A friend explained the concept of “experiencing firsts” to me while I sat weepy across the table picking at delicious baked goods that I could hardly enjoy. “It’s going to be like that first morning when you found out about Matt’s suicide. Each time you experience something for the first time it’s going to be hard.” I picked up a piece of corn bread, layered it with butter and jalapeno jelly, and realized that the memorial service would be the first time I would see his parents since my boyfriend, Matt, had taken his own life. It would be the first time I would see his friends, and the first time I would meet some of his friends that I only heard about from the few memories that Matt had shared.
It would be the first time back in the town where we had lived together, the town Matt had called home for thirteen years before the almost four that we had dated. He had talked about the timberframe building he would design and build for us: three stories and a penthouse apartment with floor to ceiling windows that would overlook the mountains and valley. It would also be the first time that I would go into Matt’s office in his timberframe shop, the one that had taken me four days to paint cerulean blue. I had chosen the color to remind him of the oceans in the world that we would swim and sail. I had gotten the paint free from a local painter because he happened to have that color leftover. “Hell, if you don’t take it, it’ll just sit in the back of my truck,” he had said while he coughed out the remnants of his Marlboro. When I would walk into that office now it would be another first, Matt wouldn’t be sitting there, and his absence would be permanent.
Two of his friends on my radar still didn’t know about Matt’s suicide. One named David was unreachable because he spent winters surfing the Pacific in Mexico and turned off his cell phone for four months. My quest to contact him became obsessive (which I had noticed was one way of dealing with the shock and grief). I went as far as emailing random surfers that I found by goggling surfing forums to see if they might be catching the same waves as my described friend. One e-mailed back. “Yeah, I know that guy. Have never talked to him, but have seen him on the beach.” I grew frustrated and wanted to e-mail back, “Well, do you think you could go up to him?” but knew I should monitor where I channeled my anger. I never heard back from the surfer, chalked it up to the fact that catching righteous tubes was more important than connecting strangers and wondered if I had put the words ‘death’ or ‘suicide’ in the email would I have gotten different results. I had to let go of the fact that our friend might miss the memorial service, and wondered how long it would be before he learned the news.
It took some time before anyone could even think about having Matt’s memorial service, but once the date was set, each family member and close friend worked out his or her own part. His family, aunts, uncles, cousins, four close friends, and I gathered beneath one of Matt’s timberframe at his parent’s home for a light brunch. Then we moved into the living room and formed a circle on chairs and couches. One by one, we went around sharing our thoughts, a poem, or something we had written to explain what was special to each of us about Matt. As we reached for Kleenex to wipe away our tears, we reached into our hearts to share about his life.
We had scheduled a larger service for the community that evening at the timberframe shop. Earlier the day before, I had driven to get poster board and as the sun reflected off two feet of snow, I veered off and got myself stuck. In this rural area without four-wheel drive, I had to wave down any car that decided to pass in the thirty minutes that I stood there wishing I had remembered gloves. An older woman, stocky and strong like most of the rock climbing, mountain biking type that lived in these parts, stopped her truck. “Oh, did you get distracted putting on make-up?” Her condescending tone had put me off, it was the same masculinity that made me miss the femininity that always surrounded me in San Francisco, but I was in such a sorry state wondering how I had gotten stuck in the first place that it didn’t occur to me to give her my real excuse. I didn’t bother telling her it was because I had reached for my ringing phone and couldn’t distinguish between the side of the road and the snow bank, and I didn’t bother asking her to give me a little compassionate break. She left me with a tow rope, a shovel and brief instructions as to how I could get out once someone came by, then she waved me off to make it to her appointment on time. I stood their shoveling around the tires and couldn’t recall anyone being worried about making it anywhere on time in this town. Then I looked up, a habit you do after someone dies, and I cursed Matt. Though I didn’t put too much faith in there being a heaven, I didn’t know where else to look. I knew that wherever he was, he was looking down on me laughing, because he used to say, “You could never handle winters here.” It wasn’t that I couldn’t, it’s that I never would have wanted to.
Once the third truck came by and towed me out of my winter nightmare, I went to the timberframe shop and covered the entrance wall with photographs that I had taken of Matt over the years. The photomontage started with our first road trip around Idaho. Then the photos and descriptions moved across the wall like the travels that had moved us around North America. There was the circle trip through the Canadian Rockies, the camping trip on the big island of Hawaii, our discovery of the Pacific Northwest and Vancouver Island, and finally our trip from last year through Mexico. Matt had rebuilt a refurbished Japanese motor for a 1986 Toyota van that we drove from San Francisco down the Pacific coast to the middle of Mexico, onward through Mexico City, up into Texas, over to Florida, up the Eastern seaboard and across the states back into Idaho. He had bought the van for one hundred dollars, the motor for three hundred, and spent two weeks comparing the old motor to the new motor with the keen eye of a self-taught expert. Next, he build a pine bed frame for the van which he cut down the center, installed some hinges, and made the piece so that it could fold up one side in order to get our personal items stored in laundry baskets underneath. It was in these glimpses of Matt’s ingenuity that had attracted him to me. It was the way he could create and solve any building or mechanical mystery and turn it into a project that kept him focused. When he had finished that project, I crawled onto our tri-fold mattress with him as we lay like spoons. In that moment, I waited for those three words that I always wanted to hear from him. I realize now that the safest way for Matt to communicate those words was through his accomplishments.
Back at the memorial service, faces I knew and faces I always wondered about filled the shop a hundred people deep. I was nervous to see anyone who recognized me, but as it goes in small communities, once you’ve left your mark, a hug awaits you around every corner.
Matt’s best friend came up to me.
“Sasya, you won’t believe who’s here,” and he led me around a crowd of people.
Standing before me was our surfing friend, David. I ran into him for a hug as I started to cry. “They found you. You got my emails.”
David shook his head in grief, “I can’t believe it,” he said in the same shock I had had for a month already. “Wait, what emails?”
“You didn’t get my emails? I was emailing surfers in Mexico to find you. They didn’t tell you? Then how did you know to come?”
David explained that he had had problems with his Achilles’ tendon, (which ironically to me had been Matt’s same physical issue when I had first met him), and that he had come back into the Valley for one day and night to see his doctor. He had driven into town for dinner and someone had said to him, “Hey, you going to that thing for Matt?”
David said, “What is Matt having?”
I cried wondering if Matt was up there orchestrating this all.
Moments later, while I stood in a circle of women blubbering about how strange it was that David had shown up, Matt’s Aunt Sarah came up to me.
“Sasya, this is Katy. I think you two would have a lot in common, you should talk.” Katy was one woman that I didn’t recognized from the Valley, which meant nothing since it had only been my second summer here.
“Katy, I need to eat. Let me grab something.”
I trusted Matt’s Aunt Sarah that she wouldn’t give me something I couldn’t handle. I also trusted her because it was one of the few relatives in Matt’s family that he had recently grown close to during a time when he started to separate himself from so many others.
Read Part II