Posted on July 20, 2014


Due to a paperwork snafu, the start of my chemo/radiation pre-treatments got pushed back a week. Deflated at the prospects of delaying this fight, I had no idea of the depths of emptiness I was about to feel.

I checked my email Thursday morning. There was an email from my mom. Looming in the subject line, was only the name of a good friend of mine, “Melissa Protz.” These kind of subject lines could only mean one of two things, very good news or very bad. The damn message couldn’t open fast enough…

Hate to tell you this bad news, but Melissa Protz was killed in a boating accident on Lake Washington in Seattle last night. we’ve all had enough bad news lately. But I know you knew Mel real well and would want to know.

I read it again. Her name. Accident. Killed. My stomach dropping, I felt nauseous. I couldn’t stop looking at the words…

My perception of time failed, so I could have sat there for ten minutes fixed on her name glowing from my monitor. I remember only thinking, no, this has to be a mistake. Small town gossip that got away. Mel’s fine.

I immediatley went to Google. My hands were shaking.



Melissa ProtzHer face exploded onto my screen.

And a tide of Melissa washed over me. The hours of hanging out and ping pong in her basement throughout high school, cheering her on at her tennis matches, throwing rocks at her bedroom window when my friends and I were looking for something to do, trips to my family’s cottage at Kelly Lake, and our handful of impromptu weekends in the past few years. It couldn’t be that Mel, my Mel. I furiously clicked each link, read all I could, praying the reports were wrong.

The world stopped, my room went dark. My cancer. The chemo. The radiation. Everything. None of it mattered. The pit in my stomach rose and tears burst, falling onto my keyboard. It couldn’t be… it just couldn’t be.


But it was.

And when that realization hit, I felt a depth of emptiness unlike anything I’ve ever.


Melissa Protz and I at Big SkyMelissa has always had a special place in my heart. I think that is because we were cut from a similar cloth. I always saw her as a counterpart in wanderlust. We had both chosen unique paths, different from many of those we had spent our high school years with. Paths that took us to different ends of the earth, to seeking new and enriching experiences, to teaching,  and to a passion for the outdoors. Yet, those different paths kept serendipitously crossing, beautifully reconnecting us. The only explanation of these rendezvous: angels.

For example, I was in Manitowoc guiding adventure trips one summer, it must have been 2006 or 7-ish. My sweet dog, Denali, had a fondness for exploration. In between one of our trips, she got out of my mom’s backyard. A search party ensued, coming up empty handed, and late that night we retired in hopes that Nali would find her way back, satisfied, as she had numerous times before. In the morning, while I went out on another neighborhood search, Melissa’s mom, Joyce, called. She and Mel were on their way home when they saw Nali cross Waldo Blvd. Mel couldn’t help her empathy for pets and insisted they pick her up and return the dog to their owner. I returned, called Joyce, and after we spent some time catching up I talked to Mel. Ten minutes later, I was at their house, getting Nali… and hugging both Joyce and Mel. Later that summer we met up in Door County for dinner and drinks. Just cuz.

Angels. There is no other explanation.

Most recently, she came to Montana to ski at Big Sky (I wrote a little about it here). Friends in Seattle grew up here, and other friends had a place at the ski hill, or friends of friends of friends… something to that extent. In typical, Mel fashion, she texted me something like… “You need to come ski with me at Big Sky this weekend.” Big Sky happens to be a mountain I ski often… of course I went-there wasn’t really an option. I met several of her Seattle friends that weekend. We did the typical 5 minutes of catch-up and then fell back into the comfort of friendship. A great trip, making great memories, with great people.

Mel simply had this intangible kind of gravity. People were drawn. For starters, she was beautiful, but even more attractive was her zeal for life. She allowed her life passion to guide her toward great experiences far and wide-in mountains and on water, to share her light and love with those she was with, and to exude a sense of genuine realness and spirit of adventure that this world needs more of.

In the time between our emails and communication, I’ve thought about her often. She’s someone I always just knew would be just fine, and that we’d meet again on the side of a mountain or in some body of water. We’d hug, share, laugh, play, and smile. And we’d add to the bank of memories we have of each other, until we met up again.

In fact, I believe Mel was my “40” girl. We all have them-when you’re young and talking about the uncertainty of the future, and you tell each other, “If I’m not married by the time I’m 40, then I’m gonna marry you.” Remembering that makes me chuckle. We were never closer than good friends, we shared more of a genuine care for each other, but that conversation between two naive kids is telling. It wasn’t meant as a ‘settling’ for the other, it was an understanding that we needed to go climb the mountains, we needed to sail the seas, we needed those things to be who we are so that someday we can share in the joy of our mutual adventures. And to be a more complete, stronger, fulfilled, and authentic person.

There are many, like me, whose heart is scattered in a million pieces. The depth of emptiness seems merciless. For Mel’s family, relatives, and friends. Melissa was so vibrant, so full of smiles and life, and so full of fun. Words, at times like this, seem inadequate. But given my impending treatment program, and the possibility that I’ll be unable to attend any remembrances or memorials, my heartache deepens. Words, from the island I find myself on, is one thing I have.

This hurt will never go away, but Mel lived in a way that I look up to. Her inspiration, whether she knew it or not, will live on in so many others. So as long as I’m in this life, her beautiful and adventurous spirit will be close in my thoughts and heart. Maybe someday, the memories of our times together will help this hurt lessen just a little.

I just hope she knew how much I loved her, and I hope she knew how much she was loved by so many in her life. I pray for your peace, Mel. And your family’s peace, everyday.

Don’t be stranger around here, either, Mel. Let me know you’re around.

Because, well, I just miss you.


Melissa Protz and I at Big Sky

Posted in: Think