I knew Melissa for twenty-five years, from the beginning of my professional career. Melissa was a brilliant and influential scholar in language acquisition, whose intellectual legacy will continue long into the future. Of course I deeply admired and respected Melissa for that; but she also became a close and dear friend from when I first met her. She was something like an older sister to me. She watched me grow up professionally (and teased me as I grew old). At a critical point in my career when I had no place to go, she invited me to the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen where she worked; I will always be grateful to her for that act.
Melissa was a mentor and confidante to me. She was unafraid to ask the most penetrating and challenging questions, in our conversations about our lives as well as in intellectual debate on the nature of language and meaning. Those questions were always delivered in the friendliest and most unassuming way. Melissa had an infinite curiosity about everything, that extended well beyond the nature of language and meaning, our professional loves. Our friendship and her curiosity led us on a number of adventures only distantly connected to our linguistic collaborations.
Melissa and I both have roots in the Bay Area and northern California, and a love of the natural beauty of that state. One year I was able to share with her my own favorite places, when we drove together from the Bay Area up to a linguistics conference in Oregon. We drove up the highway to the redwood country where I had spent several summers, in the old and not terribly comfortable pickup truck I used at the time. I showed Melissa some of my favorite redwood groves, and stopped in my favorite microbrewery in Hopland. In the evening we sat out in a windy meadow above Big Lagoon, drinking a seasonal brew and looking through the trees to the ocean, and talking about everything we had seen and many things we wondered about.
I was living in Manchester, England at the time. Melissa, knowing my love of nature and my unhappiness being so far from home, suggested that I get into birding, something she had long been into. We did get a chance to explore for birds together, when we were invited to a conference in Taiwan. We contemplated renting a car, until we heard about how dangerous the roads and the drivers were - we told each other that each of us would insist on driving ourselves in order to feel the most safe; so that wouldn't have worked. Instead, we remained in Taipei and went by public transportation, one day to a wetland beyond an outlying suburb of highrise apartments and the occasional temple, and another day to a national park in the mountains. Getting there by public transport was an adventure in itself. Melissa's best memory was of the lunch we had at a roadside stand somewhere in the mountains, where they simply chopped up a whole boiled chicken, and in trying to communicate the bill, used the Chinese hand gestures for numbers that neither of us had seen before. A couple years later, Melissa and I were invited to give lectures in Beijing. The only escape from the vast city was an excursion to the Great Wall, which was amazing; and we glimpsed a few Chinese birds in the cold winter sun.
The greatest love outside language that Melissa and I shared was music, especially early music. Melissa played the flute, and particularly loved the Baroque era. I never played with her, but I have collected early music CDs for many years, since I used to do an early music radio show. I would give Melissa the current version of my list of CDs, with ratings of which CDs I thought were the best. When her birthday and/or Christmas came around, Melissa would give the list to Wijbrandt for gift ideas. Melissa also gave me some CDs over the years - lute music, Baroque sacred music - and she would tell me about particularly outstanding concerts she heard or pieces of music she found to play.
Melissa asked for there to be lots of music at the memorial services for her, music that she loved. There will be certain pieces of music that I will always associate with Melissa and her friendship, and that help me come to terms with her sudden, tragic death. I think of Melissa when listening to Montserrat Figueras, one of the greatest early music singers, who was born a month before Melissa and died a month after her, also of cancer. When I learned of Melissa's death, only a day after I learned of her illness, in my grief I turned to Franz Schubert's Fantasy in F minor for piano four hands [D. 940], perhaps his finest keyboard work. It was on the list; it qualifies as "early music" since the performance uses an 1830 fortepiano, which gives Schubert's unforgettable melodies a bell-like clarity. As the last impassioned, anguished chords rang out and faded away, I wept: Farewell, Melissa! I was so lucky to have known you for so long.
Postscript: Melissa's husband, Wijbrandt van Schuur, was a political scientist at Groningen University. He was as welcoming as Melissa to me in their home. A few years ago, I started working on a multidimensional scaling technique for analyzing crosslinguistic variation, using an algorithm devised by Keith Poole, a political scientist who I met while on sabbatical at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. I ended up analyzing crosslinguistic data elicited with the Bowerman-Pederson spatial picture set. In one of those coincidences, it turned out that Wijbrandt worked on similar techniques, and they knew each other's work and had even met. I hoped that Melissa, Wijbrandt, Keith and I would get together to talk about our shared interests. After Melissa's death, Eric, Wijbrandt, Keith and I planned to meet to talk about using Keith's and Wijbrandt's techniques on Melissa's and Eric's crosslinguistic data.
Tragically, it was not to be. Wijbrandt died in an auto accident in California on July 25, 2012, less than a year after Melissa's death. He was returning from scattering Melissa's ashes. Wijbrandt, I miss you too; I can't believe you are both gone. Farewell.