Tolkien community loses Melissa Petrey Kern
Mel is gone.
Melissa Theresa Petrey Kern, 42, is gone. In her
real traditional obituary, it says she was of Lawrenceville, Georgia. Respectfully, I disagree, or I want to state on the record, that while that may be true, it isn’t the whole truth.
More of the truth would say that Melissa Theresa Petrey Kern, 42, a notable figure in the Tolkien Community, died March 8, 2015, after a long battle with ALS. She lived among us, the fan community, and was our neighbor and shared her life with us and is missed by us, as she is missed in Lawrenceville. You could write about more places she lived and is missed too.
I remember, fortunately a few conversations we shared that didn’t seem especially significant at the time, but feel pretty lucky now. We talked about an artist that visited Georgia. We talked about the Tolkien Community in Atlanta. We even talked about specific people she wanted good things for. We talked about fandom, that included her own early love for the books of J.R.R. Tolkien. We shared some moments and I value them, as part of the beautiful experience of our community and they are just a tiny sample of many such moments she shared with many people.
More memorable than the things she said were the people she influenced. The Georgia costuming community, I think it is fair to say, wouldn’t have been so organized or so unified if not for Mel. The Arms of Middle-earth might not have existed at all without Mel, but I don’t pretend to know the reality of that claim. We can safely and accurately say, she was at the heart of the community.
There is a photo, I am sure dozens of people have it, where a significant number of Tolkien costumers were all gathered together in an impressive array of characters from “The Lord of the Rings.” It was during Dragon Con in Atlanta, before the convention had matured to quite the level it has now. Groups of costumers were less frequent and large numbers of themed costumes were rare. There, in that spot, was organized and gathered an outstanding display of fans, living their passions and forming a genuine fellowship. It was a very fine cosplay effort but it was a transcendent community effort.
I know some readers will know the photo. I was lucky enough to snap some copies of it for various people since I wasn’t part of the costume group and I had an array of cameras handed to me and we took a lot of pictures there. It happened on the lowest deck of the Marriott hotel before the new carpet and before the hotel became the supreme showcase of fan-made costumes — perhaps anywhere.
There was Mel, surrounded by people who loved her and that she influenced for good, as they would readily tell you. Nobody was thinking about that at the time; they thought they were posing for a picture of costumes. It was actually a picture of a galvanized fan community.
It wasn’t too long after, certainly not long enough after, that it was discovered that she had ALS. It is a diabolical disease in a family of diseases that took another soul associated with the Tolkien name this year also; hopefully a reality that will change for others down the road. Mel’s path was an exit few of us would choose, but of course, she had no choice.
Mel was valiant and brave and inspirational. We haven’t any idea of the daily realities of her existence, and we know she had to have a lot of help. We can imagine it wasn’t always pretty or dignified but it was beautiful.
The fight and the struggle, the effort and the exertion against the inevitable was beautiful.
Those on the inside, struggling daily, may have missed the beauty, but those of us with a little distance could see the remarkable effort and the fight and the love and the friendship and the sleepless, tireless, constant realities of what it means to have ALS. Chris Kern, her husband is absolutely as much a part of the battle as Mel was. While completely different players in the same fight, they fought it together and won. Chris, congratulations on your shared victory, while we also mutually mourn your devastating, prolonged loss.
One of the bright spots of Mel’s disease, is we knew, she knew, Chris knew, their family knew, that she was going to be gone. Actually we know everybody will be gone, but with Mel we could see the progress of the disease so we didn’t take any moments for granted. It was a ticking clock, and while that is horrifying, there were some opportunities too.
The blessing of knowing somebody is slipping away affords us the opportunity to say things we might not say. Mel and I weren’t close friends but I held a deep affection and respect for her, as many others did, that allowed me to tell her, each time I saw her, that I loved her. Because of her situation, I had social permission to say that and I felt it and meant it and I hope she knew it. Many others did the same. I hope Chris knows it and knew it and I hope their son Mathew does too. I – we – the Tolkien Community, love you. Our deepest sympathies go to Chris and Matthew and those we don’t even know to name.
Once far from home, after a 14-hour plane ride, followed by a another plane ride, and then a rental car experience driving on the wrong side of the road, I was in the middle of a lot of beautiful scenery on the South Island of New Zealand, and then in a pub in a small town. I was there to have a meeting and I had with me a folder I had prepared with some proposals about how the fan community could work with a bunch of talented people who were busy adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” into film.
Inside that report was a copy of the picture mentioned above from Dragon Con. It was representing fandom.
My host stopped me and pointed to Mel in that picture. He wanted to know if I knew her. I explained her plight with ALS and that yes, she was a friend I knew her and that she dreamed of living to see the Hobbit films completed. My host knew her as well. I learned then, that Chris and Mel had preceded me to New Zealand and had already had their filming experience at the Hobbiton Movie Set. I was sworn to absolute secrecy, but I knew they had made a visit that even they weren’t permitted to talk about it back then. They were told to say they had been to Disneyland or something. My host didn’t know that I nearly burst into tears.
How thrilling to know that while walking the difficult path they were on, Mel and Chris got to have some amazing experiences, even if they had to keep them completely to themselves for a while. There was beauty in the sorrow and sorrow in the beauty. I don’t need to mention where that theme is reflected.
I recall too the great care and concern some actors showed to Mel behind the scenes at Dragon Con. In particular John Rhys-Davies, Sylvester McCoy and Billy Boyd, among others, handled things beautifully. I hear Martin Freeman, Peter Jackson and others did the same in New Zealand.
I know the Tolkien community mourns the loss of Mel. But because of Mel and Chris we have been able to fund raise for ALS at Dragon Con. We appealed with a Middle-earth themed ice bucket challenge and the unique and pretty awesome Chucks for Fiver campaign goes on and The Walk to Defeat ALS gets extra support. Mel’s sacrifice, Chris’ sacrifice, furthered the cause.
Because of Mel, many lives, beyond Lawrenceville, beyond her family, beyond Georgia, were impacted for the better.
Memories were cherished.
Hugs were exchanged.
Tears were shed.
Friendships were forged.
The accurate obituary should read: Melissa Theresa Petrey Kern, 42, of the Tolkien Community, died March 8, 2015, and she shall not be forgotten.
Turns out, Mel isn’t gone at all.
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