The day Matt died, I walked into walls for a while, and then I changed my guitar strings. I needed one of those unthinking yet demanding jobs, something that takes your complete concentration but doesn't require any real intellectual input. My mind wasn't truly with me; it was floating around, looking for Matt. Just a goddam minute, guy. You aren't supposed to leave yet. Not without saying goodbye.
I'd known him for a bit more than six years, without ever having actually met him. He was on the big Anglican e-mail list when I joined it, and out of that ebullient confusion his voice stood out, sometimes loud, often funny, frequently passionate, occasionally just-plain-over-the-edge impossible. He'd served in Vietnam and had been a military chaplain. He was (it was obvious) an extremely good parish priest.
He was tough and thoughtful, high-spirited and opinionated (especially about barbeque, a matter of deep Texan passion and pride). He had a temper, which he not infrequently lost, and he could be wrong. But when he crossed the line, he'd apologize like a gentleman, and when he was wrong, he was more than big enough to admit it. He had a wart-hog side, and an ornery side, and he certainly knew it all. And yet there was always that sweetness to him, the sweetness of a really good apple, and a small-boy streak that seemed odd, sometimes, because he was so obviously one of the really-truly grown-ups.
Above all, he had those qualities for which English is lacking words: joie de vivre; esprit; panache. He was alive as very few are ever really alive. He couldn't be dead. It wasn't possible.
His death was all-of-a-sudden: he'd gone outside for a cigar while his wife went off to bed, and when she got up in the morning, there he was on the patio, dead. Since his death snuck up on us, I hope it snuck up on him too. I hope it didn't scare him too much. I hope he tumbled right into the palm of God's hand, considerably astonished and protesting that he had to get back to his family and his parish. When I heard of the suddenness of his death, I felt such stabs of grief and pity for those he left behind, who weren't granted the chance to say goodbye and who lacked the chance to kiss him as his soul slipped through their hands and into God's. Me included.
It seems so strange: I can have known people face-to-face for years, and still have so much less true knowledge of each other than I can of people who I know only by electrons sculpted on very distant keyboards and sent through the ether via spiderwebs of hubs and fibre-optic lines: via media via modem. I knew Matt: knew the fresh, sound, sweet-saltiness of his soul. I had tasted his brotherly love for me, and found it true and healthy. I can remember coming down, one Sunday morning, and finding a casual post from him in my in-box, just a bit of affection and appreciation, and it was exactly like drinking a glass of cold fresh milk when you're hot and hungry and maybe a little bit scared. His sturdy affection supported my soul when it most needed that support. He called my mother "not-my-mama", meaning that she was.
Some crying fits need kleenex; some need paper towels; some need real big absorbent cotton hankies. Matt's death has me reaching for the big dinner napkins, the old soft cotton damask gone whiskery around the edges through long use and too much laundering. That bad. Dammit, Matt, you weren't supposed to leave, not yet. Get back here! We weren't done with you yet. And my nose is sore.
Still, I had to do something, other than walk around the house banging into the woodwork. So I restrung the guitar, and tuned it, and tuned it a couple more times (the inevitable result of restringing). And I dug out the guitar arrangement I'd made of "Shall We Gather at the River," the one with all the interesting accidentals, not meant to be bounced through at Babtist-summer-camp high speed and major-key cheer, but to be sung slowly and with deep intention. I played it softly, to myself and to Matt and to all the community of cyberspace in which we'd met and found ourselves loving and beloved. Then I dug out the big version, the deep powerful version by the Miserable Offenders that Matt had loved, and I listened to that too, and felt really comforted.
I remembered a time, a few years ago, when some of us in cyberspace imagined ourselves into a silly, special place called Humberside, with Land-of-Oz rules: our president was a grave and serious dean of law who was also a 13-year-old girl, and the silliness was particular and piercingly sweet. Matt was our fictional Archbishop, as well as the (imaginary) Admiral of the Fleet of the Republic of Texas. It was a foolish time, but it left something behind it: a vision of what, perhaps, lies ahead: of the deep foolishness of God, the playfulness of those who have suffered much and worked hard, the whooping silliness when we finally get whopped cross-eyed by the sheer love of God, the giddiness of grace. I saw then a great silver river, calm, bright, deliciously cool/warm and full of delight and deep healing. Alongside it ran deep green banks, places to rest and be thankful, places where truly "we shall walk and worship ever/All the happy golden days." I saw there a community of love. And I knew, really KNEW, that it was real, and that I would find it in God's good time.
We made true community then, and we have broken it and remade it over and over again. We have found that there is a truthfulness of soul that can wing its way from one computer to another, at a level of trust that is simply staggering. We have cried out to each other in the middle of the night, in pure desperation, and we have been caught and steadied and held in love. It can happen. It only requires that we take the Internet and point it Godward--and that can be done. It's merely a matter of choosing which road to follow. And sadly, it's so often the road not taken.
I think of that picnic by the River when I think of Matt, and I think of his running the River-side barbecue his way, because he was a Texan and Texans know that there's only one way to do barbecue, and that's the Texan way. I imagine much razzing about barbecue in heaven. I used to tease him by calling his beloved state Baja Oklahoma. He used to tease me about being Canadian; maybe my country was bigger'n his, but only till it thawed....
But that time did show me what Heaven might be like: a place of such unimaginable delight, such blessed companionship, such sheer pleasure; a Heaven far more interesting than any pallid matter of clouds and angels, a Heaven full of sharply and delightfully individuated individuals. He's there now, or getting ready; and I am SO @#$^%# jealous.... And when each of us crosses the River, there will be Matt, the Muttster, whooping like a true Texan and scrambling through the shallows to grab us, bear-hug us, slap our butts, and swing us up onto that blessed shore. That would be such a Matt-thing to do.
Matt, I do love you, and I will miss you like hell. May those who mourn you, especially your best-beloved wife and kids, find comfort and support in the days to come. My brother, dearly beloved, go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.
But damn, I'd love to have you back. We weren't done yet. Not nearly.