I have been asked to write the obituary for my younger brother Matthew. I just checked my bucket list and confirmed that this particular item was not in the top 42,000. But, I can’t punt this away. I have to do this for Matt.
The usual obit methodology – or death notice to be precise – is a placement in the local newspaper, and we’ll do that. That will be the formal one. In that case, the writer is on a mission with limited time, a broken heart, pure motives and a checklist of obituary do’s and don’ts. One might be inclined to write a biography but buying a Tesla would be cheaper (death notices cost money).
But I think we also need an informal, unpretentious one. A similar mission but with a bit of a twist, and less constraint. One that mirrors Matthew’s personae and one he would encourage me to write.
And I might as well combine both here.
Matthew Raymond Steele, 59, died unexpectedly on October 22, 2016 while riding his cherished mountain bike near Ojai, California with a friend. Not far from his home in Ventura, he was able to spend his last moments experiencing two of his great passions, the splendor of nature and the exhilaration of working out.
Obit mistake #1 – Writing about the loss rather than writing about the deceased. Well, Miss Manners, your point is well taken but maybe we shouldn’t be so strict. Matt is absolutely my focus here but acknowledging our broken hearts is not just stating the obvious. I just wrote “MATTHEW…DIED…UNEXPECTEDLY.” Three words that are usually harmless but taken together are devastating.
In grief you would expect waves of emotion, but those words hit me like an angry tsunami. We lost Matt and the pain penetrates us at so many levels. The torment I feel is what you wish on really bad people.
The third son born in Norfolk, Virginia to Grace and Fred “Bud” Steele on June 8, 1957 happened at an interesting time in history. The Russians launched the first earth satellite Sputnik (“fellow traveler”) four months after Matthew’s birth and he was promptly given the nickname “Sput” because of his own propensity for traveling on all fours to every square foot of the family home.
He has now joined his parents in heaven who have, no doubt, successfully deflected his chagrin over me revealing his Russian moniker by pointing earthbound to his brothers Greg and Marcus. Yep, blame us. We tagged him with a Communist epithet that was responsible for outrage, awe and fear across both sides of the Iron Curtain. Presumably, the Russkies could now (or soon enough) drop a nuke on us from space, so the arms race intensified and Cold War tensions skyrocketed; which was both stressful and momentous at the same time. (Matt, like you and me at times, right?)
Obit mistake #2 – Writing too much about the death. My brother was a terrific athlete. He was always waiting for me to catch up whether running, biking, or skiing. He was leaner than heck and had tree trunks for legs. He even played defensive end in college – quite an accomplishment for a less-than-huge body. But appearances do deceive. Looking at Matthew, you wouldn’t have guessed that the intricate mechanics of his physiology were inexorably heading toward failure. And so it happened on a bike trail – as unexpected as a baby quoting Shakespeare.
So Miss Manners, if it’s not too much, I would like to report that his death was a singularly shocking milestone for all of us. For some, not being able to say goodbye to Matt will create guilt and anguish, but it shouldn’t. Trust in faith and just talk to him.
Part of a Marine Corps family, Matthew ultimately moved to Ventura in 1966 after his father retired. He attended Buena High School, Ventura College and Chico State University. He played football starting with Pop Warner in Ventura, and continued in high school and college. Always a graceful and intense athlete, he lived for the game. Matt even received an invitation and eventual draft notice from the Dallas Cowboys in 1977, but he chose to complete his education and graduated with his Bachelors Degree in History. He primarily worked in the oil industry and attended Ojai Valley Community Church. Matt loved to read and was a fan of writers like Mark Twain, Will Rogers and Douglas Adams. He also loved reading science fiction, philosophy, and spiritual growth writings.
Obit mistake #3 – Writing too much about the funeral. You’re supposed to announce the funeral or memorial service and not describe it. What if I told you that one of Matt’s favorite singers was going to attend and sing her chart topping hits “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You.” Yep, Adele. And the USC cheerleaders were going to accompany her glorious voice with a dance routine that would cause ISIS brains to explode – and then immediately afterwards these beautiful girls would get a tattoo of Matt swinging a seven iron on their lower back. Well, you’d want to know all the details. Truth be told, not going to happen. But a guy can dream.
Obit mistake #4 and #5 – Writing too much about the details of funeral arrangements and not demonstrating enough deference for the occasion. (For those of you that don’t understand gallows humor – a natural and protective human instinct – I suggest you stop reading. Perhaps you should work on your insect collection). Burial or cremation or entombment is clearly a major decision for the family. It just so happens that the Steele Boys do have experience in this area and since Matt had a wonderful sense of humor (and also inherited the family irreverent gene), I’m going to share a story. The following is based on true events (with a dash of creative license).
