When I was eight years old, my parents made the decision to move our family out of the house my dad built for us in Niagara Falls, to a 100-year old fixer-upper with two-inch yellow shag carpet and wood paneled walls in Port Robinson.
I was upset for a few reasons, one of which was that my grade 3 “boyfriend” broke up with me the instant he found out I was leaving, and so my last few days of school were very difficult. Not to mention the fact that I had to go to a new school, meet a new neighbourhood of kids, and feel like an outsider pretty much all of the time. I was pissed off for about two months, but eventually I started to fall in love with all the nature around me and I began to settle into my new digs.
My first day at the new school, I wore a dress with stupid nylons and when I was trying to wrench the crotch back up to where it was supposed to be, (I effing HATE nylons!) they ended up splitting up the ass instead. I don’t know if anyone ever noticed, but needless to say I was horrified. I was always an awkward girl, and situations like the one I just mentioned have been happening to me for as long as I can remember.
In those first few days, I met a girl in my class who also had to take the hour-long bus ride that covered all the outer areas of the school district. Heather was kind, smart, considerate and funny. And she lived on a farm! With horses and chickens and turkeys and dogs and cats and a massive barn with acres and acres of land behind it. She invited me to her birthday party that first year, and her dad let each of us girls sit on their painter horse, Mahalo, while he led her in a big circle around the yard. I was in heaven. I loved animals!! If I remember correctly, we stuffed about 5 or 6 girls into one of those small trailers that you have to crank in order to expand it to full height, and we were up all night listening to music and gossiping and giggling like 9-year olds tend to do.
This was the beginning of a friendship that has spanned for 26 years of my life and counting. For a very long time, we were together almost every single day after school. If she didn’t get off at my bus stop and spend the night at my house, I was getting off at her stop and spending the night at her place. Every morning before school started, we would just walk together all over the school yard, talking, totally content with each other’s company and unconcerned about most of the typical stuff kids our age were doing. Her family was a big one–dad Alden, mom Sue, big brother Matt, big sister Amy, and little sister Jessie–and even though they had more than their fair share of pets and children to take care of, they welcomed me into their home with open arms.
As we got older, we shared a lot of firsts together. First time drinking, first time smoking (my parents’ cigarette butts from their ashtrays), first crushes, all those little secrets–you name it, we were basically attached at the hip. Her family took me with them when they went up north and rented a cottage on Golden Lake for a week, two or three years in a row. They took me with them when they camped at Darien Lake for Victoria Day weekend for a few years in a row. My birthday just happens to fall on Victoria Day Weekend almost every year, so I felt extra special to be able to go with them and celebrate it at an amusement park. Their house was full of love, and it reflected in everything they did.
Heather’s older brother Matthew lived in the basement of that big ol’ farmhouse, in a massive rec room with a wood-burning stove, a couch, TV, Sega Genesis, dial-up internet on an old dinosaur of a computer, and a big comfy bed. I think he may have had a fish tank for a while too. We spent a lot of time down there whenever he wasn’t around, and sometimes he was nice enough to let us stay for a while after he came home from work or whatever party he was at or from 7-11 with a Big Gulp in his hand. There were stacks and stacks of Big Gulp cups down there, let me tell you. He would tell us stories about his friends and all the parties they had been to, and we both thought he was so cool, we just listened all wide-eyed and admiring. (At least I did; I’m sure Heather was used to him by that point!) Most of the time he was home, he was sleeping, so we used to call him the Bed Monster (cause that was the coolest name we could come up with? Lol).
I had a crush on him for as long as I can remember, and I think it was more to do with his personality and his age than it did with anything else. I was the oldest in my family, so I never knew what it was like to have a big brother looking out for me. (Or sister, for that matter). I wanted his approval, I guess. He was big and tall, sarcastic, and funny–he loved cracking jokes and then laughing at them, which is a trait I’ve found I picked up over the years myself. Always smiling, I honestly can’t remember a time I ever saw him angry. If you didn’t know him you might think he was intimidating just based on his size, but that would melt away the moment he smiled or talked to you, or played with his baby nephew (and much later on, nieces and another nephew too!) He would bust our balls all day long, but we knew he loved us. When we got older, I would still try to flirt with him for funsies, but mostly it was just to bug Heather. He was a strapping man though, that’s for sure. My mom always said he was “built like a brick shithouse”, but in a good way. I think she had a little crush on him too! Hahaha.
