A Life: Remembering PathWays’ Melissa Gordon
By Aimee Caruso
Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2016
North Woodstock, N.H. — Ask a friend, family member or coworker about Upper Valley native Melissa Gordon, and a certain adjective keeps popping up.
“She was very caring,” her longtime friend Linda Bartlett said. That was especially evident from her career choice — working with people with special needs, “but she was that way with everything, always putting everyone else before her.”
Born to Mary and Arthur Quimby, Melissa Quimby was the fourth of five children.
“Missy,” as she was known to family and friends, grew up in Enfield. A 1979 Mascoma Valley Regional High School graduate, she studied for a year at Keene State College. But she found her calling when she joined United Developmental Services in Lebanon, which in 2006 merged with another agency to form PathWays of the River Valley, where Gordon would work until her death from a rare cancer at age 53.
Over the years, her jobs ranged from direct service to case management to a supervisory role. When she became sick, PathWays teamed up with her to create a new, more flexible role with duties she could attend to on her good days. But one aspect of her work never changed.
Her clients “were her family,” her mother, now Mary O’Day, said, tearing up. “She was very dedicated. She loved them.”
By all accounts, the feeling was mutual.
Gordon met David Brown long before she became his case manager. Brown’s family owned a store in Enfield, and Gordon often stopped in after school to buy a snack. There, she’d bump into David, who liked to talk with customers.
“David was the type of child who would hit, but he always got along with her,” said Sylvia Tinkham, Brown’s mother and guardian. “He used to call her his ‘honey.’ ”
Later, when Gordon was working with Brown, she’d drive to his group home and take him out to do his favorite things — eat at McDonald’s, visit the airport or watch trucks at various job sites.
“It was all trying to please him, because if you didn’t please him, he’d get upset,” said Tinkham, who would often ride along with Gordon to visit him.
Easygoing and soft-spoken, Gordon was a calming influence on Brown, who enjoyed her company, all of which meant a great deal to Tinkham. “I felt more secure that David was with somebody who cared.”
In 2015, Gordon was PathWays’ employee of the year. In their nominations, coworkers described her as a fierce advocate for people with disabilities and their families.
“It was clear with her what came first, and it was the people we serve,” said Mark Mills, Pathways CEO. “She would advocate as hard as anybody I’d ever seen to make sure they get what they need.”
That might be anything from a particular meal, to medical care to a change in services so someone could move forward with their dreams and goals, he said. And somehow, she managed to be persistent and persuasive, fierce and forceful, all in a very polite way.
“She was great,” he said. “You couldn’t help but love her.”
Charylene Hoage, a family services coordinator, worked closely with Gordon for 26 years, including at a home in Lyme for people requiring round-the-clock care for their medical issues.
“She was the most compassionate and considerate person,” Hoage said. The folks were “very, very important to her.”
Gordon was a good listener and problem solver, and when challenges arose, they tackled them together, Hoage said. “She always knew when to send you that little note that says, ‘Keep on going.’ ”
Not many people stay in their field as long as the two women, but to Hoage, there’s no mystery.
“When you are helping somebody, you can’t just leave them. It’s not like putting things together, and when the bell goes off you go home,” she said. “The things that we help people to do, it’s their whole life, and for some of them their lives depend on us, quite literally, so those little successes of people reaching their goals, they are what keeps us here.”
Gordon worked hard, giving even more than was required, her family said.
“Her whole life was based around it,” and she enjoyed it greatly, said her son, Noel Eastman IV. She “put a lot of heart into it.”
And she brought that same love, compassion and dedication to her personal relationships.
“Melissa was kind of like the core of our family. She planned all the events … She never forgot a birthday,” her sister Mary Jane Dobbs said. “It’s a huge void.”
When Gordon wasn’t working, she was doing something for her family, said Eastman, 22. “Everything she did around here was just for us. She rubbed off on us the right way as a parent.”
Growing up, her daughter, Portia Eastman, played soccer, and Noel snowboarded. Ever encouraging, Gordon was a fixture at their sporting events.
