The plan is to have a Celebration of Life event for Matthew. Since I’m far away, the extended family is point for the arrangements. Hopefully, they do what’s right and respect the wishes of the entire family. Anything short of that dishonors Matt – as a former Marine, honor is fundamental to my worldview. But I have to say I’m not encouraged by their efforts. So, as I’m sitting here, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be able to eulogize my brother, at least in the traditional sense.
But I’m writing one anyway … warming up in the bullpen just in case I’m called in to deliver. If not, at least it will be out in the cosmos.
You see, there’s nothing else I can do for Matt other than share memories for those that loved him – or would have had they met him. In the scheme of my life, it is a very important job and I want to do it.
As I begin this, it’s been two weeks exactly since that dreadful bike ride in Ojai. The healing process has sputtered along, but I’ve been startled by those quiet and alone moments in my otherwise busy days. Matt crashes through the normalcy, I see his face, grief pours over me as if from a cloudburst, and I cry. And then the sorrow quickly retreats as though my subconscious – or God’s grace – yanks it back to spare me the pain. I’m left with red swollen eyes as a searing reminder that my brother is gone.
I remember 1991 when our mother died. The Steele boys managed to get through that first week dealing with her affairs, concerned friends and the logistics of death. We laughed, reminisced, cried, took pills, drank beer and playfully split up her treasures – not the material stuff like lamps and couches, but the cherished things in her life; family pictures, letters from Dad, her sons’ baby shoes and report cards, her silly tools, her favorite ice breaker. In fairness, the pill popping, beer drinking and wailing like a newborn may have been all me but those seven days were an absolute blur.
The brothers didn’t argue that week, but we might have been tempted when it came to the expense for Mom’s funeral. We were sitting around a conference table, the typecast funeral director mumbling something quasi consoling, he looked like Lurch, and he placed the invoice on the table. As an aside, for you young mortuary entrepreneurs, hire grief counselors that look like Hooters waitresses; you’ll have bodies stacked like books in the prep room as the bereaved jockey for facetime.
Anyway, Greg looked at it, handed it over to me, I then pushed it to Matthew. He did a quick glance and shoved it back toward the middle. Seemed pricey. But you would have thought it was a $20,000 bar tab. I grew a beard waiting for someone to make a move. Sure enough, we all caved and out came the credit cards. Somebody got bonus points that week but I can’t remember who. We may have even played rock scissors paper to decide the winning card. Lurch, our perplexed death host, clearly thought we were certifiable.
First bit of business is a comment about birth order. The way it’s supposed to work is that Greg, the oldest, dies and I stand up and say things like war hero, perfectionist, idiot savant, I broke all his model airplanes when I was five and he almost killed me, etc.
Then I die and Matt takes his turn throwing out such superlatives as brilliant, irresistible, a generational icon – too much? – I traumatized him with my version of the birds and bees (I used action figures), and so on. And then Matt dies. Well, the problem is that the death order has gone rogue. And here I am, my immediate universe thrown in chaos, and I have to reflect on truths about my brother.
- Matthew was not a tattoo guy, but I would like to ink up the virtual Matt. He loved his father Bud, his mother Grace, his brother Greg and his awesome nephew Zachary – soon to graduate from the L.A. County Fire Academy – so let’s Rembrandt this loving family portrait on his chest. His legacy, his DNA, now covers his heart. Would I be included? Not sure. He and I have waged a silent war over the last couple of years so he would probably will the ink to run dry. My tough love stratagem was not well received, and as evidenced by him not being here, it was clearly a total failure.
- His wife Judy and her family filled up part two of his life. They would have been emblazoned on his arms. Imagine a colorful sleeve depicting extended family moments that marked so many occasions. He cherished those gatherings.
- On his back would be a cross. As his dear friend and Pastor Paul said, Matt was incredibly deep and spiritual – a believer in Jesus Christ. But carrying a cross on your back is not just bearing one’s trials, it’s subordinating your will, your plans and desires to the will of God. Matt knew this, grappled with purpose as we all do, but tried his best.
