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Remembering Michelle Bonnice Detore

Michelle always spoke so fondly about her time at Pitt-Greensburg. She met three of her best friends, Tom, Kate and Julie. Those friendships lasted well beyond the time they spent in the Press Room.
They remained friends until Michelle passed away on December 25, 2014 from cancer. Any time Michelle spent with Julie, Tom and Kate always included some memory, story or anecdote about something Pitt-Greensburg and Press Room related.
She always said her time at Pitt-Greensburg was some of the happier days of her life. She took her role as writer, news editor, and eventually Editor and Chief tremendously seriously and those who worked with her will tell you she was remarkably talented in all facets of the job.
Michelle moved to Greensburg in February, 1996 with her older sister, Cara, and her parents Wendy and the late Richard Bonnice, who also passed away earlier this year. Michelle’s parents found a house close by to Pitt-Greensburg (so close you could see it from the front porch), and both their daughters attended the school. Cara graduated in 2000, Michelle in 2004.
As a student at Pitt-Greensburg, Michelle met her eventual husband, Rennie, in 2003 in the very room where this paper is being prepared. Rennie had already graduated, and fate brought him back to Pitt-Greensburg as an adviser.
The first person he sat down and worked with was Michelle.
The rest, as they say, was history.

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***

I think nothing would make Michelle happier than having three of her best friends and husband writing again for their college newspaper.

The Insider was more than a class, club, or line to put on our resumes. When I think about the important moments in life, the time Michelle Bonnice called me to invite me to the Pitt-Greensburg newspaper class and pick up my first assignment for the paper is easily in the top five.

It isn’t because that call led me to a career in writing and journalism. It’s because the connection gave me friendship.

Michelle died, of cancer, on Christmas Day, at the age of the 32. That sentence seems insane. It was 12 years ago in September when I first met Michelle in the press room, in Village Hall. I was shy and horribly unsure of myself. She was boisterous and confident. She was the ideal person to bring out a new side to me.

Michelle taught me to speak up for myself and to not settle for anything less than what’s best. She pushed me when I needed it, never held back from telling me what I had to hear, and made me a better person.

I got to see her graduate from college, marry the man she loved more than life itself, and become an amazing teacher.

When I spoke at her memorial service last month, I talked about how friendship evolves the older you get. In college, it seemed like I saw Michelle every day, either at school, in the cafeteria, or at our favorite bars. When you graduate and get older, you have to make time for the people who matter. It’s easy to fall into bad habits of wishing each other happy birthday on Facebook or saying “oh yeah, we need to hang out soon.”

I never doubted that Michelle had my back. It didn’t matter where we were or what we were going through, we knew we’d support each other. While I have mourned her in the last month, I keep thinking to myself that there’s one person that could have helped me through this—Michelle.

It’s hard to believe she’s not here to joke about how we’d be the best judges American Idol ever had or to share a “Backstreet Boys’” song we’re too embarrassed to admit we like to anyone else.

I had one year with Michelle while she was sick. That’s not what I’m going to remember about her. The one sick year, out of the 12 years I knew her, is still so fresh that it seems like that will be all I will remember about her. But time goes on, and it’s the times we laughed together and leaned on each other that will stay with me.

If there’s anything to be taken away from reading our remembrances about Michelle, I hope it’s this—do not let yourself get weighed down by the responsibilities of life. Make the time to sit down for dinner with friends, old and new. Michelle never missed an opportunity to remind me that so many of the good things I have in my life started with her, and I never disagreed with her. Take the time to thank the Michelles in your life, and make sure they never doubt how important they are to you.

Love, Tom

***

I can tell you the exact moment that I became friends with Michelle Bonnice Detore. It was the same moment that I heard the remnants of her Brooklyn accent for the first time, our almost first fight. I was her new News Editor on The Insider, and she was calling to give me hell for leaving a hole in my section. She had missed a test while fixing the hole, the worst thing possible next to missing a deadline. She was furious. When I apologized and explained that another editor was using the computer when I needed it and insisted I could edit my section up until 3 p.m. that day, not noon, her tone completely changed. She was still furious, but now she was furious with someone else. “Where are you now?” she said. “Meet me in the press room immediately.”  I thought I was in trouble; we went to Mr. Toad’s for a bitch session instead.

Michelle was an impressive editor. She kept everyone in line and contributed smartly written editorials with a lot of wit, but she was always a teacher first. When she saw me struggling with an article for my internship at the Tribune Review one day, she pulled up a chair and asked if there was anything she could do to help. It was a fluff piece about a senior-citizen program. Nothing difficult, but the woman I had interviewed had so much personality, and I was having trouble showing it with such a small word count. Michelle liked the direction I wanted to go in. “You know what Jules,” she said, “if it was really good, as an editor, I would give you the extra space.” She thought I should make a pitch for that, so I did. My editor loved it and ran it at its full length on the front page of the City section. Then the editor in chief called me into his office to tell me he had decided to pay me for it, despite it being an unpaid internship. I couldn’t wait to thank Michelle for the encouragement.

