Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

From a horror flick to a love poem

Location: New York City

Mileage: 4,338 (yes, I am still in Manhattan….)

Meal: Vegetable Omelet

Music: “All You Need is Love” by the Beatles

When Melissa first called me telling me that she would love to participate in my project, her voice radiated such a genuine enthusiasm and hospitality that I couldn’t believe that I was still in the overcommitted city of Manhattan.

I met Melissa uptown for a healthy brunch where we talked about her career as a news reporter as well as her recent endeavor, PURE, women’s networking conferences across the globe. While I am trying to unify women by story telling, Melissa has created an interactive forum for them to connect their ideas, share their wisdom, and inspire each other for a better future.

I asked Melissa why she was motivated to take on such a momentous project.  I found scheduling a two-hour interview with one woman challenging, I couldn’t imagine scheduling 300 women for a full weekend retreat, especially while managing a day job.

“How much do you know of my past?” Melissa asked me.

“Nothing,” I replied.  Like going to see a critically acclaimed film, I never wanted to be prejudiced by own expectations.

“Then we need to start at the beginning.” Like most people doing great things in life, Melissa’s motivation was highly personal with a story that kept me on the edge of my chair more than any movie had done.

Melissa was adopted in Dallas, Texas as a baby, for reasons highly unclear except for that her birth mother ‘couldn’t take care of her.’ Luckily for Melissa, she only had a short stint in foster care before being adopted into a nurturing family that was ready to share their love.“  In 1974 everyone wanted blond haired blue-eyed babies.  I was darker skinned with an ambiguous background.  When my parents said they would take anyone, they went to the top of the list as my adoptive parents.”  The origins of Melissa’s DNA may have been ambiguous, but her role as her mother’s daughter was not.  “She was such a great mom, a wonderful cook, and she was so involved in the community.” Melissa’s mother led bible study and reached out to women in need to help empower them, setting a beautiful example for Melissa early in life.

When Melissa was three years old she had a terrible accident that led to third degree burns, disfiguring both of her legs.  She was scheduled for an amputation but Melissa told me that her parents prayed all night that her legs would be saved.  Prayer shaped the miracle that occurred during the pre-op: the nurses canceled the amputation and saved Melissa’s legs with skin grafting.  Her mother, concerned for her daughter’s future with scarred legs, asked the doctor for advice on raising her. “If you are okay with it, she’ll be okay with it,” the doctor said. “Don’t have her cover up, don’t spoil, her, just love her as usual.”  And Melissa’s mother did.   She called the anniversary of Melissa’s adoption “Gotcha Day” and gave her a brown paper bag with presents and chocolate chip cookies every year in celebration.

With her warm heart, culinary skills, and dedication to family life, Melissa’s mother was her champion role model. Her father was also a loving supporter of Melissa and cheered her on throughout life. However, he had his own challenges to overcome, dealing with a family history of alcoholism and terrible ghosts from his time serving time Vietnam.  The family went on as best they could and adopted a younger brother for Melissa in 1982, Maxwell.  Max was eight years younger and an athletic popular boy in school.  Due to his outgoing nature, he was able to blend in with various crowds and backgrounds.  Though never a true ‘trouble maker’, Max was often been described as a ‘chameleon’ and gradually showed signs of being more of a follower than a leader.  His mother told Melissa that she worried Max may get in trouble one day for following someone else into a bad situation.

Melissa went off to Baylor University to pursue a career in journalism.  “I loved the idea of finding people’s stories and telling them,” she said. She was particularly drawn to broadcasting where television served as the medium for visual stories.  “I loved the sounds and pictures of television—I loved watching people’s faces.” Melissa said. As an aspiring journalist she moved around from town to larger town, the size of the audience an indicator of her broadcast success.

At the age of 24, while living in Jackson, MS, Melissa found out that, after 28-years of marriage, her parents were going to divorce.  Though she knew her parents had marital trouble, Melissa was shocked to learn the news. “I never thought divorce was an option…and I was worried about what would happen to my dad.” Within a year after the divorce, Melissa’s mother began dating someone new and was engaged.  Though it was difficult for Melissa to get used to the idea that her family would never be the same again, she had never seen her mother so radiant and full of life.

Melissa, confident in her mother’s rebirth, was deeply traumatized to wake up one night sweating in bed crying. “I had a dream that my mother died—that she committed suicide.  But it didn’t make sense.  My mother was the strongest person I knew!”

