Gravity feels a little more forceful today. Back in my high school physics class, Father Fred taught us that gravity pulls us down at a rate of 9.8 meters per second squared. Today feels like a double-digit day. It’s harder to do just about everything. You see, today would have been my son Sean’s 29th birthday.
Many of you reading don’t know this side of me. Answering the “tell me about your kids” question is always a quandary. How deep do I want to go into this answer? It’s easy to talk about Ryan and Dawson. They are wonderful, interesting, funny, and inspiring. I consider them to be my closest friends, and I love them fiercely. But I don’t have two children. I have three.
Sean Michael Matthews was just four years old when he died in a drowning accident on July 31, 1997. This year will be the 25th anniversary of that miserable day. I won’t go into the details, but just know that the feeling of guilt remains, and the heartache is a million times worse.
Many of you reading this knew and loved Sean. Many of you wrapped your arms around Sean’s mom Kelley, Sean’s brother Ryan, and me after his death, helping us all more than you know. It seemed like half of Malibu attended Sean’s memorial service, held in Malibu’s Bluff’s Park – and I barely remember it. Gravity was in triple digits in those days. The pain was searing and truly relentless. All I know is that the love and support helped. I did not read all of the sympathy cards until months after they arrived. And even then, I could only do it for a few minutes at a time. But they were wonderful, and they provided comfort. Thank you. Those acts of kindness made a lasting impact on me. Of all the human attributes I appreciate, kindness ranks at the very top. It’s something I try to include throughout my day, because I know how much it helped me.
Months after Sean died, Kelley convinced me to join her in attending a support group for grieving parents called Compassionate Friends. I knew that it would not be helpful, because no one else could possibly have experienced anything that rivaled our heartache. But I went anyway, bad attitude and all. It was quite the welcoming group, and as I listened, I realized that I was incredibly wrong. Terrible things happen to people all too often. Heartbreak and anguish are everywhere. You just have to take a moment to listen and notice. The mantra at Compassionate Friends is, “You are not alone.” They helped me to get out of the comparison business. All of this suffering is real, and there’s no benefit or reality to trying to figure out whose pain is worse. I have known a few people whose loved ones died after leading long and full lives, enabling them to be much more accepting of their deaths. But far more common are those who die before they are supposed to, leaving their loved ones to live with the torment of missing them. I’m sorry for all of us. But we are not alone. Others have prevailed, and found strength and purpose in their lives despite their losses, and for whatever reason, knowing that helps me.
The heartache will never be gone. If someone asks me how often it impacts me, 25 years later, I will smile and say, “It’s only every day.” But it is worse some days. Like today.
I remember speaking with a father who had lost his son in a senseless shooting at least 20 years before our conversation. I asked him what the pain felt like so many years later. He said that it was still there every day, “but it is softer most of the time.” A few years ago, Kelley posted a picture of a sculpture on Facebook that took my breath away. The hole in our grieving hearts never fills, and we will never be whole again.
Love is the greatest risk of all. There are no guarantees beyond today. While I was Superintendent in Manhattan Beach, one of our most beloved teachers at Manhattan Beach Middle School was one of the people tragically killed at the Route 91 Music Festival in Las Vegas. Her name was Sandy Casey, and she taught some of our most impacted students. She had a saying: “Today is a good day for a good day.” In the wake of our loss, we remembered those words, and if you look around, you can see that saying written in cursive on doors throughout the school district. Sandy continues to teach us to find ways to make the most of each day. I love it. As Brad Paisley sings, “Bring on tomorrow, I’ve got today.”
In those first few years after Sean’s death, I wondered about how the rest of my life would be. Would it ever feel normal again? Well, the answer is no. I miss his laughter, his spirit, his loving nature . . . I just miss him so much. But what still is surprising to me is that the answer is also that I am continually amazed at how beautiful and wonderful life is. In spite of everything. I am beyond grateful for the love, humor, meaning, and beauty in my life. And in spite of gravity pulling me down with more force today, I’ll do my best to remember that it’s still a good day for a good day.
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The sculpture above is called Melancolie and is created by Albert György. It can be found in Geneva in a small park on the promenade along the shore of Lake Geneva. Read more about the piece and artist here –> https://totallybuffalo.com/a-sculpture-that-creates-intens…/