I sometimes stop and wonder how he left his room that day. Perhaps a drawer remained slightly open, or worn tennis shoes were tucked neatly under the bed. I wonder if a pair of wrinkled pants were thrown across a chair, left to be worn for a day that would never come. When the mind wonders, it wanders…
Matthew left us on an ordinary day. Nothing historic or monumental shook the world or even our city that night. Since I was old enough to understand death, I always assumed it would shatter the atmosphere and destroy my surroundings when it arrived. Turns out, it only destroyed all the people; the world’s rotation never missed a beat.
I met Matthew when I was sixteen years old in the kitchen of his parent’s house. He was the older brother of my very first boyfriend, and it was my first time meeting the family. I cautiously introduced myself as he sat eating spaghetti with his girlfriend Jackie, the aroma of garlic bread filling the kitchen. He eyed me with caution, as if to assess whether I was worthy of his baby brother.
Matthew, Jackie, and I spent the next chapter of our lives attending Northern Illinois University and experiencing the best that college had to offer. Seven years later, as I sat in a stuffy car outside of church, my phone rang with the news of his death.
All I could smell was garlic bread.
One of my scariest moments in childhood was having the wind knocked out of me after a fall from a swing-set. I remember lying there helpless, frozen with fear in my seven-year-old body, terrified I would never catch my breath. Often when I think of Matthew, I fall off that swing-set all over again, only this time I am rational enough to know that it will only be a matter of seconds before my breath returns to me---the hardest realization is that Matthew never will.
I dream of him often. Some nights, when I least expect it, he comes to me for a fleeting moment. The illusions are never long or vivid, but he is there sometimes in the background, always silent and always observant. For months I have been haunted by a dream of Matthew sitting in a fold-up chair at a cookout, his large hand holding a single red balloon. He is emotionless and statue-like, yet his amber eyes are aglow with meaning. Of all the dreams, this one will not leave me.
I drive around aimlessly now, usually at sunset, gathering my thoughts and seeking answers through a blurred windshield. During one of these drives I saw a house---a small, white ranch sitting on the corner of a street. A sign read “Caleb’s 10!!!” and tied to it was a single red balloon. I stopped my car on the side of the road and wept.
Life seldom feels the need to provide answers, yet it comes equipped with enough questions to drive a person to one’s knees. Matthew died early on an unsuspecting Sunday morning, and days later, in a somber church parking lot where we said our final goodbyes, the crowd gathered with balloons and sent them sailing up, up, up, to find our Matthew somewhere in the skies above. It seems I had forgotten this.
The dream no longer haunts me---I suppose they reached their destination.
Matthew was twenty-four years old. I replay this number over and over in my head, adding and subtracting and trying to make sense of a senseless equation. In twenty-four more years he would be forty-eight, with a family and a home and a near-flawless golf game. In twenty-four years after that, he would be seventy-two---a grandpa, perhaps, successful and retired…
I never did much care for math.
There is always a mist of sadness that permeates every room in which Matthew should be. I find myself occasionally glancing at doors wherever I go. I look for him; I seek him out in crowds. My mind is still convincing me he is gone, that he will never again walk into a restaurant, a party, a house, or my life.
I look for him anyways.
There is no beauty in death. Some say there is so much light to be found in the darkest of places, but I have yet to be illuminated. Death approaches with torture and brutality and departs with a piece of the rest of us. It destroys lives in its path.
Death is opaque.
I wonder what Matthew saw before his brain quit his body. I wonder if it hurt. I wonder if he sees the destruction he left behind, the hopeless longing to rewind to November 16, 2008 for just one moment. I would have picked him up from the bar---he and Tony both. I wonder if he knew that.
Matthew left his room on Saturday without knowing he would never return. He put on his favorite sweatpants for the very last time, and he tied his shoes for one final occasion. He ran a brush across his short brown hair, and he casually grabbed a wallet that would never again be needed. I wonder if he closed his door behind him.
When the mind wonders, oh how it wanders…