That was Michelle.  She was always my biggest confidence booster, always ready with just the right advice for the situation. She taught me to go after what I wanted, to have a voice, and to use four-letter words like a true New Yorker. She was vivacious and willful, and she lived every moment with intensity. She said what she meant and meant what she said—she didn’t believe in lip service. She always asked about my life first, no matter what was going on in hers. She made me laugh like no one else could. We could laugh about nothing and everything or both at once until we were crying, stomachs aching, lying on the floor. We had spontaneous dance parties wherever we went and sang “Ace of Base” songs in her driveway at 2 a.m. because neither of us ever wanted to leave. She was my best friend.

The last time I was asked to write an opinion piece for The Insider, it was Michelle who asked me to write what was usually her editorial column. The focus was on volunteering and community outreach, and she felt she didn’t have enough personal experience: “You went to Catholic school didn’t you? I bet that’s all you did in high school,” she said. I find it funny now that she had been the one feeling inexperienced in community service because she spent her adult life outdoing my measly 100 hours of Catholic-monk-mandated volunteer work, selflessly giving her time to make a difference in the lives of others, especially her students.

When she was sick, Michelle never let her illness define her. She was determined not to become “cancer girl” in the eyes of the world. I hope that you will all remember her not as someone who lost a fight but as someone who had a passion for life and spent most of hers preparing the people around her for their own battles.

Love, Julie

***

As I sit down to write about the life of my best friend, for the college newspaper that sparked our friendship, I am at a loss. Not just for words, I feel loss for her in a way that I know life will never be the same. Life changes so much that I feel I can’t find many words that will convey how important Michelle is and was to me, especially during those college years. You will never have as much time with your friends as you do now. College seems like a lot, a job, courses, homework, exams, papers. Trust me, the most important things you will learn about yourself will come not from those things but from the people you surround yourself with.

Michelle and I met while working on The Insider, and we did not get along. We were both extremely strong-willed and opinionated. In our youth, we were threatened by each other. I didn’t realize that having strength around you would bring out only more strength from you.

One evening, we were laying out the newspaper. Another student at Pitt-Greensburg had broken Michelle’s heart. I don’t remember the logistics of the breakup, but Michelle was upset. We were working, quietly, and I couldn’t take the tension of knowing that she was sad and I wasn’t helping. I asked her if she was OK. She wasn’t. We went to the local dive bar. We had a deadline. We didn’t care.

Michelle was so honest when assessing a situation. This is a trait that every friend should have. It was both appreciated and terrifying. She gave me advice, good advice that I sometimes didn’t want to hear, but she was right, more times than I care to count. I know I wouldn’t be the same person without her helping to steer me in the right direction and supporting me.

We had that telepathy that close friends have, jokes could be told by catching an eye. This would be dangerous because we would dissolve in a fit of giggles in an instant. Once, we did this in Village Hall, when a guest speaker said something unintentionally hilarious. We had to leave the lecture because we were immaturely turning red from stifling our giggles. I don’t know who the guest speaker was. I am sure I would have learned something from him. But I wouldn’t trade moments like those with her for anything.

Without the protection of academia from real life, so much changed. Michelle was by my side through all of it. She was in a car accident a few weeks before my wedding. She was crying in the ambulance, telling the E.M.T.s that she couldn’t be hurt, she couldn’t be in a sling because she was maid of honor in her best friend’s wedding. As if the occasion could fix her collarbone. She was right there with me, her arm carefully held in a sling.

She was the first friend I called when I made the decision to end that marriage, two short years later. She dropped everything and spent the next year talking me down and helping me untangle myself, reassuring me that I was doing the right thing, and I was.

For the past five years, my job has taken me to various locations across the country. I am often gone for months on end. She has never missed a birthday, shipping me personal packages to my hotel. More often than not, these contained an old picture of us, with thought bubbles taped above our heads, having us “think” embarrassing things. These cards, letters, presents mean the world to me now.

Two days before Michelle died, I stopped to visit her mom. I knew Michelle was getting bad, and I knew she didn’t want anyone to see her that way. I don’t know if she heard my voice, but she started yelling, “I need my friends.” Those moments that I spent with her were sad, unfair, and heartwrenching. But I am glad I got them. I was at her house on Christmas when she passed. It still feels unreal to write that. I went outside after, to call Tom and Julie and tell them. Neighbors who thought they were spreading Christmas cheer had Silent Night playing for the street to hear. It was the saddest moment of my life.

I don’t want to remember the times after Michelle was diagnosed with cancer. It’s impossible not to, because it happened and it is real. When she would ask how I was, it always stunned me, because she had all these terrible things happening and was still caring.