Melissa prayed to God that night to watch over her mother and called her the next day to check in.  There hadn’t been a suicide but her mother had been struggling to manage Max, now a rebellious teenager,  “She told me that he would often disappear for a few days and she currently had no idea where he was.” Melissa was dumbfounded. “If I was late for my curfew by even one minute I was severely grounded!!” Worried, Melissa decided to go home, put her investigate journalism skills to use, and find her brother. “I was used to finding people that didn’t want to be found.”

Resolved to ease her mother’s burden, she invited Max to live with her in her new locale, Birmingham, AL, for the summer. “He was a popular 17 year old.  He blended it very well!  But that was Max.  He was a chameleon. He could easily blend in with the good crowd and the bad crowd.”

When Max returned home to Dallas, Melissa received a $2,000 phone bill for 1-900 sex lines. “I couldn’t believe that he did this and didn’t care,” said Melissa.   “I couldn’t pay them—I was only 25 making $30,000 a year!”  So Melissa’s phone was turned off while her brother got off scott-free, her mother too scared to confront him and break the peace. Melissa was concerned about her family dynamic and Max’s disconnection but didn’t have any solution but to go on with her life the best she could, disconnected phone and all.

A couple of weeks later, Melissa’s pager went off while she was hosting a dinner party with her roommate.  It told her to call the station immediately.  “This was typical for a television news reporter,” she said. “These late night pages were the stories that reporters would fight over.  Everyone wanted the ‘big story’ so that they could improve their resume reel and quickly move to the next biggest market.”   Although Melissa didn’t want to be distracted from the guests in her home, the multiple pages convinced her to call the station.  Her assignment editor at the station told her that a man in Grand Prairie, Texas, was trying to get a hold of her and that she should call him back immediately.  It sounded urgent.

“Are you alone?” the official sounding man on the other end asked. “I think it is better if I talk to someone else first.” Melissa’s stomach started churning.  She went though the terrible possibilities in her mind.  “My dad got in a car accident.  Max is in serious trouble with the law.  My mother…..well, my mother must be okay.”

Melissa didn’t want her news through a filter, “No you have to speak with me,” she asserted.

The man calmly stated, “Your mother has been murdered.  You have to find your brother and father immediately.”

As a reporter, Melissa knew the typical reactions people had when given such news. “They scream, they faint, they urinate themselves….I was not going to do this. I needed to stay sane.” Melissa asked about weapons and sightings. “I do not want to be left out of this investigation,” she told him.

The murder was what the police called “overkill.”  ‘Overkill’ is gruesome crime committed out of passion, typically by someone the victim knew.  Melissa’s mom had been stabbed over 50 times, including in the face.

“It was if the sky was purple and dogs were flying,” Melissa said.  Nothing made sense….life would never be the same.”

Through investigation it was revealed that Max had been socializing with a group of lost, dark souls.  They got high on amphetamines and other drugs and then were forced to steal money to pay for their habits.  Although Max had mainly kept his crime at stealing, his friend Chris, a crazed youth, had previously been accomplice to drowning a woman in a bathtub.

When Max and Chris were told to secure $300 or their lives would be at risk, Max offered to steal his mother’s ATM card. “I know the code,” he offered.  Chris told him to sneak in the back to get into his mother’s pure while he distracted her by ringing the doorbell.  While Max was in the back of the house, Chris stabbed Melissa’s mom in the back with a pocket knife and then ran to the kitchen to get butcher knives to finish his gruesome act.  Regardless of what Max personally did or didn’t do, he was 17 years old and present at the crime.  In Texas that is enough to be convicted of murder.  Melissa told me,  “I had to know if I needed to get Max the best attorney possible or let him hang. I needed to know if he got the money from my mother’s ATM card.”  And via a private detective Melissa secured the ATM video.   Her stomach sank as she watched the tape of her brother’s face withdrawing 20s from the machine, a mere 45 minutes after his mother had died.

The initial weeks after the incident were horrific.  Melissa remembers thinking, “This cannot be my life.  I didn’t want to be the daughter of a murdered woman or the sister of a murderer!”  Melissa was angry. One morning when she woke up and began to get dressed for a morning Bible study, Melissa stopped and began to question everything she once believed in. “I cursed at God like never before. Where was he that night?!  I had prayed to him to protect my mother and he didn’t!”  In that moment, Melissa shook her hand at heaven and firmly told God, “I am done worshipping You!  If I want success or happiness I obviously have to create it myself.”

