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  • Writer's pictureFaith Hakesley

On the 18th Annviersary of my Brother's Death: Remembering Matt

Originally posted to Faith Restored on July 2, 2019

Last week I experienced one of the most terrifying experiences of my life when I suffered an episode of ventricular tachycardia and nearly died. If it wasn’t for my ICD, I would not be here today and I certainly wouldn’t be writing this blog post. Anyone who has been around me over the past week will tell you that I’ve been on a roller coaster ride of emotions. One minute, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude, the next I’m in disbelief, the next I’m angry, and the next I’m utterly exhausted. Trauma and grief will do that to you. I feel so blessed to have such wonderful, loving, and supportive husband, family and friends. Everyone has really rallied around me helping me to feel less alone.

Life can literally change (for better or for worse) in one day or even in a moment. This is something I am all too familiar with. Today marks the 18-year anniversary of my oldest brother’s death. 18 years. It hardly seems possible! When I stop and think of how much time that is and how much has changed since July 1, 2001, I amost feel as though I’m looking in on someone else’s life. When I think of my brother, I sometimes wonder if my memories are real and if he really existed. Not a day goes back that I don’t think of Matt. I’m lucky to have such wonderful memories of him and my family is lucky to hear fond memories shared by others whose lives were impacted by Matt’s. When so much time has gone by, many people have (understandably) moved on and possibly forgotten about him. Yet, there are so many who do still remember and I am always grateful to know that his memory lives on. His 22 years on this earth were incredibly special and left a deep impact on those who knew him, myself included. Just last weekend, I met a woman who was in one of my brother’s college classes. I was deeply moved to hear how Matt’s interactions with her (however infrequent) had left an impression on her and she had never forgotten him.

I may be biased, but Matt was a pretty incredible young man in more ways than one. The spring before he died, he had graduated from college with magna cum laude and in the fall would be going to the University of Michigan where he had gotten a full scholarship to get his doctorate in psychology as well as a teaching fellowship. He wasn’t perfect by any means but there was something very special about him. As his little sister, I had the privilege of seeing what lay beyond the handsome face and the athletic and academic achievements. I was witness to a deeper side of him, the side that honored his Catholic faith and put God first in everything. I have many fond memories of Matt kneeling during our family Rosary, serving mass (even at 22 years old), lecturing at mass, blessing himself before he got up to bat when playing baseball, and always leading his younger brothers and sister with his quiet example. Matt was not afraid to put God first. More than once I heard him defend his faith. That always stuck with me. One of the things that always impressed me about my brother was the fact that he never missed Sunday mass. Even if he was away with the college baseball team, he’d find a way to get to Mass and he wasn’t embarrassed about it. He wore a scapular all the time and kept rosaries in his car. Matt was quiet and actually quite shy (some might describe him as being a bit “goofy” despite his intelligence – he had a rather terrible sense of style and sometimes did things that left us scratching our heads, wondering how someone with such a high GPA could be such a “knucklehead”) but he had a way of spreading joy without even trying. It seemed effortless for him. He was a supportive and caring son, brother, and friend. Matt was a leader and he always inspired me to look at the bright side of things, to find the hope even in difficult times.

Matt was dearly loved by everyone but on the morning of Sunday, July 1, 2001 God called him home. That day still haunts me. I remember walking into the adjacent room where he was talking to his best friend on the phone when I heard a strange, rasping sound like someone struggling to breathe. I found Matt lying on the floor – I ran to his side and screamed at him to wake up. He sat up for one brief moment, looked at me in surprise and confusion (his blue eyes strangely seemed to pierce right through mine) as he gasped, “Faith? What? What?” and then he closed his eyes for the last time. He was pronounced dead at the hospital a couple hours later. Later that week at his funeral, I looked down at his casket from the choir loft of our packed church and played “Ave Maria” on my violin. The tears flowed freely. That was my way of saying goodbye, my little gift to him. To this day, I can’t play that hymn without tearing up.