When we pushed aside the thing that had swallowed us all whole, we had good moments. She had started chemo. I was going to visit her and knew she had lost her hair. I ordered a multicolored cosplay wig from amazon and wore it. It was midday, and other drivers on Route 30 were staring at me. When Michelle threw the door open, she was wearing a bright pink wig. It wasn’t planned, it made us laugh. We laughed so much that day. I want to remember her like that, always smiling, cracking jokes. Even when things were bad, she could make the best of it.

People will always tell you never to take things for granted. That won’t sink in until something like this happens. But if you can take away anything from my story, it’s this: that girl you are competitive with in one of your classes—whose skill, intelligence, or wit might threaten you—become friends with her. You are more alike than you know. She will teach you things and possibly even become your best friend.

Love, Kate

***

Michelle Bonnice Detore, my wife, best friend, and the love of my life, passed away, on Christmas night, 2014. She had been battling liver cancer for one year, almost to the day. The last few days of Michelle’s life were the hardest moments I’ll ever see, and no one should ever have to watch the person he love the most in this world take her last few breaths.

As her husband, I struggle between the balance of trying to forget those last few days of our lives together and accentuate how wonderful our relationship was, the purity of it and just how remarkable and unbelievable it was, even if it was far too short.

Sadness undoubtedly creeps in, as you’d expect when you lose your 32-year-old wife and are now a 35-year-old widower.

I don’t know how to exist without you here.

I’m lost.

I’m sad.

Then I think about Michelle’s resolve, toughness, strength, and pure defiance in the face of the disease, and how she refused to let it break her spirit. I was always Michelle’s biggest fan. She’s also my hero.

I don’t think anyone could have gone through what she did yet still find the poise and ability to have surgery, chemotherapy on two occasions, and experimental treatment 3,000 miles away, while still writing me an email saying that all of this was “going to make me stronger” and “how we’re going to look back on this and know we can get through anything.”

Not to mention having a “Wig Party” on her 32nd birthday, in July. She took a negative and remained optimistic through it all.

Michelle kept a journal for the last year. I haven’t been able to read it. I’m not ready. I don’t know when I will be, but I did, when I found it, happen to see the last entry from October. What she wrote was private, and I’m not going to share the specifics, but even after 10 months of battling, I can tell you she refused to give up. She wouldn’t quit.

She had too much to live for.

The way Michelle lived her life during this time only reaffirms what everyone who loved Michelle knew about her: she was a fighter.  She loved life, and she lived it to its fullest. Everyone who ever met her loved her, and no one ever had a bad thing to say about her.

As someone put it, she was everyone’s best friend. She always was the center of attention. You could put her in a room of total strangers, and by the end of the night, she’d know everyone.

And they certainly knew her.

The relationship that Michelle and I shared was magical and a combination of unbridled love, affection, and respect for one another. It was the kind of love that embodies your entire being, defines who you are as a person, and makes you want to be the best person you can be.

I loved Michelle from the moment I met her. I can’t describe the feeling that washes over your entire body and fills your heart with such joy when you find the person you’re meant to be with for the rest of your life.

Her personality, charm, and beauty were exquisite. I couldn’t imagine life without her, and that was after spending just a few days with her. She loved me unconditionally. Our relationship was beyond boyfriend and girlfriend, husband and wife. She was my “person.” Most people spend a lifetime trying to find what we had. I’ll always feel lucky I was able to experience how that felt.

I remember every moment we spent together, every time we laughed, the hours we spent staying up and just talking.

Those are the memories I am holding close to my heart when I feel lost and alone or struggle to understand why you’re not here with me now.

There’s so many things I will miss about you, too many to list. Mostly, I’ll miss how you made me feel every day of my life and yours. You always made me feel better and loved without question, like I was the most important person you’d ever know.

I found a picture of us at a wedding we attended. The photographer snapped a shot of us dancing, your head pulled away from me for just a split second. You can’t see my face, but yours speaks volumes and truly captures how you felt about me.

Your arms wrap just below the back of my neck. You are smiling but the look on your face is more than just happiness or contentment. You’re looking at me as if you would never need to see anything else in this world again but my eyes.

I’d truly give anything to have you back—next to me, holding my hand, resting your head on my shoulder—or just the chance to talk to you one more time. Not having that has left a void that I will never fill. I wouldn’t want to. What we had was special; some even said that our love story was the fairytale they always wished they would have had.

We had it. And even though you’re not here with me, nothing can change the connection between the two of us. You’ll always be my true love, my soulmate, and I’ll love you always and forever. I will see you soon, my love. And when I do, we’ll pick up this love story right where we left it.

Love, Rennie

Please feel free to share your stories about Michelle in the comments section below.

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1 Comment on Remembering Michelle Bonnice Detore

  1. Eileen Saunders-Rich // February 1, 2015 at 12:10 pm // Reply

    What a beautiful person….lost way to early…but what a life and love she did have for the short time she had.

    Like

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