- I remember the exact moment when my mother told me I was going to have a little brother. It was Norfolk Virginia, 1957, she was tucking me in bed – I think Ebb Tide was playing on the record player – and she relayed the news. I was very excited. There is something extraordinarily sacred about family and mine was the best. Hard to imagine that a burr headed, pug nose, bow tie wearing kid could bring so much joy, but he did. He made our family better.
- Matthew was born with a tumor on his neck that was immediately removed. When he was older, I told him it was his twin. I also told him that Mom and Dad flipped a coin to see whether they would raise the tumor or him. Since brotherly torment is never-ending, I said I was iffy on whether it was a winning or losing toss.
- He thought his first day of school would be his only one. Mom woke him up for day two and he said, “Again?”
- In 1962, our father was commanding a Marine squadron in Thailand in the beginning days of the soon-to-be Vietnam war. Mom thought he would appreciate a song from his two youngest. Greg was already at West Point. So Matt and I sung “Moon River” into a tape recorder which we mailed; I was 11 and he was 5. Now the Steele boys are many things, but singers we’re not. It was truly horrific. When Dad came home from overseas, customs confiscated the tape as being both hazardous to the American way of life and dogs – Henry Mancini sued us as well.
- In Pop Warner football, Matt was an unstoppable runner. Then his torso kept growing but his legs stopped. He had short legs and I tried to never let him forget that.
- He was sentimental. Barbecuing for friends and family and preparing a feast was a huge deal. And then there were his holiday cheese balls. Quite good actually, but they could have been mortar for a brick wall to my way of thinking. Of course, I needed to share this masonry comment whenever people were in earshot.
- Matthew smoked and drank and was really stubborn. Looking at his body, one couldn’t see the abuse – he may even have fooled himself. Enough said on that.
- During a down time in my life he gave me his prized truck when my wheels were repossessed. I eventually returned it practically in pieces as insane deers on two separate occasions kamikazed me on desolate Wyoming roads. You could find deer hair and skull wedged in the broken tail light. When he walked abound the truck, he gave me a weird look like, “Really?”
- I also wandered for a while in spiritual desolation, tethered to nothing of importance. The kindness of friends and strangers helped pull me along, but Matthew’s regular checks, voluntarily given when he didn’t have money to spare, kept me afloat. His generosity of heart was exceptional.
- He loved kids and dogs and to my dismay, cats.
- He did not have an elegant golf swing. His stance was never wide enough and could a man possibly swing at a golf ball harder?
- His friends number in the thousands. Many of them loved him. I find this remarkable in that my funeral attendees would probably fit into a minivan. He was a normal guy but people were attracted to Matt’s beautiful soul – his impact on his immediate world should not be minimized.
- What a wonderful father he would have been!
- In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand wrote a three-hour monologue for John Galt. It dealt with rational individualism and morality. I won’t try to exceed her exposition here. Could you imagine a three-hour eulogy, it would trigger a human sacrifice – mine – but individualism and morality are badges Matthew wore extremely well.
So. Mattie. Heaven is the transcendental dwelling-place of the Living God but not a real place as commonly perceived. It is a state of being for your soul. As St. Pope John Paul II articulated, “Heaven is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity.” This Saint is also a great theologian but I haven’t yet wrapped my brain around his penetrating insight – kinda like my struggles with calculus. Someday, with God’s grace, you will explain it to me because if anyone deserves a relationship with God, it’s you.
Wrapping this up seems so final. I realize that I’ve written three posts about your death and our loss. It’s been a trilogy of words. In each case, I’ve been compelled to reflect, to pluck moments from time about the brother I know and love. It has been a profound experience and I have begun to heal. Not that your memory is less vivid, but my faith is more resolute in that you’ve transcended the natural and are now in supernatural, radical union with God.
Thank you Lord. You’ve moved my pen, comforted my heart, and helped me to remember the best of my brother Matt.
I love you brother. Please feel free to haunt me at your earliest convenience. That would be very cool. And bring Mom and Dad along as your posse – wouldn’t that be something.
Lastly – and I never told you this – if I had been blessed with a son, I was going to name him Matthew.
[Please like, share, and send this post to everyone … for people that don’t know Matthew, I want to introduce my little brother … thanks!]