Thursday, November 22, 2007
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
I first met Matthew when I was a young teacher at a small Catholic elementary school on the west side of Los Angeles and he was a newly elected member of the student council of which I was the moderator. Our relationship did not last long. Matthew was a practical joker, a mischievous kid whose escapades, by today’s standards, would seem rather tame. I do not remember what he did to get himself kicked off the council; he might have placed a younger student in the bathroom trashcan. In any case, he did not last through the fall under my supervision, and that was that. He spent the remainder of his eighth grade days off my radar. We passed each other in the halls with barely a nod.
Two years later, the local Catholic high school hired me to teach English. I would be reunited with most of my former students because my old school sent nearly all its graduates to this particular institution. When I arrived on campus, one of the first people I saw was Matthew. He did not say hello, and I prayed he would not be in my class. I was not looking forward to the awkwardness.
We started school, and I quickly discovered that Matthew was in my colleague’s tenth grade English class. Even though I dodged one bullet, I found many more challenging students waiting for me. Every day, I had a journal topic on the board when my students came in so that they would get in the habit of immediately writing in their notebooks. We would then share our responses. Pat, the other tenth grade teacher, came into my room often during those days, and we brainstormed for topics, considering current events, news reports, and things we heard on the radio commuting to campus.
The day before Thanksgiving, I asked my students to write about their views on God. I first asked them to explain if they believed in God, not a certainty even though this was a Catholic school. Then I asked them to explain where they felt the presence of God, a higher being, or spirituality, and how this helped them cope with day-to-day challenges. Pat liked the topic and borrowed it for her class. The students wrote, we shared, and off we went for the long weekend.
On Sunday, I came home to find my answering machine blinking. The secretary from the school was on the line. In a small, quiet voice, she apologized for interrupting my weekend, but I should prepare myself for Monday. It seems that Matthew had been involved in a car crash and was dead. We could expect major disruptions first thing Monday morning. We should meet our homeroom classes and accompany them to the church on campus for a special memorial service.
I was shocked and numb. The kid was only in tenth grade. I did not know what to expect on Monday, and I was struggling with my own feelings. I did not particularly care for Matthew, so I felt guilty. He was not in my class, and I had never technically been his teacher. I felt a bit distanced from the situation as well. I knew he came from a large family and had several brothers who had attended the school before he did. I thought he might be the youngest.
The next morning, all hell broke loose. I was not prepared for what I saw that day. Students were sobbing, collapsed in the hallways. The teachers were literally carrying them to the church. Once inside, the wails and moans increased. I did not realize how popular Matthew was. He was on the football team, and had recently been promoted to varsity, even though he was only a sophomore. A priest tried to offer words of condolence to the students, speaking about Matthew going to “that big football field in the sky.”
Students were allowed to go home after the service, but almost all of them stayed around school, hugging each other and crying. It did not matter, male or female, people just sobbed and clung to each other. I went up to my classroom and sat there with all the windows open and the lights off. The cold, crisp air from the ocean seven blocks away felt like it blew right through me. I let it swirl my papers off my desk and scatter them all over the classroom.
The week went downhill from there. First came the rumors and stories of the accident. Matthew had gone to the snow in the mountains north of Los Angeles with his girlfriend and three other friends, two of whom were brothers. They were traveling down a narrow highway, coming back from a good day when a drunk driver crossed the line and hit them head on. Their SUV rolled over several times, and Matthew was ejected. One of the brothers was driving, and had been badly injured in the chest by the steering wheel. Matthew’s girlfriend was injured, and possibly thrown from the vehicle as well, depending on who told the story. In any case, Matthew was killed instantly. There were stories circulating that his girlfriend crawled to him and held him in her arms while he died. It took paramedics a considerable amount of time to reach the rural accident scene.
The next wave of stories that hit involved the aftermath of the accident. We heard that Matthew’s father and brother drove the eighty or more miles to the high desert to get to the hospital. They did not know how badly Matthew was hurt. When they arrived, he was dead, and they had to identify the body. Then, they drove back to Los Angeles. I wondered what that drive had been like, all those miles back home.
The family decided to have two funerals, one for the school, and one for family and friends. They also decided to donate Matthew’s eyes for transplant. His casket would be open for viewing at a local funeral home, and the students would have specific hours they could go to see him.
We tried to resume classes. Many students did not come to school, or if they did, they did not attend classes. I just let the students ask questions. They wanted to know what would be done with Matthew’s body at the local funeral home. Did he feel pain? What did it mean to be “killed instantly?” Did it really happen that quickly? I was completely out of my league. I did not know these things, yet I felt like I should. It did not matter that I was only an English teacher. My students wanted to know.
One evening, I stayed at the school late. My wife was busy at her school with a parent meeting or some event, and I did not want to go home to an empty house. Often, the staff of the cafeteria left food for the faculty in the small kitchen off the main faculty room. I went there, found nothing, and wound up sitting in the dark in the faculty room thinking about Matthew. The science teacher came in and sat with me, and I asked him some of the questions the students were asking me in class. He patiently explained the embalming process, how organs are harvested, and other intricacies of the funeral industry. I remember his voice in the dark room, the hum of the furnace, the way he told me, fatigue evident in his voice, like he was telling a time-worn story. He saved me. The next day, I retold the story word for word to my students.
One of the days that week, the students came tumbling into the building, shouting and crying. My nerves were frayed and jagged at this point. When I got them settled down, they told me a heartbreaking story. It seems that Matthew’s father told them that when they went to see Matthew at the funeral home, they could put mementos, notes, cards, and letters in the casket with him. As the week progressed, slips of paper, blueberry muffins wrapped in cellophane (Matthew’s favorite), and small remembrances filled the spaces next to the body. As some of the students were gathered around the open casket and crying, they noticed a small drop of clear fluid fall down the side of the corpse’s face. Matthew was crying with them. He could hear them. “Isn’t this what it meant?” they demanded to know.
