It was during the 10 days that her son went missing from the shore of the Mississippi River that Melissa Melnick made a promise.
Her eldest son, Chris Stanley, was just weeks from graduating from the University of Minnesota — and from a post-graduation bike ride down to the Louisiana Gulf — when he was swept into the river on April 25, 2017. Anxiously awaiting a call, a knock on the door — anything — Melnick vowed to either ride alongside Chris in celebration of his return or to ride on her own in his memory.
Sadly, Stanley wasn’t pedaling beside her when Melnick departed from Minneapolis last week for the two-month bike journey. His body was found May 4, 2017, three miles from where he was swept away by a wave.
But Melnick, pastor of Tapestry Ministry in Richfield, was far from alone when she embarked on the 1,500-mile trek. She was sent off by a group of family and friends and accompanied by Shannon Coyne, a dear friend of her late son.
The Fueled by Love Bike Tour, which will take Melnick along the Mississippi River Trail to Louisiana over the next eight weeks, serves to honor Chris and share his love for life with people along the way. The minister will make stops at eight congregations over the course of the ride.
She spoke at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in La Crosse last weekend.
“Part of what I want to share, even in all the grief: Chris was about life and love and hope and joy,” Melnick said.
Melnick used to tell her son that he would be a preacher. Kindhearted and driven by his convictions of equality, tolerance and compassion, Stanley participated in Climate and Black Lives Matter marches and practiced sustainability. He was born April Fools’ Day in 1995, a date Melnick called fitting, as he was known for his infectious sense of humor and quick wit.
And he felt an affinity for the Mississippi, even wrote poems about it, she said.
“He just loved the river. It brought him a lot of joy,” Melnick said. “He lived more in his 22 years than most people do in 80, so I suppose if that was how he was going to go, it was fitting for him.”
In the days after Stanley went missing, several friends had matching sailboat images tattooed on their wrists, a nod to the Bible story in which Jesus calms the storm. It’s the same story that Stanley told his dad, Thomas Stanley, when his father was in the hospital after a stroke.
“It was a very difficult time,” said Coyne, who met Stanley in a class at the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the U. “It was kind of confusing. I didn’t know what to do with those emotions.”
Majoring in neurobiology and minoring in sustainability and Spanish, Stanley was a member of the Mindfulness Club and meditated daily.
“I really connected with Chris on so many different levels,” Coyne said. “He had his beliefs and what he stood up for and an easy connection with people.”
Coyne and Stanley had often talked of taking a bike trip together, but schedules had gotten in the way. She will join his mother for the first leg of the Fueled by Love Bike Tour.
“I think the ride is a great way to remember Chris by and carry his message on,” Coyne said.
Stanley’s memory and morality live on in many ways. He was biocremated, a more environmentally sound form of cremation using water rather than flame. A portion of his ashes were buried at the base of his memorial tree in Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis, and some were sent down the river.
Melnick has chosen not to regard the Mississippi as the source of tragedy, and has bought a condo overlooking it. At times, she says, it feels like his death was just yesterday. Other days it seems like a lifetime ago.
She takes the grief day by day.
“Chris really lived a full life — full of love and full of joy,” Melnick said. “Part of my faith is believing we’ll get to see each other again someday.”