Recently I was pondering the triviality of our actions and how sometimes when we are engaged in the most mundane aspects of our day, somewhere else, something life-changing is also happening. The day that my brother died of an accidental overdose, I had left him sleeping in the spare room of my current home while I traversed the city to take a mid-term at Tulane University. When the coroner’s office estimated his time of death, I knew that it matched the same time that I would have been reaching the Claiborne Avenue Bridge. I would have been singing along to the radio and probably surveying the traffic in front of me. I did not have a pang of heartache, or hear an odd song, or have anything memorable happen. I didn’t know that my brother was taking his last breath. I took my mid-term and only found out afterwards when my boyfriend called me that something had happened. I drove home numb. I later received an A on that test.
New Orleans is a violent city and this past weekend was no exception. The newspaper reported 15 violent crimes in a span of 10 hours. Two 18 year old young men were shot to death around 11:30 am on Memorial Day in Broadmoor. One of them was Faisal Puckett Jr. whom I worked with at Ace Hotel. At 18 years of age, what did you know about yourself? I didn’t know much. Faisal was a cheerful and kind kid. While I didn’t know him well, he was someone that I was accustomed to seeing, someone I said “hello” to, someone that I never thought would die the way he did. He is a statistic, he was robbed of his future, he deserved so much better.
While these crimes were happening across the city, while lives were being lost, I was gallivanting through the French Quarter sipping cocktails, posting pictures to Instagram and enjoying the day. I had gotten a room at the Monteleone for Andy and I to enjoy. Andy had improv rehearsal, so I met a friend for a drink and enjoyed his company. When Andy returned we went to dinner then headed over to the Voodoo Lounge. It was nearly 11 pm at this point but I had an agenda. Some friends met me at the bar and we planned to be at Bar Tonique at midnight for the Ramos Gin Fizz competition. One of my dearest friends from Ace Hotel, Melissa Knott was supposed to be competing. She never made it.
When I started at Ace Hotel I was a bit intimidated. I had bartending and bar managing experience but not craft cocktail experience. I would come home from orientation and exclaim to Andy, “What if I’m not good enough?” He would laugh at me, and assure me that things were going to be fine. I felt like the new kid in school. Melissa was one of the first people to truly include me. During our training she had a small get-together at her house where I met her sweet husband Jeff and adorable dogs. Some of the other bartenders came as well and we sat around and shot the shit in a way that immediately made me feel comfortable. Melissa and Jeff had an amazing home bar, and while they were incredibly knowledgeable and talented, they were also extremely down to earth. There was a lot of laughter and no bravado. I felt better because of her.
There is a wise rule at the hotel that you cannot sit and have a drink at the bar you just finished your shift at. That was never a problem for me because I would simply walk across the lobby after clocking out and sit at the bar in Josephine Estelle. While I can honestly say that I enjoy all of the staff there, Melissa was my favorite. She would often make me an Aperol Spritz and it was in my opinion the best in the city. We would chat about life. If she was having a rough day she would tell me, “I need a Lori hug.” Together we coined the phrase Caturday, in which we would always wear something cat related on Saturday. Her locker was right by mine, so many times we would cross paths, always stopping to ask how the other was. Always caring about the answer to that question.
The people you work with often become a second family. If you are lucky, you are able to love and appreciate them. I spend more of my waking hours with my co-workers than I do with my son or any of his fathers. While the majority of that time is spent behind the bar being “on” there are countless moments behind the scenes- pre and post shift, during breaks, and sometimes actually out at other places. I have gotten to know many of my co-workers. I’ve been lucky enough to share in their joys and attempt to comfort them in their sorrows. I can’t tell you how many times a day someone asks me about Wilder, or gives a hug or makes me laugh. But I know these things far outweigh the times I feel frustrated or upset. In the small time that Ace Hotel has been open (a little over two months) a family has been created, for better or worse, and that has been very evident over the past week.
Last Thursday I was in the break room with Melissa when she excitedly told me the news that she and Jeff were going to be parents. She asked me about doctors and hospitals and told me that we needed to make a dinner date so she could have some one on one time for all her inquiries. She was beaming with happiness and I was thrilled for her. I imagined that she would probably be serving cocktails until the day she went into labor. I went home and wrote about her pregnancy in my journal. I envisioned themes for her baby shower which would include Star Wars and whiskey. I was happy to have another friend join the parenthood club, which comes with unbelievable joys and challenges. I saw Melissa again on Saturday as my shift was ending and hers was beginning. I gave her a hug in the locker room and she told me that she was feeling very tired. I joked and told her that would be the new normal for a very long time. She smiled and we parted ways. That would be the last time that I saw her.
I didn’t think too much when she didn’t show up to Bar Tonique because I figured she was too exhausted to be out. I almost sent her a playful text, goading her about not making it to the competition which I ended up being one of the judges for. But I didn’t want to disturb her if she was resting. The next afternoon one of my managers called me and first broke the news about Faisal. I was reeling from that when he told me that Melissa had passed away as well. I honestly couldn’t believe it. I kept saying, “But I was supposed to see her last night.” I was crying and probably sounded like a broken record. I felt so much heartache for Jeff and her family. I had so much empathy for my managers who were trying to call everyone personally to break the news. I hung up the phone and fell apart.
That day Jeff posted the following on social media “I don’t really know how to start this or what to say, but it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. This morning my loving and beautiful wife, Melissa passed away. We hadn’t widely broadcast anything yet, but she was pregnant. Yesterday afternoon, there were complications and she had to go to the emergency room. The doctors did everything they could but after two surgeries could not get the bleeding to stop. They described it as a one in a million situation which is very fitting since she was in fact, one in a million. My family is here with me and hers is coming in tonight. We will try to get everything planned as soon as possible so you will all know what can be done. As for now I just ask for your respect for us and for her most of all.”
Grief is different once you become a parent. It’s harder in ways that cannot be adequately described in a few words. I can’t begin to imagine the anguish that her loved ones must be feeling.The finality of death has the potential to destroy those left behind. Thankfully the community that Melissa and Jeff have built is a strong one. The outpouring of love, support accompanied by beautiful photographs on social media is a reminder of how loving and kind Melissa was. She touched so many people’s lives in such a short time. I feel honored to have been able to cross paths with her in this lifetime.
The family at Ace Hotel has been mourning all week. A few of the staff members created a beautiful altar for Faisal and Melissa where friends could leave notes and tokens of their love. Today they had a moment of silence followed by a time for people to gather and care for one another. It was touching and teeming with love and vulnerability. As I have mentioned in other posts, I often struggle with the ability to show emotional fragility, but this week I have proven on more than one occasion that my mascara is not actually waterproof.
Thank you to those who move through this life with grace and compassion. May we all be so lucky to leave a legacy of joy and love.
Photo by Jordan Burch Photography
“Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”
― Mary Oliver