A Journey Of Love, Loss And Treasured Memories – Joseph & Melissa Magnotta
The future was bright for Joseph and Melissa Magnotta. Friends and lovers, they savoured luxurious trips to Saint-Tropez, exquisite meals and, on the horizon, the excitement of a new custom home, designed by Joseph — a home they hoped to fill with cherished children. And then came the worry and anxiety of a frightening diagnosis, and the couple’s lives were forever shattered.
The story of Joseph and Melissa Magnotta is a definitive narrative of love and friendship. And while it encompasses a journey that is rife with intense pain, fear, shock and denial, one that resulted in the much-too-early death of Joseph at the inconceivable age of 36, it is ultimately a story full of magnetic love, dedication and commitment.
Joseph met his wife and soulmate, Melissa, when she was in Grade 10 and he was in Grade 13. “We kept in contact over the years, but it was not until my first semester at York University, where I was studying sociology and communications, that we began to date,” says Melissa.
The couple, who dated for eight years, bought their first house together in August 2010, got engaged in June 2011 and were married in September 2012. “‘In sickness and in health, until death do us part.’ Little did we know at the time how soon those vows would become our reality,” Melissa says.
For the first few years of their marriage, this successful young couple travelled extensively. Despite their shared Italian heritage, they developed a huge and intimate affinity for the South of France, travelling to the area four or five times in the six years they were married. “We spent many leisurely days and evenings around Saint-Tropez’s famous beach clubs, eating exquisite meals and sipping on Provence’s rosé wine. And even though Joseph was initially wary about flying, we ended up travelling there many times. We ultimately fell in love with the area, the luscious landscape, the laid-back culture,” Melissa says.
“We had such good times together; we were on the same page with regards to so many things in life.” In fact, their 2017 trip to Saint-Tropez was the last one the couple would take together, before Joseph’s illness aggressively presented again. The descriptives this 33-year-old widow, vulnerable but strong, uses to describe her husband embrace a rich spectrum of positivity. She paints Joseph in a kaleidoscope of colours: he was authentic; a nonconformist; comfortable in his own skin. Brilliant, humble, charismatic, with nothing to prove, Joseph had an extensive vocabulary and a writer’s way with words.
He loved telling stories and pranking his family and friends — all with a loving, high-spirited heart. “Joseph loved watching Jeopardy,” Melissa says, a warm smile evident in her voice. “One day, before my parents came over, Joseph watched an episode of the show and memorized all of the answers. When my parents arrived, the same episode was playing in the background. Joseph called out all the correct answers; my parents couldn’t believe it. They knew he was smart, but they didn’t realize I was married to a Jeopardy champion. They had no idea that he had watched and memorized all of the correct answers before they’d arrived. He kept the joke going for months.”
All of these things, resonant in their simplicity, made Joseph easy to love. Wise beyond his years — there were many who described him as an “old soul” — Joseph, only in his mid-30s, was sought out often for advice, which he dispensed with empathy, compassion, kindness and an authenticity that made people feel good about themselves. His belief in humankind was unshakeable; he had a strong underlying belief that each and every one of us is interconnected. “Joseph had a positive impact on even the most random people,” Melissa says. “That is his legacy — the positive impact he left on so many. He was also knowledgeable about so many things, including politics, history, geography, current events, real estate and wine. You name it, he knew it. He had a brilliant mind and a way with words. Joseph was rare in that he was both book smart and street smart.”
In 2015, the couple, now married three years, were overjoyed that Melissa was pregnant, and the prospect of adding a baby to their happiness had the couple soaring with joy. However, after 12 weeks, Melissa miscarried. It was an extremely trying time for the couple, but Joseph, ever a positive spirit, kept Melissa’s head above water, putting a positive spin on what they were going through. “He kept telling me that we were going to be fine; that it was just not our time yet.” After another year of trying to conceive, the couple attended a fertility clinic in order to get some help conceiving.
Suffering from what he thought was a sports hernia in his upper abdomen, Joseph underwent an MRI in 2016. A follow-up CT scan showed a larger issue. Joseph had a left pleural effusion, a left lower lobe lung entrapment and a 0.9-centimetre nodule on his right lung. It was an alarming and frightening condition for someone so young. “Joseph had no symptoms,” Melissa says. Over the next two months, after undergoing a battery of tests, scans and biopsies, Dr. Penelope Bradbury, a medical oncologist at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, diagnosed Joseph with epithelioid hemangioendothelioma (EHE), a rare vascular sarcoma cancer that affects one in a million. “Despite the complex and worrisome diagnosis, we had hope for Joseph to live a long life,” Melissa says. “We were informed that some EHE patients can live ‘decades and decades’ with this type of cancer, due to its slow-growing and indolent tendencies.”
