An Angel on Your Side

When Melinda (left) sent this photo to Marsha (right) in a frame, she wrote a quote from Aristotle below it: “What is a friend? A single soul living in two bodies.”

Marsha Mercant: actor/singer and now writer

Best friend of 50 years: Melinda Moreno Miller, married, dancer/singer/choreographer and later massage therapist/healer, died ... lymphoma in 2011

“I’m very blessed that I have some wonderful, wonderful friends in my life, but my relationship with Melinda; I don’t think that will ever be touched.”

How did you meet?

We met doing a summer show at the San Jose Civic Light Opera when she was 14 and I was 12. She was a beautiful dancer and singer; I was in awe of her. The troop we were in traveled around the San Francisco Bay Area on weekends doing shows at luncheons and dinners so we spent a lot of time together. In our late teens, we got closer. When I went to college, we rented a little one-bedroom cottage together, but then she got a job in Las Vegas dancing. It was a big heartbreak for me when she left.

One of the best experiences we ever had together was being in a production of West Side Story. She was Anita and I was Maria. There is a two-song duet in the show: “I Have a Love” and “A Boy Like That.” Maria is telling Anita of her profound love for Tony and Anita is trying to convince her he is no good. I was going through the beginning of the end of my first marriage during this time. To look into Melinda’s eyes and sing that song with her was just an extraordinary gift.

What was the friendship like?

Melinda was kind and very heart-centered. She was fun and fun-loving. One of the things I miss the most is how much we laughed together. We understood each other’s sense of humor. I always knew I could go to her and be loved and lifted up. She would listen and support me and let me discover on my own. I miss that the most: having that person who I just knew would listen.

We could spend hours and hours and hours just talking. We would lie on the bed and talk, and lie on the couch and talk, and go get something to eat and talk. It didn’t matter where we were. Later, we took vacations with our husbands, who were also great friends. The four of us were our own special little family. When Michael came into Melinda’s life, she brought him to me for clearance and I instantly fell in love with him. Then, not too long after she met Michael, I met my husband John in an acting class in Los Angeles. Having been married to an actor who was sort of the poster child for why you don’t want to marry an actor, I was really not interested in dating him. But he pursued me. And he was, and is, a wonderful person. As Melinda said, “You know, you are an actor too, so you can’t just totally dismiss it out of hand. There are some that are okay.”

(from left to right) Michael, Melinda, Marsha, John
(from left to right) Michael, Melinda, Marsha, John

When she got ill, we really thought she’d beat it. It was one of those cancers that people beat. At one point her husband had to go out of town and so I took a week off and stayed with her. I am so glad I did, because it was a really precious week. One day we watched like five or six romantic comedies. We just sat in front of the TV set and it was like, “Want to watch other one?” “Yeah.”

Describe how the friendship ended.

She was diagnosed Thanksgiving of 2009 with lymphoma. She lived for about 15 months. We spent a lot of time on the phone. You don’t really want to talk about the “what ifs,” so we tried to stay in the present.

I would say to her, “What’s happening with your spirit right now?” She was a healer and in the years before she died she studied shamanism. When we were living in LA in our late 20s and early 30s, she introduced me to science of mind, religious science, which should not be confused with Scientology. She would share books with me and we’d go to meetings. My spirituality is really the thing that saw me through her loss. And, at the risk of sounding like a total maniac, we talk often. We’ve had some amazing conversations that have really helped me. I know she is around me all the time.

We knew she just had a little more time to live, and we had plans to fly to visit her the next day. I was in a subway station in New York and heard Mariachis. Melinda was Mexican and at her wedding reception she had a Mariachi band. I knew that she could be taking her last breath at any minute. I got onto a subway car and the Mariachis got on the same car and started playing. I was laughing and crying all at the same time, trying to hold it together, knowing I had to go to work.

Later, when I came up from the subway, I saw that her husband had called. I checked the message and heard him say, “We have another angel.” I was on my way to the Unity Church office, so I went to the office and one of my dear friends and prayer partners was there. I walked into his office and said, “She’s gone.” We went into the prayer room and Melinda came to me then really clearly. She was so beautiful and full of life. I was crying and she came behind me and wrapped her arms around me and rocked me. I told her about the Mariachis getting on the subway car with me and she looked at me with a mischievous grin on her face and said, “I know, I sent them.”

