The phone call came at 1 am on December 14, 2017.
I heard my sister Lynn’s voice, and as she spoke I remember it felt like a vacuum had sucked all the air out of the room.
It was Matt. Lynn and her husband Bob’s middle child and only boy, the daredevil child who ALWAYS came home, no matter what.
Until that night.
Matt had been driving home and was approaching the Bourne Bridge when he went into cardiac arrest. Someone saw his car drift into the median and called for help. The State Police were at the car within minutes but they could not revive him. Just like that, he was gone.
Not unlike anyone else who has experienced devastating, unexpected news, all I could feel was absolute, total, disbelief.
This didn’t seem remotely possible. It still doesn’t, honestly. Matt had just been putting up the family Christmas tree hours before.
As Dom and I rushed around the house mindlessly packing, the images kept surfacing.
Matt the infant – he was adorable, of course, but it was Matt the toddler that I really fell in love with. He was an irresistible ball of blond hair, dimples and mischief, lots of mischief. And he carried that charm into adulthood.
Matt the husband and daddy. He was 39. He had married Ellie 3 years before and their daughter Mila was just 2. They lived with Lynn & Bob while saving for a house. In so many ways, Matt’s life had just begun.
Every thought and image broke my heart. They still do.
So I focused on one thought that night – to get to my sister. She lives over 100 miles away.
Get to the Cape. Get to Lynn. The ride was never-ending but that focus kept my mind on track.
This single-mindedness was a trick my mind played to carry me through, and it would not be the last time. Get to Lynn. Find the pictures for the service. Get Ellie and her mom something to wear. Focusing on a single goal keeps the mind occupied. It kept my mind occupied.
Because this loss was incomprehensible.
I’d learn over time that it would always be something I just couldn’t wrap my brain around, even when most of our questions were finally answered.
I sort of knew it then but it quickly became clear that the night we lost Matt a whole new normal began for my family.
This isn’t a loss that you just move on from.
A sudden death is crippling emotionally for everyone close. When it happens to someone so young, with such responsibilities, there’s more. Lots of big and small decisions would need to be made, lives would be forever changed, and everyone in the family would need to step up to fill the voids left behind.
I’ve read and thought about grief a lot since then, trying to put some sense to something that makes no sense.
A 39 year old with everything to live for should not die of cardiac failure, especially not when help gets to him so quickly.
The wanting-to-go-back-in-time-and-stop-it-from-happening never, ever leaves me.
The unfairness of it takes my breath away.
Mila will start school, play sports, grow up and eventually start a family of her own without the daddy who adored her.
Ellie, at the age of 25, in one swoop has lost the love of her life, become a single parent, and had to completely re-think a future without Matt.
My sister will NEVER again hug her sweet boy, the child of her heart. He was always the boy who would unashamedly kiss her in front of the entire school because he loved his mom and didn’t care who knew.
My brother-in-law Bob lost not only his precious son but his car-pool buddy and the person he depended on most at work. Every minute of his day would change.
Christmas, Matt’s favorite holiday, will forever mark the anniversary of his death.
I could go on.
It’s difficult not to, thinking about it can almost make you go screaming into the night. Which I think we have all done at least once.
And yet, in the midst of the grief there have been comforts.
We have had the privilege of speaking to other people who have suffered similar devastating losses. It helps to know that they have carved happiness back into their lives.
We’ve also received our share of ‘signs’ from Matt. And continue to receive them. Maybe we’re open to them, maybe the soul that is snatched away without warning continues to hang around, maybe we’re just hopeful. But we have amazing stories about how he has “contacted” us. Mila speaks to him now and then and calmly lets us know when he is “here.” It’s all comforting.
Not knowing exactly what had killed Matt frayed everyone’s nerves. Ellie and Lynn finally received the autopsy report more than 3 months after his death. His cardiac arrest had been caused by severe blockages in at least two of the major arteries to his heart, in addition to hypertension and hardening of the arteries.
In the genetic lottery, Matt had been lucky in a lot of ways and though his heart had been big in the emotional sense, it had not been built for the long haul.
In the words of an attending physician that Lynn consulted, Matt had suffered an event that was instantaneous and from which there was no recovery, caused by the unfortunate genes he had inherited from both sides of the family.
