I keep thinking about Matthew.

He was twelve when I met him. Did he even make it to thirteen? I don’t know, because by October he’d already been through two more surgeries and was staying home for the duration of the school year (until he could recover from his brain tumor, the one he’d been battling since he was three years old).

I remember him, toothy, blonde, smiling, donning himself “Medical Matthew” during a nickname activity the first week of school. We used inexpensive video cameras to make a class film, explaining the significance of our selected names. He smiled broadly for the camera and explained energetically that he always got through his surgeries with a smile. But by the third take, I could see he was getting tired.

Gently fingering the dark cross hatch of stitches that held together the incision from his latest surgery (did that make it number fifteen?) he explained to me that he might cry unexpectedly and get tired a lot, and would I mind if he put his head down on his desk for a while. I hugged him and touched his shoulder and sat down next to him while I helped students with their drafts. They knew Matthew. They were used to this by now.

Toward the middle of the year, it became clear that despite the doctor’s best intentions, and the best prayers from the community, the tumor wasn’t going to go away this time. I expected him to disappear, at least in the conventional sense. It’s true, I didn’t see him anymore after that. But even while he was home on sick leave, the electronic grading system we used (which also generated automatic student rosters) continued to include him.

He died before the school year was out, but his name stayed on my class roll, reminding me, reminding me, every day, that Matthew wasn’t any longer in the world.

When my son was born last year, I thought of Matthew all over again, but in a new way. I think about him a lot actually—his parents, his little brother—every night I put my son to sleep and I think, “Matthew would have been a freshman in high school this year. When was the last time he kissed his mother goodnight? Called out to his little brother? Ran, laughing, through the grass? Did he even get to fall in love? Or out of love? When was his last day of school. Why can’t I remember?”

I realize it’s not productive to think this way. Do any of us really ever know, after all, when our lasts will be? But it puts things squarely in perspective for me.

We are so imperfect. Our bodies, our minds, eventually, for all of us, give up. Already, mine has started to let me down. And I realize, often, that even our best isn’t good enough sometimes. But we do the best we can to love the world, wonderful and awe-ful, as it is. From birth, we are separated. We do our best to stride against the current. To grasp whatever seems solid, even when it’s pulling us under.

For a long time, I traveled away from my mother, the waves of a deep and powerful anger pushing me farther and farther away. I was glad for that momentum. I think it helped me salvage some of the joyous and loving part of her that came before the aftershock. Small moments. The sound of the wind chimes and afternoon sunlight. A picnic on the lawn. Autumn. Wet leaves. The smell of dirt and a garden tomato in her outstretched hand. Her fingernails through my hair as I fell asleep in her lap.

For two years, for months now again, I have tried to let Matthew out of my consciousness. To finish with mourning him, and the lesson of his death. But maybe I don’t need to finish with it anymore. Maybe, we can try our best, but still fail, and be OK. Maybe I can keep the healthy distance I have from my mother, but still keep her. Already, I know that my son isn’t mine. His journey of being a separate being unto himself is already in motion. I only hope it is a joyful momentum, and that I get to take part.

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