Sunday, September 18, 2011
Some anniversaries are good, some aren’t as much. Fifteen years ago, today, I got a call in my dorm room, three weeks after I started college. It was brother. He quickly handed the phone to my mom. She told me that my best friend, Matt, had fallen from a bluff while hiking in Northeast Iowa and things didn’t look good. The next morning he passed away. Just like that. As quickly as that paragraph took to read was as quickly as it seemed to happen. A comma became a period.
When a loved one passes away, I think that often our talk of the person moves from talk of the person to talk of the situation of their passing, and talk of how it affected us. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, something that gets lost in that is talk of the person themselves. So, on this day, rather than talk about the drama of the event for me, I want to talk about Matt, the person.
I barely remember a time before Matt and Andy. My family moved to Elmridge Avenue when I was young, and Matt and Andy moved in with their family at about the same time. Matt and I were the same age, and Andy and my brother, Jon, were the same age. It was the perfect scenario for all things backyard and neighborhood. We always had fair teams for kickball, wiffleball, tennis, basketball, or any random fun kids create. As we grew, our activities evolved as well. Running in the yard became cross country meets, talking about fort plans became talking about life after childhood plans, and being afraid of girls became Matt and Jon dating girls (Andy and I were afraid of them for much longer). My mom considered them her kids and they spent hours upon hours with both Jon and I as well as my younger brother Scott, and older sister Cari. You have friends that are your friends, then you have friends that are brothers because they’re part of the family. Matt and Andy were brothers. They still are.
Matt was my counter weight. He was always more mature, and took things more seriously than me, the definition of Type A. I still admire today the enthusiasm he was able to have toward anything. Most people seem to be able to channel enthusiasm toward a few things in their life if they’re lucky. Matt was able to channel it toward most everything, both when we were kids and as teenagers. In high school where apathy is cool, Matt didn’t care, he was who he was, and he was enthusiastic.
I say enthusiasm, but enthusiasm sits under the umbrella of passion, and passion doesn’t always look like enthusiasm. In our backyard we would prepare for a wiffleball game like a Major League grounds crew. We would rake the infield, mow, put up a foul pole complete with a sign for the distance from home plate (81 feet). Occasionally, Matt would get upset by some wrong, maybe yell, maybe throw a plastic bat, then he would stomp off and go home. We would be left wondering what happened.
That’s how passionate people act sometimes.
Not every passionate person comes back though. Matt always came back. Always. If he was irked, it might be a couple of hours, if we was really upset it might stretch to the next day. He was fiercely loyal in that way. When he would introduce me to someone who I didn’t know he would always say, “This is Jeff, my best friend.” I remember how good that felt. Matt knew how to make someone feel important, by showing so clearly how much he cared.
As a 33 year old still trying to figure out what I want to do with my life, I marvel at how Matt was about 20 years ahead of me. I don’t think he had decided on a career yet, but he was finding out. He went to a doctor’s camp one summer in Maryland. He decided he didn’t want to be a doctor, but there was going to be something big, something important, something caring. I have an easier time picturing my friend as an adult, and picturing what he would be doing now because he was picturing himself that way. Whatever he would have chosen, he would have gone after it with his trademark enthusiasm and determination, he didn’t know any other way to be.
Matt was a perfectionist. I remember for an industrial tech class we had to make something called CO2 cars. We would make these model cars out of wood, sand them down, put little plastic wheels on them, and carve a place in the back for a CO2 cartridge to go. Then, we would race them in the hallway when the project was due. I gathered all of my woodworking know-how and put my car together, painted it gold and put a sticker on it. Then I took it up to Matt’s house. He was in the garage working on his CO2 car. Matt had bought balsa wood, an incredibly light wood, and created a smooth machine that seemed to barely weigh an ounce, and barely resembled mine. He had sanded any imperfections out of it. It was perfect. Mine looked like I had taken a branch off a tree and taped some wheels onto it by comparison. He stopped and helped me with mine as best he could.
This was my best friend, Matt. There is way more to him than these few hundred words. Sometimes it’s hard to pick out who Matt was, because who he was has become ingrained in me at this point.
I used to think about how Matt would always come back to our house no matter how upset he was, with a sad poignancy, because he wasn’t coming back anymore. As I write this, though, I realize that I got that wrong. Matt has never stopped coming back.