I woke to the news that Melissa Mathison died yesterday, in Los Angeles, of neuroendocrine cancer. Most people will know her as an astonishingly gifted screenwriter, the woman who gave us all the cultural touchstone that is E.T. the Extraterrestrial, along with screenplays for other notable films: Kundun, The Black Stallion. She was also, as she wryly put it, a Famous Ex-Wife. Much will be written today about her contributions, and her trials. This is as it should be; public memories, and memorials, are important. But they never tell the whole story: and there is a resonance, an echo, a terribly sad symmetry for me in the news of Melissa’s death.
I met Melissa almost exactly ten years ago, shortly after my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. They’d become close friends over several years, and my mum had often told me about her; but as they mostly met up on Melissa’s visits to Jamaica, whereas I lived in the US and then the UK, our paths never happened to cross. And then my mother became ill, and by the time we finally got an accurate diagnosis the disease was advanced and the prognosis was dire. My family was stunned, horrified, overwhelmed by the calamity that is a terminal illness. Mum headed for a clinic in the States, in the hope that they would be able to provide us with more information, more options, some kind of hope. I headed for Heathrow, got on a plane and met her there.
Over the next year, as my mother went through brutal bouts of chemo- and radiotherapy, I would make that crossing several times. And I would finally meet her best mate Melissa, whose practical and emotional support became the rock that we clung to. There was nothing, it seemed, that she was not prepared to help us do in our efforts to find some kind of reprieve. She activated her network, enabling us to access doctors and clinics and people who had been through this particular hell before, and knew the things we needed to know. We stayed at her house. I drove my mum back and forth from chemo sessions in her car. She was there, in person, on the phone, endlessly gentle and resilient and generous. Her first and most basic question was always: “What do you need?”
What we needed then was the same thing she needed now: a cure. Neither of us got it.
This is one of those moments that make me wish I believed in an afterlife: I’d so like to think that Mum and Melissa are hanging out somewhere, catching up, comparing notes, trading stories about their kids. Cursing cancer.
I truly don’t think my mum would have been able to fight as hard or last as long as she did without Melissa’s help. She gave us a very great gift: not of life in the end, but of time. I am so grateful for those extra months she helped us to win back. And I am so heartbroken at the thought of her own children, whose time with their mom has run out. I remember how shattered I was, when it happened to me. I remember how incomprehensible the world suddenly seemed.
Malcolm and Georgia, I send you all my love. I send you my memories, too few and too brief, of your brilliant, funny, stalwart, immensely kind and endlessly generous mother. And I send you a truth that I could barely believe in when I was where you are now: it will get better.