Just before my daughter and I enter Berkeley High School’s gymnasium for Meleia’s memorial service, I see her mother, Kimberly, encircled by loving arms, red-eyed sorrow and whispered words of comfort. Our daughters, although three years apart, attended Park Day School together and my daughter looked up to Meleia like a big sister. Meleia always greeted her with hugs and praise.
My daughter loved her. I wait and breathe, trying to keep my tears in check until I stand before Kimberly, dazed and helpless. We embrace and exchange expressions of utter sorrow. “I lost my firstborn, too,” I say.
Kimberly looks startled. She didn’t know that. We shake our heads, acknowledging that particular kind of grief. “Just let everybody hold you up,” I advise. She nods vigorously, then laughs. “With all these people here, I had to come and be a part of this. If I hadn’t, Meleia would’ve kicked my butt!” We laugh again and she goes on to the next set of waiting arms.
When I first heard about the shooting and saw Meleia’s soft-featured face, warm and welcoming, on the front pages of several newspapers, I said to myself; “Whose child is this? Who are her parents? I know this child.”
I hadn’t seen Meleia in years and didn’t recognize her all grown up. My second thought was; “Oh my God. This could be my daughter. This could happen to her.” And my heart filled with sadness and fear.
I know what it’s like to lose a child. My firstborn, Arianne, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome when she was three months old. Just as the birth of my precious new baby taught me the full meaning of unconditional love, her unexpected death taught me the meaning of true suffering and overwhelming grief. I know of no greater loss.
At the service, Kimberly described her reaction upon first hea ring of her “baby girl’s” death: “I ran around the house screaming ‘Oh my God! What am I going to do? How am I going to live?’” When she calmed, she knew she had to return to Berkeley (from Georgia) to be with the multitude of friends, teachers and commun ity members who had come to know and love Meleia so very much. Several of these friends spoke at the service about carrying on Meleia’s social justice work and everyone was moved by her young brother’s plea for a “gun-free future.” The mood, while painful, was decidedly upbeat, a true celebration of Meleia’s life.
But, I have to pause. Perhaps I am not as evolved as those who are now focused solely on healing the community because underneath all of the sorrow, I am angry.
Meleia was shot and killed whi le she was taking the time to try to explain to a group of young men—some of whom were reported to be Cal football players—why it was inappropriate and disrespectful to call her and her friends “bitches” for having refused their advances. Not one of the supposed UC Berkeley students has come forward to acknowledge his role in this tragedy or to express any regret for the verbal abuse that preceded the shooting. If in fact these were Cal students, perhaps UC’s Athletic Department can pay tribute to Meleia’s memory by sponsoring a seminar on gender issues which would include discussion on the notion of entitlement.
I have always disliked the word “bitch” and have likened it to a racist’s use of the word “nigger.” I find it demeaning and crude. I’ve been told by some young people, my own daughter included, that these words do not carry the same weight they used to and that they have the power to redefine these words, to free them from negativity. That may be so, but I still cringe at the current casualness of their use, whether in music videos, among friends or enemies. Apparently, Meleia and her friends cringed, too.
The behavior demonstrated by the young men who were simply looking for some females to party with is nothing new. When I was their age, thir ty years ago, my friends and I were also called bitches or at minimum labeled “stuck-up” if we failed to deliver the demanded digits, names, addresses or company. A simple “no, thank you” or “not interested” was rarely sufficient.
It’s not news that ther e are cultures all across the globe in which men believe that they are entitled to whatever they want to take from women and that they are justified in denying women equal rights. During the few minutes it takes to read this column, thousands of women all over the world are being assaulted, raped and murdered for refusing to say yes, for trying to say no or simply for being born female and physically weaker than their attackers. At the risk of being termed a “male-basher” I must say that the numbers don’t lie—even the statistics supplied by the U.S. Department of Justice are horrifying. And far from bashing males, I am trying my best to raise a healthy one. My son is kind, courteous, empathetic and fair-minded and I hope he stays that way.
Perhaps as a p arent who has lost a child I have yet to overcome my need to find someone, something to blame. Parents like me often ask; “What could I have done differently? If only I hadn’t let her go to that party, or that school, or get in that car. If only I had pic ked her up when she cried.” We start with ourselves, then move on.
Doctors, hospitals, society, culture, racism, ignorance, guns, God or the perceived lack of one—the list goes on. Finally, we realize that there are some questions that have no answers a nd there are many occurrences in life we have no control over.
Although it seems that Meleia would be the last person who would choose to resolve a conflict with violence, it tragically appears that she was killed by a close friend who mistakenly thought he was coming to her rescue, gun in hand. Nonetheless, I believe that Meleia would forgive her shooter. And her family has requested that we focus not on blame but on healing.
Meleia Willis-Starbuck was not a color or a race, a political label or a “bit ch.” Meleia was a warm-hearted, courageous, intelligent, beautiful young woman who had touched many lives and was dedicated to improving the lives of many more. Perhaps if I can try harder to let go of my anger and my need to place blame, you can try to d o the same. For Meleia.