He’s been gone longer than he was alive now, and over the past quarter of a century the oddly close dates marking the day he was born and the day he died have begun to sneak up more quietly than they did shortly after it happened.
I generally try to recognize my brother’s birthday far more than the day he died. Even after 25 years it is still hard to think about. I don’t even know that I realized it was the 25th anniversary of his death until I woke up Tuesday morning. Why years divisible by five have more power than others is a mystery, but I guess they do. It certainly feels that way.
Most of my family — parents, brother and sister — was together a few weeks ago on Matt’s birthday for the first time in a long time. I thought we might sing him “Happy Birthday” or honor him in some way, but none of us made the move. It’s still too hard, I suppose, even after all this time, and still felt too sad.
Matt was my little brother. I’m the oldest of five and he was just 18 months behind me, so we were stuck together like a peanut butter and banana sandwich through just about all of the first 22 years of my life. My first memories of Christmas are filled with the two of us getting up at some ungodly hour to play with the “Santa gifts” left unwrapped in two distinct piles that would keep us busy until my parents got up at a slightly less painful hour.
One of my earliest memories was of climbing up into a cabinet to get baby aspirin for the two of us to eat because we liked the taste. I still remember handing it to him, and also remember both of us being forced to throw up into shiny metal bowls at the doctor’s office. Those little aspirins do taste yummy.
We sat together in our footie pajamas watching one of the Apollo rockets lift off to go to the moon. Had to be one of the later ones as we were both old enough to understand it, and we were perched on the hide-a-bed all folded out for the occasion.
Riding bikes together was always a huge thing. For some bizarre reason the first bikes my parents bought us had solid steel wheels with rubber tread — no air. Maybe it was a conservation movement or something. But these were the days when Evel Knievel’s exploits were filling every emergency room in America with wannabe daredevils, and I can assure you jumping even small ramps on a bike with solid metal tires was a spine-buster. Matt made his jumps on training wheels.
Eventually my parents brought home the Schwinn Stingray bikes we would both ride until something with an engine stole our hearts. Those banana seats were as cool as it got. Mine was green and Matt’s was red. I eventually painted mine purple, unwittingly beginning a strange trend that carried over into several cars I’ve owned. Matt’s stayed red, but had these really strange, wide, chopper-like handlebars that made it tough to turn really sharply.
As we got older and rode bikes with friends, I know there were times my buddies and I would try to ditch my little brother and he would be pedaling furiously behind us yelling for us to wait. I still feel amazingly guilty about that.
We had very different personalities. He was generally quieter, especially around strangers. My mother says it’s because he couldn’t get a word in edgewise because I talked so much. A valid point. But he was still hysterical.
Matt was always interested in more-intricate and cerebral pursuits, and that carried on as we got older. It’s funny how many of his interests ultimately became mine. For instance, he was the editor of the junior high school newspaper way before I ever thought about journalism. One of his claims to fame was drawing a cartoon with an edgy talking toilet named John C. Crapper. That talking commode was an administration favorite.
In college he started “playing” the guitar. I had tried years before but rapidly quit. Matt was a giant Jimi Hendrix fan and I’m not sure if he ever really yearned to learn chords or just to make Hendrix-like noises. He would sit in his room for hours with his cheap knockoff of Eddie Van Halen’s Kramer guitar making it squeal and whine. Eventually I went out and bought a cheap axe too so I could join him.
We fished endlessly growing up, tooling around in our flat-bottom aluminum boat with a 3 hp kicker, or sailed on the Hobie Cat. We built tree houses and threw dangerously sharp spears at the kids who lived on the other side of the woods next to our house. We played baseball, football and basketball together, and bowled enough to possibly explain our lack of success with the girls.
Matt followed me to Spring Hill College and joined my fraternity. He had his own buddies there, but we still hung out a lot and talked on the phone all the time.
Watching him get hit by a truck while crossing Old Shell Road just weeks after he turned 21 is the hardest moment of my life and one this day always brings back. Now that I have my own children I can’t even fathom how my parents survived it.
Ulysses and Ursula are the same distance apart age-wise as Matt and I were, and even though there’s a different dynamic and a lot less brutality because they are opposite sexes, it’s easy to see the kind of closeness we had. I like to think of my kids getting to share that for decades to come.
A few weeks ago as my brother Brian and I were wrestling around and throwing seaweed at each other on a sandbar in the Florida Keys, I thought about Matt and wished he was there so we could rub seaweed in his face too.
I often wonder what he would be doing, if he would have children and if we’d live near each other. I like to think our kids would be playing together.
When these anniversaries and birthdays come, I try to focus on who he was and what he meant to all of us, rather than tragedy. The years slide by with an ever-mounting speed, and at times it seems like he’s farther and farther behind me, like he was as a kid riding that red bike. But on days like today, I know he’s always right with me.