Even Without Words We Understand Each Other

Melissa is Shelli’s younger sister. After being so moved by Shelli’s excitement to create an ILYB image and her expression of unconditional love for her boyfriend, Melissa wrote me saying that she wanted to do one for Shelli. But she also had some bad news. Shelli’s health had taken a sudden turn for the worse. The cancer had spread quickly and was not responding to chemotherapy. Her vision, speech and balance were affected.

Melissa wanted to create an image with Shelli in it so I re-visited Shelli’s apartment, the place where I had created her ILYB about three months previously.  It was hard seeing Shelli in the state she was in. She had lost a lot of weight, had very little energy, and was very hard to understand.

Melissa told me that all of her life she and Shelli finished each others’ sentences. She explained that as a child she was a late bloomer and didn’t start talking until she was three. It was Shelli, her older sister, who would tell people what Melissa was trying to communicate. During the past year and a half-long journey, Melissa has served as Shelli’s advocate and cheerleader and their roles have reversed. As the cancer has affected Shelli’s ability to speak clearly, it is Melissa who speaks for her. Indeed, as I was there in the room, there would be times Shelli would say something and I was surprised that Melissa was able to pick up the meaning of what Shelli was trying to say. It is their deep relationship and sisterly bond that goes beyond words that allows them to understand one another with a simple glance. Melissa emphasized that no matter what, she and Shelli can always rely on one another for understanding each other’s perspectives, even when no one else “gets it.”  She often finds herself thinking, “Well, Shelli will know what I mean.”

Occasionally, Shelli uses a pad and paper to communicate with those around her. In college Shelli took courses in Sign Language and Melissa always wondered how she would use the information she learned. Recently, Shelli has taught Melissa and those around her the alphabet and various signs to aid in communicating. In the photo, Shelli and Melissa are creating the “I Love You” sign with their hands. Also, in the picture the dolls, squeezing one another tightly, on the top of the pad symbolize Shelli and Melissa (they’ve always been best friends). The dolls on the bottom are little samurai girls which Shelli has drawn upon for strength as she battles the cancer. One  represents Shelli as a warrior in her battle against cancer and the other represents Melissa as support.

After the shoot, I gently hugged Shelli good-bye. Melissa walked me out and showed me the project she’s been working on for Shelli. She has asked all of Shelli’s friends and relatives to send her their own I Love You Because reasons for Shelli. Some people have even created photos in the same vein as those on this site for her. Melissa has collected more than eighty of these gifts for Shelli. She will present them to her to let her know how much she is loved. At this point, perhaps appropriately, words kind of fail me. Shelli is very sick and one way that her family is expressing their love for her is through the framework I created. Nothing more can be said except that I am deeply honored.

On January 26th, 2009, Shelli passed away. In her final hours she was read the “I Love You Because” phrases her family and friends had created for her.

Click here to see a portrait of Melissa.