“I was the best in her mind, whether I sucked or not,” Noel said. And over and over, her support helped him through tough times.
“She’s always been my phone call when something’s going on,” he said. “She basically always kept me in a good mindset. A lot of tough things happened, and she’d always tell me I could get through it, and that’s how I kept going.”
Gordon and her mother kept in close contact, talking on the phone or visiting a few times a week, and she “always made sure I had birthday cake, flowers and (such),” O’Day said. “She’d do anything for most anybody. … If family or friends needed something, she was always there to do it.”
After moving to North Woodstock a few years ago, she spent weeknights at O’Day’s house so she could be closer to work, and to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where she was receiving cancer treatments for gall bladder cancer.
Portia, 20, is studying global health at the University of Rhode Island.
“I think the things she has done have made me want to help people,” she said.
The two women helped out every year at the Lake Sunapee Turkey Trot, and after Portia started college, Gordon encouraged her to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity over spring break. The trip to Denver was life-changing, said Portia, who liked it so much she considered leaving college to volunteer full-time. Gordon was unfazed.
If you want to take a year off, take a year off, she told her.
Set on being the first in her family to graduate from college, Portia stayed in school. But Gordon’s willingness to let her chart her own course has been vital.
Some parents overstep and try to control things, but “she gave us the space to grow up and be responsible at an early age,” Portia said. “She was a very good mom.”
Gordon’s own path led her to travel the country, usually to visit family, and often via motorcycle.
She and Bartlett, who both owned Harley Davidsons, liked to venture out together.
“We’d ride along the coast quite a bit and stop for lunch,” said Bartlett, who’d known Gordon since middle school. “She was a lot of fun to be with.”
Not long ago they did an organized ride in Vermont. Gordon was sick, but she’d wanted to take part in the fundraiser, which supported cancer research.
“It was great to do,” said Bartlett, who recalled Gordon’s caring spirit. Even when she wasn’t well, “she was always thinking about us, asking how we were feeling.”
In 2012, her love for riding led her to Mike Gordon, whom she would later marry. The two hit it off at a biker breakfast in Manchester, N.H., and talked every day after that.
“It was just one of those things that worked. It was a special relationship, and neither one of us had to work at it,” Mike Gordon said. “We both kind of liked the same things.”
That included riding, which they did a lot of in the few years they had together.
Gordon had a white Sportser, but they wound up selling it. That’s because she preferred to ride on the back of Mike’s Harley, a blue and black Ultra Classic Limited.
“It was comfortable,” he said. “She would almost fall asleep sometimes.”
Usually with friends, they did fundraiser rides, took day trips to the coast and made longer treks, which brought them to Niagara Falls and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“When she was well, it was nothing to do 200 or 300 miles” in a day, Mike said. “There’s a sense of freedom there. … We both loved it.”
But for him, the point was just being together.
“It really didn’t matter what we did,” he said. “We got along so well, every day was enjoyable. It was always nice to come home. She always had a smile on her face.”
Gordon was “just plain special,” he said. “I miss her tremendously, as everyone else does.”
In April, they were married at home by a justice of the peace. They had planned to have a reception in the summer, but Gordon, who had been dealing with cancer off and on for three years, just wasn’t well enough, her husband said.
Mike Gordon has never really believed in angels or that sort of thing, but there have been times since Gordon’s death when he wonders whether she is still around.
Last year, when he and some friends rode to Arizona, he’d tied one of her bandannas onto the back of his bike. In Columbus, Ohio, when he looked at the white cloth printed with pink ribbons, it seemed to be tied on securely, just as it had been for last 2,000 miles. Yet minutes after they reached Indiana, where Dobbs and several other family members live, it came off, drifting slowly up into the air.
“I don’t know how it came off or why it came off there,” Mike Gordon said. “Was she there with us? Did she want a piece of her with her family in Indiana?”
Aimee Caruso can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3210.