across from my house was brutally brought down to a heap of asbestos-filled dust and rubble. No warning, no precautions for safety, no concern for the neighborhood whose long-time residents watched in horror. Crying, screaming, suppressing a desire to tell everyone to go to hell, while the developers cheered with each blow of the bulldozer. It was cruel. Brutal. Twelve decades destroyed in under three hours.
A building, yes, but a symbol of our community. Gone.
Perhaps it is silly to grieve a building, but it felt like a part of my soul was being ripped out. A piece of who I’ve become on this singular corner of my neighborhood over these past decades.
Now when I look out the window or leave my apartment I see a void. An emptiness. The selfish theft of beauty by greedy developers who don’t give a rat’s ass — and, trust me, there are a lot of rats’ asses around — about the people left to grieve. We called the building the haunted house. It was regal, intriguing, inviting, like a bestie you love to visit.
And then, just last week, a dear friend texted me that one of our former professors, Melissa Bank, had died.
My friend said she was taking the news hard and my immediate reaction was to try to comfort her in my short response. And then it hit me. Our wonderful professor, mentor, and friend was gone. We’d never again get to chat with her or read a new piece of writing with her wit and wisdom.
In 2014, I had the good fortune to take a memoir class with Melissa Bank through my MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton. Although known for her fiction, particularly her best-selling book The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Melissa Bank could write anything and make it shine. She was a terrific writer and an equally wonderful instructor. She had us do many things and learn many things and told us many things and yada, yada, yada, but, what she really did, was made us think about writing. At least she did so for me.
One of the things I most appreciated during her course was the writing prompt at the beginning of each class meeting. We had to write them by hand, in class, and read them aloud. No on-the-fly editing allowed. We later had to go home and type them up, word-for-word. If we wanted, we could copy the text and edit the second version with explanations of why we changed what we changed. Then, and only then, we turned in our work. That simple set of steps forced me to consider the process of writing, for which I will be forever grateful.
Melissa Bank made me a stronger writer, to be sure, but she also made me a better writing instructor. Thanks to her, I can explain the process of writing to my own students, and so the cycle of learning continues, her legacy ensured.
And she was funny. Very, very, funny. While she supported and commented on my main submissions to the class, what she liked most was the writing I did about my mother in the prompts. And she did not hesitate to tell me so.
I know you want to write about the United Nations, Martina, but, really, you need to write about your mother. I need you to write about your mother, Melissa told me.
I can’t, I said, at least not while she is alive.
Well then, she said, I think it’s time for a hitman!
No wet-work was required. My mother eventually passed away at the age of 86 and I have, indeed, started to write about her. I did, however, consider the suggestion more than once, but I’ll save those details for my next book, the one where I’ll have to thank Melissa Bank for pulling those stories out from the depths of where I’d kept them hidden, mostly from myself.
The truth is, I haven’t seen Melissa in years, but I’ll miss her as her passing creates yet another void in the world. Another patch of emptiness where beauty and joy is now just air. Melissa was only three years older than me and died of cancer. As someone whose been living with HIV for more than half her life, this detail also hurts. Why do the good ones always die young? It’s a cliché, damnit, it’s not supposed to be real.
And yet, here we are. Melissa Bank, a great writer, a hilarious woman, a brilliant teacher, and a gentle soul, is gone too soon. My heart aches for everyone who is grieving her death, and for everyone grieving all of the ugliness in the world, in our lives, on our corners.
Whenever you feel it is too much, consider the cause of your greatest pain and ask yourself, Is it time for a hitman? Then smile, and keep writing. By hand, then type it up, and then, with considered reflection, you may edit your future accordingly.
Thank you, Melissa Bank, for all that you gave to so many. Rest in Prose.