For the family and friends of Melanie Powell, the fifth anniversary of her death by a drunken driver will be one of their hardest days yet.
There have been many hard days for the family and friends of Melanie Powell since she was fatally struck by a drunken driver on July 25, 2003. But today will be one of the hardest.
Maybe it’s because she wasn’t there to graduate from Marshfield High School with her classmates at the end of May, and because she isn’t getting ready to go off to college this fall. And maybe it’s because the five-year mark reminds them how long they’ve lived without her and has them wondering what her life would have been like if it hadn’t ended when she was 13.
“It doesn’t get easier,” her mother, Nancy Powell, said. “If anything, it gets harder.”
Five years after Melanie was hit by Marshfield resident Pamela Murphy and three years after legislators passed a tougher drunken-driving law in her memory, Nancy and Melanie’s father, Tod Powell, say they’re “totally different people” – out of touch with old friends and not as easygoing as they used to be.
Their extended family isn’t as closely knit, either.
Tod and Nancy Powell say they might still be mired in the past if they didn’t have their son, Spencer, who was born a year after Melanie died.
The cousins and childhood friends who called Melanie “Mel” are struggling, too. Katie Conway, who was with Melanie that day, says she’s “kind of hardened,” unwilling to open up to people they way she could with Melanie.
Cousin Desmond O’Neill still finds himself thinking he can call her for a get-together.
“We’ve all changed,” her grandfather Ron Bersani said. “Life will never be the same.”
A guiding spirit
Melanie and Katie were on their way from the beach that warm, sunny day, walking on the shoulder of Careswell Street to a friend’s birthday party, when Murphy’s Buick hit Melanie. She was kept on life support at Tufts Medical Center until the next day.
Her parents and all those who knew her well are trying not to dwell on the frozen memory of where they were when they got the call. Instead, they’re working to turn their pain into something good.
Bersani and the Powells channeled their grief into the campaign for Melanie’s Law. For Conway and other childhood companions, Melanie has become a guiding spirit who sometimes visits them in their dreams.
Conway visits Melanie’s grave in Couch Memorial Cemetery every week – more often if she’s having a tough time or is wrestling with questions about college and other big decisions. She says those meditations helped her choose Becker College in Worcester, where she’ll enroll this fall.
“She calms me down,” Conway said. “With her, I’m able to get everything out.”
Peace of mind has been more elusive for Nancy and Tod Powell. They didn’t celebrate the first Christmas after Melanie’s death, and they don’t often watch old home videos of their daughter. Now that Murphy is out of jail from a 2004 conviction and still living in Marshfield, they’ve resolved to move on as best they can.
“We’ve lost too much already to lose any more of our future,” Nancy Powell said.
‘Not a day goes by’
Spencer, who’s almost 4, has become their future. Amid all the reminders of their loss, “he pulls us harder into the present,” Nancy said.
For Spencer, Melanie is an angel who’s watching out for them up in the clouds. When the Powells took him on a vacation trip this spring, he peered out the window of their plane, searching the skies for the sister he’s never seen.
Before Spencer was born, the Powells were adrift in work and pastimes suddenly empty without Melanie.
“You no longer fit in your own life,” Nancy said.
It helped to join Bersani’s campaign for the drunken-driving law, which the Legislature passed in 2005.
A year later, Nancy was having dinner with a friend in a Rockland restaurant when she overheard a teenage boy at the next table talking about the law.
“We may have saved his life,” she said. “I took comfort in that.”
In 2007, she and Tod sold the Jubilee Cafe in Plymouth. Tod became a sales representative for a food distributor, while Nancy took a job at the Plymouth County Jail, with an education program for alcohol and drug offenders and other inmates.
Melanie’s death continues to haunt the family, sometimes in unexpected ways. Bersani and the Powells have crossed paths with Murphy once since her sentence ended in December 2006, though they barely exchanged a glance.
(Murphy declined comment for this story. Her attorney, Jack Atwood, said “she served her time” and expressed her regret for the Powells’ loss when she was sentenced. “I hope people will look forward, not backward,” he said.)
In May, Nancy and Tod were invited to Marshfield High’s graduation to share a moment of silence. They planned to go, but that morning “we realized it was going to be more difficult than we imagined,” Tod said. So they stayed home.
Family members and classmates won’t be gathering for today’s anniversary. “We’d rather remember her life,” Nancy Powell said. But they’ll all make their own private observances – at her grave or one of the other places where she always seems near.
“She’s very much a part of our family,” Tod Powell said. “Not a day goes by that we don’t think about her.”
Lane Lambert may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.