In Memoriam: Michelle Steele

Melodie Cook


A name, a song. Sing it with me, won’t you? Michele, ma belle.

An ethereal being, a wraith, a goddess with a boundless love for family, friends, and students. A devotee of music, poetry, and cats. Someone who truly wanted to change the world for the better.

We had a few things in common: a love for 80s music and the same movies, but not much more. She was so full of light and life, so sweet. Could she be for real? To be honest, my first impression of her was not so kind. I met her as she was walking through a crowd of English teachers, thirsty after a day of conference-going, begging them, each and every one, to please, PLEASE stop talking and listen to the speech being made by the Best of JALT sponsor. I thought to myself, “This girl is stylish, but doesn’t she know that you should bring out the beer AFTER the speeches are over? Is she serious?” But I later learned that that was just one of her many charms. She cared, she truly CARED that the sponsor be heard, and she wanted everyone to be respectful and listen. This woman was the Best of JALT. Michele. As sweet as a song and as soft as a spring breeze, but tough as nails, too.


And yes, she was that. We all followed her on her journey, pushing her way through a terrible prognosis, fighting with steely determination to live. And I mean LIVE, not just exist. As her body changed and her strength dwindled, she struggled through, ticking items off her bucket list, making jokes, travelling the world, seeing as many friends as possible, while at the same time honestly showing us the awful progress of pancreatic cancer and the toll it was taking on her spirit and flesh. And yet, the frailer she became, the brighter her spirit shone, like steel, the woman of steel, Michele was being burnished. Her spirit flamed out and warmed us all and changed our lives. As many of you know, when I’m sick, I’ll whine until the cows come home, but not Michele. If only we could all move through the world in pain and sickness with such grace, beauty, humour, and determination... well, that would be something wouldn’t it.

She approached me at Kevin Cleary’s funeral, surprised that I had come “all the way” from Niigata for it, and thanked me for my kindness. I was surprised and happy. I hadn’t given it a thought, but this woman who hardly knew me had. When looking over my past messages with her, I found that I was one of the first people she told about her prognosis. In retrospect, it was an undeserved honour, but I’m glad she did, so that I could knit her a hat in yellow baby-soft wool and send her a hot pink t-shirt that said “F@ck cancer!” I didn’t know if she would wear it, but she did and even took a picture of herself, snarling at the camera as if it were cancer itself, daring it. “Bring it on,” said her look. Sadly, it won, but she fought. I don’t know if I could fight that hard. I believe I would have given in at the start.

Kevin Cleary and the late, great Tim Allan of the chapter formerly known as Nagasaki JALT are two other people who, besides Michele, inspired and influenced me to devote more time to JALT. After Tim’s death, and Kevin’s death, I started taking on more responsibilities and now find myself on the Board of Directors. I am grateful to have had all of them in my lives and know you are, too. And so to them, wherever they are, I say this: “My speech is over. You can drink your beer now.”

— Melodie Cook