And true to her words, Melissa became hyper-focused on work, climbing the career ladder as quickly as the next rung would present itself to her.  She became an anchor and reporter for the ABC news affiliate in Dallas, Texas – a top-ten television market.  However, Melissa felt haunted by her past there. “I wanted to get out.  Plus I had this bucket list of things I wanted to do with my life.  I would come home at night after anchoring a show or reporting on a big story – and I would daydream about living in New York.  I knew I would regret it if I didn’t live here one day.”  Melissa moved to New York to take a book writing class at Columbia University and also work with NBC.  “I didn’t realize my true purpose for coming to New York at the time – I was simply checking more ‘to do’ items off of my list of goals.  But I later realized the move to New York was pivotal for me.  I needed a new beginning apart from the pain of my past.  I needed to redefine myself.”

However work and studies weren’t enough to fulfill Melissa.  She longed for community connection and the support of other women.  She partnered with another woman to lead weekly social breakfasts for a group of professional Christian women in the city.  Her friend led a Bible tudy during the morning, which Melissa didn’t lead since she felt somewhat estranged from God and her spiritual upbringing.  However, she did offer the hospitality skills her mother taught her and cooked a fantastic feast for them each week.

“People were so amazed because in New York, no one cooks!”  Over fresh eggs and pastries, the women talked about various topics that ranged from health to careers, often seeking guidance from the Bible.   The walls didn’t fully come down, however, until they broached the topic of forgiveness.  One member told the story of her abortion.  Melissa told me that the woman wanted to be free to come clean with her past and not be judged by her Christian friends.  She begged the group to be open and honest with one another. “This really set the tone for the rest of our sessions,” said Melissa.  “The women all felt these weekly breakfasts were the only place in the city where they could take off their masks and be themselves.”  Through sharing with other women, Melissa found herself start to transform.  “I felt God was speaking to me through them,” she said.  Although Melissa’s return to God was not complete until she had a sign from her mother.

When Melissa was in-between apartments and needed a place to live for a few weeks, a generous couple gave her a bedroom in their house.  When Melissa entered her room there was a brown paper bag with her name on it filled with chocolate chip cookies.  It was “gotcha day” all over again. In the bag as also a note, “Please make yourself at home.”

Melissa explained to me that this was a pivotal moment in her spirituality. “Only God could have known how to recreate what my mother could do.  He told me to stop running and that asked me to let him love me.”

With her spirituality renewed, Melissa had increased inspiration to take her women’s groups to the next level and started planning retreats that “got people out of the city.”  Melissa took the women to a cabin in the woods in upstate New York and was amazed at the transformation the women could make in their life by simply stepping out of it for a few days.

And then on a cross-country flight it hit her.  If her friends gained so much from these open supportive sessions, then why wouldn’t other women?  Why couldn’t this be done on a grander scale that united women across the world to support each other on their careers, marriages, health and faith?  Inspired Melissa grabbed the nearest paper, a barf bag, and wrote down her dream.

When she got back home she asked for advice from her friends.  They sent out her topics they were interested in and all mandated that they didn’t want “anything light and fluffy” but rather something “raw and relevant.”

Melissa sent out an email for her first retreat in 2008.  “The email was hokey,” she admits.  “I didn’t know how I would get people to come.  In New York people cannot even commit to a cup of coffee.” Even the hotel was skeptical to block out rooms for an event and company that Melissa didn’t even have a name for yet.  The hotel management and Melissa were astounded with results.  Her first event sold out bringing in women from 28 states and three countries.  Not bad for a barf bag dream.   Melissa decided to call the events PURE, hoping to inspire women to break free from weakness and pollution that threaten to thwart the beautiful creatures God has designed them to be.  Since her first retreat, Melissa has done many more sessions, and now aims for at least four a year.  She has received a lot of positive feedback and heartfelt thanks, but her biggest compliment came from someonethat knew her mother. “Oh this is SOOO her.”

Melissa could have let her tragedy defeat her, but she chose instead to march on and live. “My mother’s death led to my journey but her life is what carries it through,” she said.

Melissa is currently working on a book on grief hoping to inspire others with her tale. “Even with a strong faith, you still have to do your part. You still have to get out of bed!  It is one thing to just survive and another thing to power though.”  Melissa still has sad times, but also comments that she has also laughed harder than ever before.  Her mother would have wanted nothing else.

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