I continue to feel Melinda’s presence. I feel an energy always off to my right side. I don’t see her as much as I did at first; it’s usually in my morning meditations. I don’t talk to her every morning, but if there is something really difficult that I am dealing with I’ll just say, “Melinda are you there?” And then I’ll just wait. I do hear her, not literally her voice, but I hear her attitude, her particular way of speaking, which was not like mine, and that’s how I can tell it’s her.

In one of our last conversations, I said to her, “I just don’t know how to say goodbye to you,” and she said, “I will be there any time you want to talk. I am always going to be there.” And she is. In one of our conversations after she passed, I said to her, “When you left there was a piece of me that died.” And she said, “No, I am the piece that came to life.” And I do feel a certain sort of infusion of her spirit, it’s a difficult thing to explain, but it is like there is a piece of her that’s in me now.

How did you cope with her loss?

When she died, I couldn’t do my work. Acting demands that you be present in a way that really calls on your heart and soul. So to be acting and singing, which is so much a part of my being, I couldn’t do it. Then I went through a period where I decided I was going to use her death to be better and stronger and more connected with my work. I was going to auditions and really feeling good about what I was leaving in the room. For a while, that worked. And then, about six months after she passed, my husband and I were in a pretty dramatic car accident. A woman hit us broadside and rolled our car completely over. We luckily walked away with minimal physical injury, but it sent me back into that black hole again. I couldn’t be around people or do my work. I started writing, just to get the feelings out of me to try and reconnect with myself.

Right before the accident, I got a call from a friend of mine who is a photographer in Los Angeles. She has a series of pictorial books on Fearless Women and she was working on this new book called Fearless Women, Visions of a New World. One of her editors was giving her trouble. So she called me for support, to kind of talk her off the ledge. About an hour into the conversation, I heard this little voice inside me say, “Tell her you can edit it.” And then this other little voice said, “You don’t know how to edit, what are you talking about, what makes you think you can edit a book.” Finally, I heard myself say, “You know, Mary Ann, I can edit it for you.” And she said, “Oh! My God! That would be so great.” It turned out to be a life-changing experience. I wanted to help these women tell their stories because I felt like Melinda never knew how important she was and she didn’t feel like her story was significant. I want women to know that their stories matter.

The following May, when the book was launched, there was a four-day event in Los Angeles. On the very last day, I met a woman from Seattle and she said to me, “I have a manuscript about being a three-time cancer survivor and healing myself through alternative means. I’ve had it for years and haven’t been able to get anybody interested.” And I said, “Well, send it to me, I will look at it.” And I’m thinking to myself, yeah, because now I’m a big old editor, you know. She sent me the book and I looked at it and knew immediately what needed to be done. I rewrote the first six pages and sent them to her with an explanation of what I would do with the manuscript and why. She called me in tears and said, “Oh my God! I have been waiting for you for 20 years.” We got an agent and got it published (The Gift of Cancer: A Miraculous Journey to Healing, Skyhorse Publishing, 2014).

Melinda moved through life with grace. The courage with which she passed was inspiring. In observing her death, she taught me how to live. It’s made me more tolerant, less judgmental. We spend so much time being afraid of our vulnerability, but the fact of the matter is, when we share our vulnerability with each other, we connect authentically. And when we connect authentically, we can begin to live in harmony.

I’m very blessed that I have some wonderful, wonderful friends in my life, but my relationship with Melinda I don’t think that will ever be touched. There was a beautiful magnet that she sent to me when she was living in New Jersey and I was in California. I have it here on my desk, and it says, “Distance cannot matter between us. Ours is a friendship of the heart.” And I look at that sometimes and think about the distance that’s between us now, but I know that she is here, maybe not in the way I would choose, but she is always here.

Before Friendship Dialogues was a gleam in founder Ellen Pearlman’s eyes, a group of over two dozen women answered her online plea for women who had lost a female best friend. Ellen is eternally grateful to all the women, including Marsha, for opening their hearts to her and sharing their personal stories of love and loss. It was through this process that the seeds for Friendship Dialogues were planted. Thank you!