“Joseph could have chosen anyone in the world, and he chose me. God brought us together, and our souls will always be fastened”
Joseph and Melissa, very much a private couple, kept their shock, denial and fear to themselves, choosing to share it with only the closest of family members and friends. “Joseph and I never wanted to talk about the worst-case scenario,” Melissa says. “We didn’t like to share our fear with each other. I had to be the voice of reason and strength for him.”
By March 2017, Joseph’s disease was stable and no treatment was required. His condition was managed by periodic CT scans and a “watch-and-wait” approach, a common protocol for EHE patients. And while 2017 came with its challenges, Joseph, who nicknamed himself “Joe 2.0,” felt reinvigorated, like he had been granted a new lease on life. “We looked at life completely differently; we evolved as a couple, enjoying the present moment without worrying too much about the future,” Melissa says. “We sold our first home, bought a lot in upper Forest Hill, Ont., and set out to build our future home. Joseph, an architect at heart, designed the house. He drew it both on paper and on the computer. He made the architect’s job easy, with his keen eye for detail and passion for the project.”
By the time 2018 rolled around, things seemed to be looking up. The couple felt there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Joseph (the middle son of Vaughan, Ont.’s Magnotta Winery’s founders, Rossana and the late Gabe) was vice-president of sales at Magnotta and heavily involved in product development. His disease had remained stable for a year and a half. However, in a routine scan that February, new, relatively small spots appeared in Joseph’s liver and peritoneal tissue. Even though it wasn’t uncommon for new spots to present with this type of cancer, Joseph’s doctor was surprised. In April, Joseph was admitted to hospital with unrelenting pain.
The family was informed that the “slow-progressing” cancer was quickly becoming aggressive and hostile. Melissa, worried about putting undue stress on Joseph, informed her own doctor that she wanted to put her fertility treatments on hold. Although Joseph’s cancer had progressed, his doctors believed, that with the right treatment protocol, Joseph would be able to manage the progression and get back to his normal life. Pursuing any and all help, Melissa and Joseph travelled to New York to see one of the top sarcoma specialists at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “We had high hopes. Joseph began showing a positive response to an oral drug taken twice daily. However, it was short lived. The disease took a final turn for the worst and unexpectedly claimed Joseph’s life on May 25, 2018, when he was only 36 years old,” Melissa says.
On May 24, the night before he died, Joseph, a loquacious and eloquent man, told his wife, “I’m having a hard time speaking. Why can’t I find the words? I just want to feel better.” Melissa told Joseph there was nothing she wanted more than to see him well again, even if that meant trading places with him. “I told him that I loved him beyond measure,” she says, her sharp-edged sorrow raw and palpable. “It was the most terrifying moment of my life. I was crippled with fear and anxiety. I realized I couldn’t save him. He was in God’s hands. Joseph had fought so hard, he just couldn’t hang on anymore.”
With the first anniversary of Joseph’s death on May 25, Melissa is doing her best to honour her husband’s legacy, his love of life, his positive energy and his plans for the future. Angry when he died, hurt and feeling disconnected, Melissa wondered what was going to carry her through the deepest, darkest alleys of her grief. In times of trouble, it had always been Joseph’s love — their love — that sustained her. After reading spiritual books, books on grief, memoirs and listening to podcasts on grief, including Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations, Melissa turned back to God and her spiritual self.
Evolving as a spiritual being was Melissa’s way back to connecting with Joseph. “Joseph could have chosen anyone in the world, and he chose me. God brought us together, and our souls will always be fastened,” she says. And while the huge plans and the spectacular trips are treasured memories, it is the ordinary moments in life that Melissa misses the most, including sharing meals at home and Joseph’s ever-constant laughter. “I miss his smell and seeing his number on my phone,” she says, turning to look fondly at one of the many photographs of Joseph placed throughout the house. “I miss hearing his footsteps just before he walked through the door. I miss the way he took off his shoes, positioning one of them slightly in front of the other; it was this little OCD thing he had. In fact, I still have a pair of Joseph’s shoes placed inside the front door, positioned just the way he would have put them. I miss the way Joseph looked at me. And I really miss hearing him call me ‘Boostie,’ a nickname he gave me years ago.”
Currently, life for Melissa is filtered through a pale and dull lens. The colours have faded; they are not as vibrant without Joseph. “One day, I hope to see life in the beautiful and vibrant way I once saw it, when Joseph was here with me. He made life bright and beautiful,” she says. “Joseph taught me there are only a few constants in life. The things that are undeniable, limitless and indisputable. The one constant, the most powerful one for me, is love. Joseph taught me how to love in a capacity that I didn’t know was possible. And while I may not remember every conversation we had in the 15 years we shared together, I will always remember how Joseph made me feel,” Melissa says. “I don’t know anything for sure, but I do know that one day I will meet my husband again, in an extraordinary place far beyond my wildest imagination. Being Joseph’s wife was my biggest honour. He was not a part of the story, he was the story.”