It was probably a Thanksgiving dinner – Dad had since passed away – when my mother told her sons she wanted to be stuffed. She did emphasize after she was dead. I believe it was a three martini declaration.
I sarcastically said, “Sure, why not? We could throw a saddle on your back, put a bit in your mouth and call you Smirnoff.”
I thought she would appreciate this one-upmanship on Roy Rogers. He stuffed his beloved Trigger for his museum in Barstow. However, she was adamant that she didn’t want to be in any museum, only our homes would suffice. Was she serious about this stuffing notion?
“We’re assuming natural causes, correct?” Matt was wanting to stipulate the ground rules. “No stuffing if Mom kills herself. Can’t reward bad behavior.”
“Yeah,” Greg said smiling at Mom, “And as tempting as it might be at times to push things along, her clock has to run out on its own.”
I offered the first suggestion. “I propose we put her in an evening gown, high heels, long gloves, with a martini in her hand.”
“Martini glass or actual martini?” Matthew asked.
“I don’t know. How about we fill her glass with water and put a minnow in it. That’ll be a conversation piece,” I said. I’m always thinking.
“What color?” Good follow-up by Matt.
“The fishie? Green, like an olive,” I said.
“Guys, guys. Like a dead stuffed mother won’t invite chitchat, enough with the martini,” Greg made a good point.
Matt said, “I think evening wear is silly. She’s going to be in one of our living rooms twenty-four seven.”
I chirped in, “Which reminds me. We’re going to have to rotate her every four months. U-haul-her, most likely. Or Fed-Ex to save a car trip.”
“No next-day service. Too pricey and what’s the hurry, it’s not like she’s perishable. Agreed?” Matt asked.
“Fiscally responsible. Good thinking, bros,” Greg said. “So Matt. What do you think she should wear?”
“Something less over the top. Jeans, sneakers and a nice cotton blouse. People should be comfortable with Mom if they visit.”
I blurted out, “I had a buddy who stuffed thirty-two baby rabbits for a chess set and placed it on his coffee table. He carved different helmets out of bur oak acorns so you could tell the pieces apart, ear holes and all, and he used red nail polish to paint smiles on their little faces. It was not comfortable.”
Greg looked at me like I was insane. He elected to ignore me. “Matthew. Jeans are too one-dimensional. Let’s think outside the box.”
“We’re already thinking outside the coffin,” I chimed in. It got a good laugh.
Greg continued. “I say we construct seasonal Velcro outfits.” Always the engineer. “If we practice diligently, we could probably strip and clothe her in no time at all. That way, our morning routine isn’t impacted.”
Thinking about this, I said, “The pit stops at Indy are over in ten seconds. They practically rebuild the car. All we’re doing is dressing a stiff old lady. But what if we break something in the process? Like an arm falls off.”
Matt interrupted, “Quick vote on thongs and push-up bras.” He was serious. “I vote no. We put her in granny undies as the standard.”
“Agreed,” said Greg. “Marcus?”
“I say no to granny undies, thongs, bras and Velcro whatever. I don’t want to be stripping and dressing Mom all winter long.”
“You want her nude? That’s sick.” Greg smiled.
Matt looked reflective. “Marcus may have a point. I mean there’s that whole hair, make-up and accessory thing. I’d have to take a class.”
“So I take it we’re going to drop the whole idea, huh?” Greg asked.
After considerable thought and discussion, our size two brains overheating on the permutations, my brothers and I ultimately rejected her taxidermal request because we couldn’t agree on how we should dress her.
“Probably the best,” I said.
Matthew got in the last word. “Well, that was certainly a Hallmark family moment.”
Matthew is survived by his wife, Judy Charbonneau, of Ventura, his brothers, Greg Steele, of Santa Barbara, Marcus Steele, of Sacramento, his nephew, Zachary, of Santa Maria Valley, and a huge family of close friends.
As I write this, six hours ago my brother was cremated – I also paid a few bills earlier this evening because you do crazy things when you’re in shock. The dichotomy between those two actions is so enormous that it’s beyond bizarre. That is life. And because it’s impossible to wholly comprehend this odyssey of ours on a round rock in space, you can only trust. And I do. In a merciful God who created and holds us in Love.
Death is not a hostile presence so “we must not fear the death of the body, faith reminds us, as it is a dream from which we will awake one day. The authentic death, which one must fear, is that of the soul.”
Matthew, you are my brother. I needed to laugh, scream and cry to complete this testament to your life so please forgive me if I failed. I have been blessed beyond measure to have known you and been a part of your journey – you are now with Him eternally. I love you.