I found myself explaining that when they removed Matthew’s corneas, fluid was present. It was probably this fluid that they saw on his cheek. I gently tried to explain that the dead do not hear us, and if they did, it would not be the way we hear each other when we are alive. “He knows and understands your grief, but he no longer inhabits that body. He is not there.” They were not satisfied with that answer.
I attended both funerals. The church was packed each time, and most people attended twice like I did. At one point, Matthew’s father read from his journal. It was the entry made the day before Thanksgiving. “Of course I believe in God,” Matthew wrote. “And I know that one day I will be with him in heaven.” I remembered the day Pat and I came up with the topic. We just wanted to fill the time, to get the students writing, to finish the day and go on the long holiday weekend.
The graveside service was scheduled for the next day. The administration wanted the faculty to drive students to the cemetery and make sure everyone got back to campus when the service was over. I had a small hatchback at the time, but I took three large football players with me. As we drove to the cemetery, I noticed that one had a blueberry muffin on his lap. “Breakfast?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I kept forgetting to bring it to the funeral home to put it in the casket with Matt. I thought I could slip it in with the flowers today.”
When we arrived at the cemetery, everyone gathered around for one last goodbye. Someone produced a guitar and the students sang. Matthew’s girlfriend was there, battered and torn. She collapsed on the coffin and cried.
When the time came to leave, the students would not go. I tried to collect my group, but they refused, saying they would remain at the cemetery and find another way home.
Back at school, the rest of the year became a challenge. I continued to ask my students to write journal entries, but no matter what the prompt was, the students always brought it back to Matthew.
One student in my class was a boy named Enrique. He was Matthew’s best friend. After the death, he became sullen and withdrawn. His girlfriend was also my student, and I could tell Enrique’s worsening moods were troubling her as well. Enrique began to miss school frequently, and when he was present, he was checked out, staring out the window, and refusing to participate in class.
After school one day, Enrique’s girlfriend, Lisa, came to see me. “You have to do something about Enrique,” she said. “I’m afraid he is going to hurt himself.” I promised to talk to him.
I had Enrique come to see me late one afternoon after weight training. We were the only ones in the building. “Look,” I began, “Matthew is gone. You have to let him go.” I did not get much further into the conversation when he exploded. He did not think I had the right to say those things to him. He accused me of not understanding what he was going through. He stood up and threw his chair across the room. He was a big, muscular lineman on the football team, and for a moment, I thought he would come at me. Instead, he stormed out of my classroom, and I did not see him again for at least a week.
Class became torture. I felt responsible for Enrique’s absence, and when he was there, he glared angrily at me. I was the focus of his rage. Others in the class wrote of their dreams with Matthew. Enrique would leave the room, or sit there, crying quietly. Lisa looked equally miserable.
Some time around Easter, the dam broke. I gave my students a journal topic, something weak like “Write about your life as a windshield wiper on your mom’s car.” Stupid. Enrique was there. The students wrote in silence for a while, and when I thought they had finished, I asked for volunteers. Enrique’s hand went up. It was the first time he had volunteered since before Matthew died. I called on him.
“Last night, I finally had a dream with Matthew,” he started. He looked around the room at the other students, many of whom were holding their collective breath. “You all have had dreams with him,” he said. “I kept wondering why he did not appear to me.” He looked down at his notebook and continued reading. “He was sitting at the lunch tables outside under the trees eating one of those round pizzas. I could not believe he was there. He laughed and then threw his pizza at me and ran. I chased him down and tackled him. I pinned him down on the grass and he was laughing his head off. I told him I loved him and he said, ‘I know.’ Then he just disappeared.”
Enrique’s voice caught, and for a moment he did not know where to go or what to do. I looked around the room. Everyone, including the boys, was crying.
I decided, for a number of reasons, to leave the school at the end of the year. It had been a tough year, with challenges in the classroom and in my personal life. I felt scraped up and raw.
As the last day of school approached, I prepared my classes for final exams. One day, as I was teaching, I looked up to see Enrique come in the back door of my classroom, go to my desk, and leave something. He waved at me as he left. When the class was over, I went back to my desk and found a picture of Matthew and Enrique in their football uniforms, taken at the start of football season back in August. They both looked mean and tough, and Matthew wore the number 90, the year that he died. I turned the picture over and read the back: “Dear Mr. Martin, well I guess I won’t be seeing you around anymore. I just want to thank you and hope you become a famous writer. I’ll buy all your books. By the way, I really enjoy your stories. Maybe someday you could write something about me and Matt. Excuse me, Matt and I. Love, Enrique #61. P.M.S. Good luck!”
Enrique, I finally wrote something about you and Matt. I tell your story every year to my students, and your photograph is framed on my desk at home. We always wonder what happened to you. I tell them you’d be about 32 years old now, probably with your own children, a wife, and hopefully, a good life.
A few years ago, I went back to see Matt’s grave. I noticed that his family used his last journal entry as his epitaph on the stone. I knelt down next to it, and discovered four small, round stones placed carefully in the margin of his granite gravestone. On each was painted one word: We. Still. Miss. You. Someone remembers, even now.
I think of a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. “To be grown up is to sit at the table with people who have died, / who neither listen nor speak; / Who do not drink their tea, though they always said / Tea was such a comfort…/ Your tea is cold now. / You drink it standing up, / And leave the house.”
In the end, we all must let go of what we have lost.