We had fretted for months that if help had reached him sooner things would have been different, or that if the event had occurred at home he may have been saved.
So, getting the results of the autopsy brought some closure.
Then there was Matt’s service, which was a comfort where we least expected it.
To understand the impact of that service you need to understand a little more about Matt.
He was the ultimate man-child. Matt bounced around during his adult life, never quite finding what he wanted to do with himself. He was not ambitious in terms of work. He liked money and was frugal but didn’t really care about making it. He drove at least a few of us a little crazy.
Matt didn’t find true love until he met Ellie when he was 36. She’s Russian born and 14 years his junior. They were head over heels in love and Matt had never been happier. Their daughter Mila was the icing on the cake.
Matt kind of shocked us all by how how good he was at being a daddy and husband.
I think that is when he found his true purpose.
He never stopped writing Ellie love notes and he brought her and Mila little, thoughtful gifts all the time. He researched for days about everything they brought into Mila’s life whether it was a car seat or toothpaste. Nothing but the purest or the best for his baby girl.
He made time for adventures. On weekends and whenever they could, he scooped Ellie and Mila up and took them everywhere within driving distance. He wanted Mila to see the world and he wanted to show Ellie everything this country had to offer.
There were dozens and dozens of adventures, and thousands of photos, videos and lots of picture books to document everything.
Life with Matt:
Matt’s other passion was playing disc golf. Actually, it was playing disc golf with his community of friends. He was part of a large but close-knit group disc golf players called ‘Burgess’ and he had been known far and wide as ‘Doc.’
All of this we in the family already knew.
What we didn’t know, until the service, was what he meant to everyone outside the family.
His service lasted over 2 hours and the line of people never stopped. Hundreds of Matt’s friends took time to pay their respects and to tell us how much he had meant to them.
We heard stories over and over of something Matt had done to help someone out, of times when he had gone out of his way to make someone feel included, of what he meant to each of them. They all carried the same message. Matt had been a giving friend, a special guy.
He had always been special to us, but to hear all the ‘Matt’ stories from so many of his friends made us realize how much of an impact he really had during his short life.
He may not have been ambitious about work, but he was passionate about living life.
It turns out that Matt’s the poster child for the very definition of a successful person – someone who loves and is loved. We just had not realized exactly how far he had reached.
So, there have been things that have happened that have been a comfort.
And, contrary to how we all felt the night we lost Matt, life has gone on.
When it first happened, it didn’t feel like it could to any of us, and I think time did stop for a while there. But over the past months things have started to move forward.
Decisions, big and small, have been made. Lives have most definitely changed and everyone has stepped up. Ellie and Mila continue to live with Bob & Lynn. Mila is being raised by Ellie and Ellie’s village – mostly all of us in Matt’s family who are physically closest, but also her family in Russia and her friends everywhere.
It’s all still hard but it’s shocking how life does go on.
I wasn’t sure in the beginning how it would work. Would we ever be able to laugh again as a family? Is joy even possible without guilt? How do you deal with the regrets? How do you watch Mila play and not think constantly how Matt is missing this? How does this new normal work?
Mila is clearly a comfort, she reminds us so much of Matt – cute, impish, daring, smart, full of mischief. She even has his dimples. We are all so grateful that Matt was able to experience having her and that Ellie has carried on without him in ways that would make him so proud.
There’s a lot of ‘two steps forward, one behind.’ I’ve heard that when you lose a child, grief walks beside you forever. I don’t doubt that for a moment.
I still wake up almost every morning shocked that he is gone. My sister is still in disbelief that he’ll never walk in the door again. Ellie still wishes more than anything that she could speak to him one last time. Rebecca and Melyssa, Matt’s sisters, miss him every single day. We all worry a bit more about each other now because we know how fragile life is.
There are good and bad weeks, days and moments. It’s a tricky business, this grief thing. But then, so is all of life.
My sister has the most profound and simple take on how to navigate life these days.
In her own words, she is someone who “looks for the joy in living every day.” Every morning she wakes up and is happy to be alive, looking forward to what the day will bring. Losing Matt has not dimmed that spirit and has not stopped her from looking for the joy.
So that is what we all choose to do.