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Voices / Column

Mourning Melinda

The death of one person who touched so many brings disparate communities together in a time of grief

Dummerston

As I sit here grieving the loss of Melinda Bussino, I find myself wondering about my love of Brattleboro as a whole.

People who live here like to talk about “the community,” and it always makes me wince. I see Brattleboro as being a grouping of circles, like the rings that form when you throw a polished rock into a pond. Each circle is round and full and each one is in the center of the next one, and in the end they all touch one another and group together.

There’s the opera community and the theater community and the sugaring community and the art community and the political communities — the left, the right, and is anyone left in the center? — and the service communities and the nonprofit communities and the teaching communities.

Sometimes we break into town communities, and sometimes we’re all Vermonters, as we are now mourning Melinda’s death.

Interlocking communities: I think that is the image I’m reaching for, and in that way I knew Melinda best when she was wet and naked.

I mean no disrespect here, but she and I shared a love of lap swimming, and so even though I often wrote about her amazing work at the Drop In Center when I was covering Brattleboro for the Brattleboro Reformer, it was in the locker room at the Colonial Pool that we became friends. We became the kind of friends who say, when we meet somewhere else, “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.”

* * *

Melinda really loved to swim. I heard that when she was in Montpelier for meetings, she would show up at the pool around 7 p.m. just to grab a free lane for a while before going home. The Reformer once did a person-on-the-street column about what people liked to do best, and under Melinda’s picture, was her response, if I remember correctly: “Swim. Swim. Swim.”

In the pool, she had a strong, slow, steady stroke. She took her time. She swam for meditation and for the pleasure of feeling powerful in the water. It gave her relief from the stress she must have felt in her difficult job, dealing with the poor, the hungry, and the homeless people of the area.

We talked about a lot of things, including her chartreuse VW and how jealous I was of her for having the guts to buy it. That was when I discovered how cool she was.

Once, while we were toweling off, I asked her how it was going and she looked deeply concerned.

“You know, I’m seeing people who used to donate food to the Drop In Center, and now they’re coming by to get food,” she said.

It reminded me again that we’re all one paycheck away. As if I needed reminding. In my house, we give food to the Drop In Center at every opportunity because we know it could be us. And Melinda knew it better than anyone.

I don’t know how she did that job so long. It must have torn her heart out sometimes. And infuriated her at others. And maybe it wore her heart out, because 65 is too young to die.

Melinda had a heart attack in the pool. Doing the thing that she loved most, and took so much comfort from.

* * *

All the varied circles of community that Melinda was part of — at the Drop In Center, at the Windham Regional Commission, at the state government level, at the organizations that gave her the many awards she won over the years — will all come together at her memorial to speak in praise of her.

The older I get, the more I hate death. I hate the coldness and the finality of it, and I hate the pain it gives the people who are left behind.

But despite the fact that I’m going to too many funerals these days, I love the fact that I am a member of this community. I love how all our circles touch.

Melinda touched so many lives.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #142 (Wednesday, March 7, 2012).

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