Life Skills 101, because life can be tough…
My husband teaches high school band in the nearly coastal town of Foley, Alabama. He teaches hundreds of students each year in both marching and concert band, and through his 18 year career, we have gotten to know thousands of teens. We have not had a lot of students pass away, in fact, it’s comforting to know through the years, there has only been a small hand full of students we’ve lost. I say we because while I teach high school, I also teach band with him, sometimes after school but most notably during the 101 degree week known as “band camp.”
All my high school friends were in band, and I trotted off to college on a music scholarship. I met my husband, the love of my life, in college band, and my three children are in beginner and high school band. With my band director husband, I teach hundreds of students each year during band camp week, which this year is challenging 250 teens. We also work with a fantastic band staff and amazing parents. I have loved band since I was 13, and I still love working with band kids at 43.
My husband received a text in late July of 2013 saying a former band student of ours was given just several days to live.
Her name was Meleney Harris.
We knew Meleney had been diagnosed with cancer, and we knew she had been up and down in terms of the medical treatment effectiveness throughout the last year. To hear that her life expectancy was just several more days was both startling and heart breaking. Meleney was one of those students that you just remembered instantly, even if she graduated several years ago. Meleney is one of our band family.
I remember Meleney the most from band camp, her unusual hair, her quirky t-shirts and crazy shoes, and her huge smile. She was not the type of kid to complain, and she always ran back to her spot. If someone was new, she was sure to show them the way. She was easy-going, helpful and cheerful. She was the kind of kid you would be proud to call your own, someone you could count on, a friend you would want to have. She was a leader you followed, and to catch her, you better run back to your spot.
My very favorite Meleney memory took place in 2009 on a band trip to Chicago. We went to see Blue Man Group, and just a sophomore, Meleney was chosen from the whole theater to go up on stage. If they had chosen me, I would have surely refused, too shy, too embarrass-able. Not Mel. In front of hundreds of mostly strangers, dressed in some sort of plastic protective covering, Meleney shared an intimate on-stage meal with the three blue guys, where they spewed crunchy cereal and sprayed her with some sort of cheese substance. She totally played along, and the crowd loved her.
She was the epitome of the word “band kid.”
In this photo, she is in the band room with her future fiancé, Daniel McWatters.
Meleney Harris is a graduate of Foley High School, where she was a straight A student. She was planning to attend college to be an ultrasound technician. All this came to a complete stop when she was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma.
Ewing’s sarcoma is a primary bone cancer that affects mainly children and adolescents. It’s one of a group of cancers known collectively as the Ewing sarcoma family of tumors — ESFT or sometimes just EFT. It’s the second most common bone cancer in children, but it’s also relatively uncommon. It accounts for only 1% of all childhood cancers. Although it can occur at any age, it very rarely occurs in adults over the age of 30.
As there are no known risk factors that can be changed and no screening test to effectively identify someone prone to develop this cancer, there is no way to prevent it. There are approximately 200 new cases of Ewing’s sarcoma diagnosed in the United States annually, and somehow, Shining Star Melenie Harris was one of those 200.
Meleney spent seven months going through surgeries and chemotherapy. Her tumor was resistant to chemo, and when the tumor began pushing on her lungs, collapsing them, and putting pressure on her heart, doctors told her there was nothing that could be done. Meleney Harris, Shining Star, was dying of cancer, quite probably within the week based on her doctor’s prognosis. And all the while, at the end of treatments and a long fight, Meleney knew she was dying.
How tragic to see the woman you have loved since high school slip from your life while living with daily pain.
How crushing to see a family member suffer and then have to worry about how you will pay for the funeral.
How amazingly unfair to know you are dying and to worry about the people you leave behind.
Meleney Harris was just 20-years-old, and she had no life or burial insurance. This left her fiancé and her parents to do what they could do with the funeral expenses, all the while dealing with her medical expenses and their own finances.
Suzi Hall, Daniel’s mother, started a GoFundMe campaign to help defray the costs of Meleney’s funeral. Can you imagine planning your own funeral? Melenny has done just that.
Suzi said, “Meleney told Daniel and I what she wanted, the casket – brown and silver – with roses on her casket. She wants to be buried in her prom dress she wore to her and Daniel’s prom. She wants Daniel to wear the same color tux he wore that special night. As Daniel’s mother, the hurt in my heart with knowing we are losing her is unbearable. She sure is a sweet and wonderful girl, and she’s had a hard life.”
I think most of us, at one high school time or another, thought we would go on to marry our high school sweetie, but surely none of us ever envisioned planning a funeral together and then worrying about how to pay for it.
In this photo, Meleney and Daniel are headed to prom, not knowing this is the dress she will ask to be buried in barely two years later.
I can’t imagine seeing my child suffer with cancer.
I can’t imagine having the strength to plan my own funeral.
I can’t imagine knowing I was losing someone I loved with all my heart, and then had to worry with how I would pay to bury them.
My family made a donation to the funeral fund for our former high school student who was a Foley Band Shining Star before she lost her battle with cancer. Many of the people who made donations did not know her, which is unfortunate. She was indeed a Shining Star, both on and off the marching field, in the classroom, around the community, and in our Foley Band family. If you had met her, she would have shaken your hand, said something funny, and her smile would have set you at ease. That’s just how she was.
This year about 564,800 Americans are expected to die of cancer—more than 1,500 people a day. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., exceeded only by heart disease. One of every four deaths in the U.S. is from cancer. Since 1990, there have been approximately 5 million cancer deaths.
A lot of Shining Stars have been lost, and it seemed important to focus on just one.
This article was originally written on July 30 on a more prominent website, and Meleney passed away on August 13th after a long battle with her illness. I wanted to thank everyone who had donated money for her funeral. $5700 was raised by friends, family, and many complete strangers to bury a beautiful shining star.
Peace, love, and light to Melanie Harris, her fiancé Daniel McWatters, their families and close friends, and all the kids in the Foley Band who loved her.
Go hug someone, and tell them how much they mean to you, because life is short and certainly not always fair.
Thanks for reading and for thinking about Meleney. Thank you again for your donations, and keep them in your prayers.