Matt had a huge CD collection in his room, too, and because we were at just the right age, we would get into them and listen to them on repeat constantly. Over time he unknowingly helped to introduce us to what has become a lifelong passion, I think for both of us–our love of music, particularly alternative in my case. (My father was probably my biggest musical influence, but that’s a tale for another day). We listened to Green Day’s “Dookie” until we knew all the words, Beck’s Mellow Gold, Stone Temple Pilots, Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Metallica’s Black Album, Juliana Hatfield, Alanis Morrissette, Nirvana, and Hole, to name just a few that I can think of off the top of my head. Oh, and let’s not forget the soundtrack from the hit movie, “Batman Forever,” because I loved the song “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” by U2 (probably the only U2 song that I have ever used the word “love” to describe). Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, you name it, the guy had fantastic taste.
When we weren’t listening to music, we were stoking the wood-burning stove and settling in to watch movies on his couch while we did our homework. I can’t tell you how many times we watched Tank Girl, The Crow, Cool World or the Rocky Horror Picture Show in his room. He would come home late at night and kick us out eventually, but there were the odd nights when he would stay out somewhere and then we were allowed to crash in his bed, and when I think about Matt I think about how much comfort I felt in that room, in that house, with that family. If you have never woken up next to a wood-burning stove, you should add it to your bucket list. A few minutes later reality would set in as Heather’s mom yelled down to us to get ready for school, but we absolutely loved sleeping down there, and it was painful to crawl out from under the covers when we were that toasty and warm.
Eventually, Heather and I moved on to high school, and then we kind of did our own thing for a few years while she was in school and I was in a failing marriage and then a couple of failing relationships after that. But whenever we found time to reconnect, we always picked up right where we’d left off. We’d go out for late night drives like old times, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and catching up on all the crap that had gone on in our lives since the last time we’d spoken. She had moved into Matt’s new house (he’d bought their grandmother’s home after she passed away) and was living in one of the upstairs bedrooms, which she’d painted and decorated in her own unique style. I still felt as welcome there as I had in her parents’ place. Matt was usually on the couch or in the La-Z-Boy binge watching a new show, a hockey game, or playing one video game or another. He had such an odd array of decorations in his living room, but the most memorable for me was the life-sized golden sarcophagus that stared at you from the corner and somehow still took up too much room. He would send me home with DVDs and movie recommendations like a little lending library, and I was so careful to remember to bring them back to him because I would’ve hated to ruin something of his that he went out of his way to let me use. I was honoured that he trusted me to take care of his things. We talked about movies and music, generally busted each other’s balls for a few minutes, and then eventually Heather and I would go up to her room or out wherever we were going, always thinking there would be more time to come back, to hang out a little longer, to pretend we were kids again and some of us didn’t have kids of our own now that we needed to get home to. He had adopted a dog from New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, and she was just the cutest little sausage I had ever seen. Patchy and speckly and beautiful and sweet; any time I slept at Heather’s after that, Gypsy slept in bed between us under the covers, and I loved it.
I also remember a period in between when he lived at another house, and he even got us to listen to Staind when he was really into them. I can’t listen to Staind very much anymore, but whenever it comes on, I think of him. He loved the Leafs so much he named his cats Darcy and Tucker, and he had those cats for such a long time too. These are just little snippets of things I can remember, but they are the things that come to mind when I think back on it now.
We get older and life kind of takes the reigns on us a little bit. I find that the older I get, the faster the days and weeks and months go by, and before I know it I’m another year older. We always think that we have more time to visit with someone, more time to make up for lost time. If I had known that this was not the case with Matthew, I would have made more of an effort to be there and visit more often. He liked to stay at home a lot, which I totally relate to, because my home is basically always where I prefer to be. There are too many variables out there in the world, too many awkward or uncomfortable situations to get into, whereas at home you can pretty much monitor what does and doesn’t happen there. I understand Matt’s social anxieties because I deal with the same sort of thing, and I always have. I am so glad that he had Heather and Gypsy to keep him company. Matthew was the only person who Heather would not break plans with for anyone else. He held such a huge place in her heart, and I know that he was her person, even more than I could ever hope to be. They had the connection from the moment Heather was born, and it’s obvious in every single picture you see of them together at any age.
