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How Tom Meschery was brought back by love, Warriors basketball, and poetry

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The poet has been upstairs in his office, tapping at the keyboard on various projects. Most of his mornings begin this way … so much work to do. Some days he tends to his blog, and on other days he tidies up his memoir that is nearing publication. Or he may put the finishing touches on another of his mystery novels. And of course, his poetry. There is always his poetry.

Much of his poetry chronicles his remarkable life. He was born in Manchuria to Russian parents, and from ages 3 to 6 lived in a World War II internment camp in Tokyo. Just before he turned 7, he crossed under the Golden Gate Bridge. After moving to America, he later became an accomplished professional basketball player who did more than just start alongside Wilt Chamberlain. He was a 1963 NBA All-Star and the first player to have his number retired by the Golden State Warriors. He also was a failed bookstore owner, coached basketball everywhere from Portland, Ore., to Africa, and spent 24 years teaching high school English.

His eclectic path is made more fascinating in that at 85 he refuses to become idle and bask in the accomplishment of a life well lived. He says he is “obsessed” with being productive, which for him means writing. He has authored five books of poetry. Written two memoirs. Six novels. The majority of his literary work has come after he turned 70. He tries to explain the “why” behind his obsession but ultimately concedes that perhaps poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson put it best in Ulysses:

How dull it is to pause, to make an end, To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! As tho’ to breathe were life!

It’s that last line that particularly resonates with the poet, Tom Meschery. Just because you are breathing doesn’t mean you are living.

In 2005, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that has no cure. Doctors estimated he had five years to live. Now 19 years later, he is as prolific as ever, even as he sacrifices an afternoon to break from his computer and regale a visitor with stories. He credits medical science, and in particular the drug Revlimid, for keeping his cancer in remission. But he also feels something deeper, something more powerful has been behind his late-life renaissance: a love story. His love story.

He is not big on sentimentality, lest it come across as maudlin. However, he is a romantic and therefore acknowledges that his love story is more than just a poet falling for an artist. Like his poetry, which he says “seems to come out of nowhere,” she came from an online dating site and changed his life. Not only changed it but also played a role in saving it.

“I think love acted as a barrier to the cancer,” Meschery says. “It was like the door was closed. Maybe it wasn’t locked, but the love was holding onto the door and not letting the cancer in. And that kind of love changed my attitude toward living. I started spending all my time thinking about living, rather than dying.”

Melanie and Tom Meschery at their home in California. (Max Whittaker / For The Athletic)

When Tom Meschery received his cancer diagnosis in 2005, he was already in a bit of a spiral. He was newly divorced and had just retired from a teaching job he loved. Living in Truckee, Calif., a ski town on the outskirts of Lake Tahoe, he had become engulfed with loneliness. He was 68 and wrestling with his purpose in life. Now, faced with a diagnosis that sounded like a death sentence, he slipped into what he called a suicidal depression.

His spiral was palpable. After separate visits following their father’s diagnosis, his three children — Janai, Megan and Matthew — all left concerned.

“We were all really worried about him,” Matthew says. “Not just because of the cancer, but also the circumstances of him being alone up on the mountain, just going through that mostly by himself.”

The siblings remember comparing notes after visits. They all remarked how the house they grew up in — one filled with activity, laughter and lively discussion — had become so quiet.

“It was a house that was always filled with people, a very social place, and dad was always the one holding court,” Janai says. “And the contrast … was hard on all of us.”

By 2008, Meschery could no longer suppress his depression. With Matthew visiting, Meschery remembers halting the ironing of a shirt and blurting out to his son: I’m lonely.

Matthew made a suggestion.

Go online, Dad. Everybody does it.

So he put himself out there. The poet went on his first date.

“I wasn’t particularly impressed,” he sniffed.

His second foray on the dating site seemed improbable from the get-go. Her name was Melanie Marchant, and her profile picture was stunning. There is no way, he reasoned, that she is in her 60s; she looks 30. And it seemed too perfect that like he, she was creative, an accomplished painter located two hours away in Sacramento. For a month, they chatted online and on the phone. They talked about literature, cooking, her two children and his three.

On Valentine’s Day 2008, a first date was arranged at a Turkish restaurant in downtown Sacramento. As he hurried into the restaurant, late, she was waiting with the maitre d, toe-tapping in mock disgust. She playfully stuck her tongue out at him.

They exchanged cards. His card to her featured the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver. The poem represented his vulnerability, his willingness to be open.

You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.

Her card for him? A Valentine left over from one of her grandchildren, featuring Batman. Almost two decades later, it still humors him. Melanie and Tom Meschery. Tom and Melanie Meschery. Melanie and Tom Meschery. Tom Meschery. After dinner, they went to her place. She says she had a surprise for him. As they went up the stairs, he became enraptured. Lining the walls of the staircase were religious icons. He was taken back to his youth and his Russian Orthodox roots. Then, the surprise: she had rented “Ratatouille” — the animated movie about a rat who has a nose for cooking — which played off their frequent conversations about recipes and cuisine.

“And that was it, babe. I was in love,” he says, throwing his hands in the air. “As I drove back to the mountains that night, I knew this was going to be a lifetime relationship. I just knew that she and I were going to be together for the rest of our lives.”

One year after their first date, they were married.

She had been divorced for 30 years and says “if you go 30 years, you know when you find something.” They connected over their creative curiosities and their love of literature — she estimates in their first year of dating they spent between $2,000-$3,000 on books. And soon, she became his trusted editor. He figures she has edited 53,000 pages of his writing.

“I would go through his manuscripts and write “Booooooooring!” Melanie says chuckling. “But I think his writing is wonderful. I do worry when I ask him how he slept, and he says ‘Not well …’, because that means he has written another book in his head. He’s got three or four of them up there now.”

He says she has become his muse, but more accurately she has become somewhat of a life coach. She calls him Thomas and he calls her Mel, and they are constantly engaged in playful banter, trying to get the other to chuckle. One of her favorite pastimes is charting who she considers the most handsome players in the NBA (De’Aaron Fox, Steph Curry and Harrison Barnes top the current list).

However, she turns stern and blunt when it comes to his cancer. She is adamant that our bodies are not separate from our minds, and from the onset of their relationship, she has conditioned his mind to revel in the now rather than dread what could be ahead.

“When he told me he had cancer, I said, ‘Yeah? I know …


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