Melinda Roellig, an art and music teacher in Clarksville, Indiana, had already prepared this year's batch of Christmas presents for her family before she died last month of Covid-19.
The gifts she gave as an annual tradition, a mix of store-bought and handmade, were purchased and created with thought and precision, including her paintings, which were based on a shared memory with the recipient. Family members in Indiana and South Carolina looked forward to unwrapping them every year.
"She put her heart into it, and it just makes you smile because you know how much she cares about you and loves you," said Alexandra Roellig, Melinda's half sister. "I think it's gonna be hard to open them [this year]. I don't know if I want to open them or not, because it's bittersweet."
Roellig would have turned 38 on Sunday, another bittersweet marker in a holiday season full of them.
She died on Nov. 15, one week after first developing a fever, apparently hiding the full extent of her condition from her loved ones as she struggled with racking coughs and ragged breathing over the next few days. She avoided a trip to the hospital because she was unsure if her insurance would cover the costs, family members said.
"I didn’t know how bad she was during the week because she didn’t call me," said her mother, Victoria Straub, a traveling nurse who works with Covid-19 patients and was out of town most of that week. "If I would have known, I would have driven home and driven her to the hospital myself."
When Straub went to check on her daughter on Nov. 15, she found Roellig struggling to breathe and called 911. Roellig died in the ambulance, before the results of her Covid-19 test taken three days earlier came back, Straub said.
"When I got sick, she'd always come over and cook and take care of me," said her boyfriend, Tim Tatum, who did not see much of Roellig after the school year began because, as caretaker to his 88-year-old mother, he needed to prevent possible virus exposure. "But she wasn't the type of person to complain when she wasn't feeling well."
The family prefers not to think about the last seven days of Roellig's life. They would rather focus on the 1,979 weeks that preceded it.
Born on Dec. 6, 1982, in Scotland — where her father, James, was stationed with the U.S. Navy — Roellig displayed her musical flair early on. Straub remembers a fateful drive to her own parents’ home when the family moved back to the U.S.
“She was singing in the car and had perfect pitch,” said Straub, a former choir singer. “She was just 2 or 3 years old at the time, and I just appreciated her. From the get-go she could hear that pitch. There are so many kids that can’t.”
No one in the family was surprised when she gravitated toward her high school marching band or when she took her trumpet and passion with her to the University of Louisville, where she majored in music.
When Roellig wasn’t making music, she was immersed in art, proving as deft with the paintbrush as she was with her instrument.
“I know she worked hard, but it's like it just came to her," said Erin Hester, a friend and bandmate in high school and college, where they bonded over a shared love for "Harry Potter." "It was like she just woke up with the superpower to play these beautiful sounds out of the trumpet and then make all these beautiful pictures and portraits.”
In college, Roellig became interested in teaching those skills, Hester said.
"She knew she wanted to share a gift with as many people as she could," Hester said.
Roellig's first student may have been her younger sister, Alexandra Roellig, who looked forward to the times when their father would take her to see the marching band.
"I thought it was so cool watching her perform and marching, and then I wanted to be like my sister," said Alexandra, who collected messages from her sister and other band members in a journal. "So I followed her steps in a way, and I went in to do marching band and music, just like her."
After earning a master's in music, Roellig moved to Charlestown, Indiana, then to Washington state before returning to Indiana, near her mother's home in Clarksville.
When her music-teaching position at the public school where she worked was cut, Roellig approached Rock Creek Community Academy, a new K-12 charter school in nearby Sellersburg that did not yet have a music program. But Principal Sara Hauselman hired her to teach art.
"You can't say this about very many teachers — nobody's perfect, everybody doesn't do everything right — but I never saw a kid that did not want to be in her class and didn't love it once they got in it," Hauselman said. "Whatever they could do, she just would encourage them."
Roellig taught choir when she could, often before or after school, and provided a sounding board for her students, said Carey Walls, a former student who learned the saxophone and perseverance in her classroom.
"She changed my life," said Walls, who graduated from Rock Creek in 2018 and is studying psychology at Purdue University. "We always knew we could go to Ms. R and she would have our backs.
"She really just gave me that foundation that this may not be the best situation right now, but it will get better. She taught me to keep up the fight."
Roellig's family is especially proud of that legacy as a teacher. "She was special, and she cared," Straub said.
In Hester's last call with Roellig, shortly before Halloween, they talked about possibly traveling together to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park in Florida or the "Harry Potter" exhibit near London.
Roellig is survived by her mother, stepfather and stepsiblings in Indiana; and her father, stepmother, half sister, brother and two nieces who she doted on in South Carolina.
Straub, whose 90-year-old husband, Ed, is recovering from Covid-19, said she hopes her daughter's death will draw attention to the need for masks and social distancing in a state where such measures are optional.
As Christmas approaches, Roellig's loved ones said they will celebrate her life as best they can. Tatum plans to buy a Christmas tree in her honor that he will decorate, a tradition that meant a lot to her.
"I hope she can look down and see that, and it'll make her happy that she was able to get me to buy one," he said.