On the night of Monday, December 27th, I did what a lot of people in this town did. I went to a bar with my husband to watch the Saints kick the Falcons' collective butts. It was a night like any other Saints night in New Orleans--we met up with some friends, did some drinking, and watched the game.
One of the women who met us there was Rebecca, a friend of a friend. Rebecca and I don't necessarily know each other well enough to be called friends. We have mutual friends and like each other enough to have some pretty decent conversations when we happen to be in the same social situations.
That night, while we all watched the game at a bar together, Rebecca's daughter, Melissa, was with her own friends, some new, some old. As it turns out, she made the decision to spend the night with some of her friends in an abandoned house on St. Roch Avenue. As you probably know, the house burned down, with eight teenagers/young adults inside. Melissa was one of the people who perished. She was 17 years old.
I say again that Rebecca and I cannot really be classified as friends--simply because I don't want this post to be misconstrued as me trying to hijack someone else's tragedy as my own. This is not my tragedy--but it has affected me nonetheless.
The stories that have appeared in the local news seem to have been removed from reality, at the very least. The majority of the public opinion I've seen has seemed to imply that these were all homeless kids--and outsiders to boot--so therefore their lives somehow didn't matter. Not surprisingly, the comments that people have made about this tragedy in the cesspool that is nola.com have been beyond the pale.
Believe me, I know from first-hand experience how integral a part of the human condition it is to shake our heads at other people's tragedies and to move on. As I've said before, I think it's an inherent part of our make-up--if we were affected by every horrible story we see each day in the papers and on the evening news, how could we continue to function? But sometimes, it hits close to home, and you're shaken to the core.
I did not see Rebecca's letter to the editor that appeared in the hard copy of the Times-Picayune earlier this week. But a friend linked to it on Facebook, and I went to read the online version. After all of the callousness that has been displayed in the face of these eight young people's deaths, I suppose I should have been prepared for more heartlessness--and downright meanness--when I went online.
I don't get it. How can you read a grieving mother's letter to the editor about how much she loved and admired her child--about what a wonderful person her daughter was--and not be moved? And what kind of human being are you to be so completely unaffected by the loss of a 17-year-old girl and the grief of her mother that you go out of your way to chastise the mother? Why is your need to judge others so great? Why are you so convinced of your superiority?
I guess I just don't understand people sometimes. From all accounts, Rebecca was--and is--an incredible mother. Some of my friends have talked about how much they admired the complete openness of the relationship that Rebecca and Melissa had. Others have said they were downright jealous of the mutual adoration the two had for each other.
Perhaps Melissa made a mistake that night. But as Rebecca said in her letter to the editor and in other online posts, she admires and respects the kind-heartedness her daughter displayed on that night, wanting to stay with her new friends and show her acceptance of them.
Melissa didn't deserve to lose her life. She didn't get what was coming to her for making poor choices. She was a 17-year-old girl who had her whole life ahead of her. She was loved. She was respected. She was admired. As, I know, were the other kids who died there that night.
To say that they were gutter punks or squatters who died because of their own choices is wrong. You can shake your head and move on. But the need that some people have to go out of their way to attack these children and their families is enough to make me ill. I can only hope that these same people are shown more compassion than they've been able to give if a tragedy ever affects their lives.
For a better account of Melissa and Rebecca's relationship, go here.