Matt’s death shook the whole family. The autopsy showed an undetected heart condition (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy). It was ultimately an episode of ventricular tachycardia that killed him, the same kind of issue I had last week (different heart conditions, though). It’s honestly a miracle Matt lived as long as he did because he had always been so physically active and athletic. His particular condition would have caused him to mostly avoid intense physical activity. There was comfort in knowing that Matt had been to confession the day before and he had taken my Dad out for breakfast along with my other older brother. He died wearing his scapular and received the Last Rites. I’ll never forget watching my mother kneeling in fervent prayer in our front yard while the paramedics worked on Matt before rushing him to the hospital. She suddenly said out loud, “Not without the Last Rites!” Mom later told me that she had heard an interior voice telling her, “I am going to take your son.” She begged God to wait until a priest could be called. Her prayer was answered. The day of Matt’s death was a nightmare but it was also strangely peaceful. I can’t really describe it except to say that we knew we weren’t alone in our grief – God was with us. There was a huge thunder and lightning storm later that day, as if the heavens themselves shared our grief.

I’ve gone through many times over the years when life has seemed dark to me. I have often felt little to no hope and I’ve really had to open my eyes to find the little joys, to find God’s hand in whatever the situation may be. In times of disappointment or distress, I have often thought, “How would Matt handle this?” My big brother was one of those “glass half-full” kind of people. I tend to be the opposite but the way he lived his life reminds me to be grateful for God’s gifts and to use those gifts to serve Our Lord and help others. God always brings good out of the bad and Matt’s death was no different. There were good things that happened, glimmers of God’s love and grace were all around us. We heard of a few people becoming Catholic because of his influence on their lives. My own husband, Matt’s best friend who he was speaking to on the phone when he collapsed, experienced a radical conversion years later partly due to Matt’s influence. I never cease to be amazed at how the influence of one person can impact so many individuals.

Matt’s anniversary is always difficult but this year it seems to be hitting me extra hard. I think my episode last week with my own heart condition is part of the reason. It’s also a good reminder, though, to live each day for Christ and to appreciate each day I am given on this earth. Life is a gift. Matt’s life was a gift and I am a better person because of him. I’m sure many people are. Accepting Matt’s death was not easy and it took time. The stages of grief felt like an indescribably awful roller coaster ride. It was a great comfort to me when a day came, though many years later, when I was able to recognize that even God, though He loved His son, did not protect His own son from death. He sent His only begotten son to this earth to die for sinners and then rise from the dead thereby opening the gates of heaven. I had to trust that God had died, not only for me, but for Matt and everyone else in this world.

“Jesus, I trust in you.” How difficult those words are to say (and truly mean them) especially in times of trial and suffering! Those same words and the image of Jesus of Divine Mercy adorn Matt’s gravestone and the same image on a tapestry was donated in his memory to our church – it hangs on a side altar. It serves as a reminder to trust in God’s mercy and love. It’s a reminder for me (personally) to trust in Him no matter what. To trust, means to have a living faith. Believe me, I’ve needed that reminder this past week! All week long, I’ve been imagining Matt’s voice in my head telling me to trust, to hope, to persevere, telling me that everything is going to be ok. I’m still having a really hard time with that, but I sure am trying.

18 years have gone by and I’ve learned to live without Matt’s physical presence. The hole in my heart will always be there, but I have faith that we will meet again one day. In the meantime, I will never stop missing him.

"The house feels strangely quiet and lonely. Rooms that were once full of conversation and laughter are now filled with the sound of silence. Now they are home to only echoes and images in my memory. Matt’s room, once full of sports equipment, piles of books and unorganized papers, school banners, trophies and clothes now seems too clean, too neat. I no longer smell his cologne (or his feet). Where there was once disarray and chaos, there is now emptiness. I hear only echoes of voices and laughter. Were they real or am I imagining them? The only sound that seems real is silence, broken only by the sound of my tears. But I smile through the tears knowing that Matt was real. My memories of him are real and they are a precious gift. Matt is real and he lives on inside of me. Things will never be the same. It seems impossible that the world around me continues on like nothing has happened, as if nothing as changed. It feels like everything should just stop. But the reality is that time goes on. Life will continue to change and I will slowly learn to live without his physical presence. Jesus, help me to accept this…take care of my brother.” (Journal entry, fall 2001)

Requiescat en pace, my sweet brother. Until we meet again…

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