February 6, 2018: Funeral

Matt and I didn’t share too much of our story as we lived it. In the beginning, Matt downplayed what he was going through—he didn’t want pity or special treatment; he wanted to feel like himself whenever he could. As our story kept sliding into those darker days, our world slowly shrank until we were surrounded by doctors and nurses more often than friends. Whether by accident or inaction, we let our world shrink.

On February 6, 2018, our world expanded–exploded–in size once again. More than six hundred people—family, friends, business associates, teachers from G’s and H’s school—arrived at a funeral home in northern New Jersey to say good-bye to Matt. I remember hoping Matt could see all those people packed into the funeral home. In his last months, whenever I’d ask Matt whether he’d updated any of his friends on his health or his latest treatment, he’d often shake his head and say nobody cares, anymore. He’d say, “it’s old news.” Not because he believed his friends truly didn’t care, but because he didn’t want to worry anyone—that strength of conviction; he was so sure he’d be fine that he believed there was no need to cause others to panic. One year ago today, I remember hoping he could somehow see proof of how much everyone truly did care.

February 6, 2018 is mostly a blur. I remember seeing Matt one last time and thinking—that’s not him. That’s not the man I married, the one who I had weaved into every dream I had for the future. My brain once again rejected the idea that Matt was gone. I remember watching G and H sitting on a couch in the funeral home, playing on their iPads as friends and family arrived and expressed their condolences. I remember that invisible curtain growing thicker, making voices harder to hear and faces harder to recognize–I stopped being able to recognize people I’d known my whole life.

I don’t remember much of the eulogies. I remember Matt’s dad managed a few jokes and acknowledged the moms in town who’d propped me (and us, our family of four) up for so many weeks and months. I remember the rabbi, the same one who’d married Matt and I nearly a decade earlier, and feeling grateful that someone who had seen Matt grow up could speak about him. I remember G giving an impromptu eulogy, her words no doubt the only ones remembered by anyone in attendance. She said simply, “I loved playing basketball with my daddy.”

I don’t remember the eulogy I gave. I remember thinking I’m not the one who gives speeches for us—that’s Matt’s job. I remember, as I wrote the eulogy the night before, thinking there was nothing I could say that would do justice to Matt or what he’d been through, the strength he’d shown or the grace with which he’d fought. There was no way to distill it all into a short speech. I remember I read something to that crowd of six hundred and knew it wasn’t enough.

Afterward, at the cemetery, at some point in the blur of it all, the invisible curtain that had been protecting me from reality lifted. And without that protective layer, I felt every single thing I’d been pushing away all day—maybe even every single thing I’d been pushing away for the last twenty months, during every MRI and every hospital visit, during every harsh word and every time Matt looked up to me and asked why he was confused.

People tried to comfort me, my aunt hugged me, my brother-in-law patted my back, but I didn’t want comfort, I wanted a do-over. I wanted to wake up from this nightmare. Or if not that, I wanted to scream and never stop. As my heart rate climbed to nearly two hundred, I tried to breathe, to stop the breakdown because I couldn’t break, not in front of everyone. But there simply wasn’t enough air. I walked away to breathe, to find some air, but the sobs came, anyway. And the heartache poured in, and that terrible darkness descended. It was a raw pain like I’d never known before or since, like my heart and soul were cracking open. I don’t know how to survive a pain like that.

On the way back to my house for the shiva, I knew I needed to numb that pain—I’d have to face it eventually, but not all at once and not like that; it was simply too much; it hurt too much. Luckily, my uncle brought wine—and maybe there was a better choice, but maybe not. After all, in grief, sometimes the only choice is the choice to survive.

Days earlier, I had said that I wanted everybody—everybody whose life had been even slightly touched by Matt—to come to the shiva. My request was honored. For hours, the house was full of people who loved Matt, eating and drinking and sharing stories about him. G had a gaggle of school friends to play with who dyed their hair various shades of pink and purple; H had a few friends who he herded to his room in between long bouts of quiet time. Thanks to the wine and the shock and the absolute impossibility of it all, I have nearly no other memories from the shiva.

Afterward, someone said to me that they’d never been to a shiva that was like a house party. For days, I worried I hadn’t hit the right somber tone; maybe I’d numbed the emotion too much, maybe I’d shut down too much—a character flaw of mine. And maybe all of that meant I hadn’t honored Matt appropriately. The idea that I should have done something differently ate away at me. But the more I thought about the shiva—how everyone Matt loved, how everyone he’d kept in his orbit, came together and found a little joy in each other’s company—the more I was sure there was no better way to honor Matt. He wouldn’t want heartache and tears, he’d want a party, ideally with a fun theme and rhyming name.

When I gave Matt’s eulogy one year ago today, I knew it wasn’t enough. There was so much more I wanted to say about him and about us—our origin story—and the fight we’d put up against that invisible monster. But I didn’t yet have the words. And when I found the words–more than 160,000 of them, apparently–I knew I wouldn’t be able to fit them into a single speech. I didn’t realize when I started this project that I was also writing a kind of eulogy. This was the extended eulogy Matt deserved. And I’m so grateful I had the chance to give it.

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