We always think we have more time . . . but we don’t. Sometimes, even the strongest person who holds everyone around them together like glue, who brightens any stormy day, can not remain invincible forever. There’s a time for all of us, and the scariest part of living with that notion is the fact that none of us have any idea when that time is going to be.
I take comfort in the knowledge that he did not suffer. He did not deserve to suffer. He was the definition of a Good Man in my books. I take comfort in the fact that I know this family so well, and I know that no matter what obstacles they encounter, they will always endure. They are bound together by love for each other, and although there is such a big piece missing from their lives now, I know he will live on in the hearts and minds of everyone who knew him.
Even more tragic still, Gypsy passed away within 10 days of Matthew. Initially, the family thought that she was sad and depressed because Matt was gone, but they later learned that she was riddled with cancer and barely holding on, and her body gave up. It makes me think maybe she was holding on just for him. And suddenly this profound loss is doubled, because that dog was an absolute gem and what are the odds that this would happen so soon after the first? I have spent the past few weeks trying to come to terms with the fact that this family has already had to deal with so much, only to get kicked again while they were already down.
My heart breaks for his mother, such a tiny little thing, but so brave and strong. I feel her pain on such a deep level because I have children of my own, and I can’t imagine losing any of them without being completely shattered. It’s just something that no parent ever wants to experience, but some of us do not have a choice. I know that she will be taken care of because she has raised three strong, beautiful daughters who will be there for her in her times of need. They will all have to lean on each other, but they will eventually feel some semblance of enjoyment in life again.
His father is a man who has always commanded respect from me. He was always doing something, building something, tending to the animals or the yard or the field, using his big, strong hands, and every night he sat at the sink and washed the dishes after dinner with those same big strong hands. You never heard him complain–he had such a good sense of humour, he was always cracking jokes or laughing about something. Such a big, strong man, but also such a big, bearded teddy bear. I saw her parents on the day of the funeral for the first time in several years, and their grief made them look that much more frail to me. I have never seen Alden look so sad or broken in all the years I have known him. My heart breaks for him. He lost his only son, he lost his baby boy. If I could have one wish, it would be to blanket them in comfort, the whole lot of them, and be there until the pain dulls even a little bit. But no one person can do that, it takes all of us working together to make a difference in their lives.
My problem(?) is that I am blessed (cursed?) with being a sensitive, an empath. I not only hurt in the first person; I think of situations like this from every different angle possible. The parents, the sisters, the aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, coworkers, etc, etc. I imagine losing my husband now that he has renewed my faith in love and in life, and I have no idea what I would do, and they are living that nightmare right now. I imagine losing one of my children, and how I would ever go on after suffering that horror. So my grief is tenfold what it should be because I feel it from every angle. And it’s still nothing compared to the reality of what’s happened here.
I just want to say thank you to every single person who has rallied together to ease the suffering of this family. I don’t know how to end something like this, because I’ve never written anything like it before, and I hope that they approve of everything I’ve said here. They know I’ve written it from my heart.
Matthew was a beautiful soul, a genuine, kindhearted, intelligent, fun-loving man who was one of a kind and can never be replaced. The sun will never shine quite as brightly as it did before a loss like this. There will always be the bittersweet moments where you wish they were there, or you think you see them in the crowd or the edge of your vision, just for a moment, but it still feels so real even though you know it can’t possibly be. But I feel that during his short life, he made the biggest and best impression he possibly could have in the lives of the people around him. He was giving, generous, intelligent, surprisingly soft-spoken, and his eyes sparkled with mischief constantly. I loved him like a brother, the same way I love the whole family like my own, and I will remember him fondly and do everything I can to honour his memory in the wake of this tremendous loss.
Rest in Peace, Matt. It goes without saying that you will be missed by many, many people.
Sincerely and With Love,