March 2003 was a pivotal month in my life. Well, really just a couple of days in March 2003. I’m thinking it was Tuesday March 18 when the changes started. I had been working with a local band for over a year. I LOVED it. Had so much fun I couldn’t believe it, that kind of thing. For a few weeks, things had seemed strained when we were all together. I was getting odd messages from various band members about other band members. I was NOT getting return calls, follow through, etc. That morning I got a call from the drummer. The rational one (which is odd for a drummer!) and he said “Well, you probably figured this out already, but we’re done.” It was kind of like an odd break-up. He started to go into details and such and I stopped him. I didn’t want or need to know. I loved those 5 guys and didn’t want any information to cloud that love. I knew enough.
Literally 30 minutes later, my father called. My friend Matt, whom I have never NOT known, had had some medical issues over the weekend and they got the tests back that day. He had liver cancer. Well, more precisely, he had pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver. All of a sudden I wanted to know all the band drama, just so I could occupy my mind with anything but this.
Matt was 29. Married to an amazing woman. Father to two crazy boys. From what I understood at that point, he also now had a death sentence. I instantly went into my boss and said I needed to take a few days off to go to Michigan. All I said was, “Matt has cancer. I need to go.” She didn’t ask any questions.
I ended up leaving town early Thursday, March 20. In between Tuesday and when I left, the US had gotten ourselves in a war. Well, another war. This time with Iraq. I remember watching them drop the first bombs on Baghdad and just being numb. I didn’t really know why we were dropping bombs. Yeah, Sadaam Hussein was a terrible person who was doing terrible things to his people. He also happened to have a fleeting resemblance to the people who attacked the US 19 months earlier. But, to this day, I don’t REALLY know why we got into this.
I thought of all the guys I knew in the Marines from back in my “barracks bunny” days. How many of them were over there? Did THEY know why the bombs were dropping?
As I drove toward Michigan I kept crying and crying and crying. Not for the Iraqis, but for Matt. And his wife. And his boys. And his parents, who were my second parents. And all the people who knew him. He was just that kind of guy.
Meridian in Indianapolis is one of my favorite parts of the drive to Michigan. All the big, beautiful old homes built with insurance money. Not ostentatious, simply lovely. This particular drive down Meridian wasn’t my favorite. I decided to listen to NPR. At this point it was wall to wall cover of Iraq. I was literally listening to the war unfold in my red 99 Saturn and it was the best thing I could have listened to.
I was awestruck by the fact that I was living in a time of war. I was living in a time when things I loved sometimes went away. I was living in a time where the one person that I had known my whole life, was possibly dying. But somehow, with all of that realization, the war soothed my mind. Having something as foreign to my thinking as listening to real bombs dropping on real people made so much more sense to me then cancer. Any cancer. Particularly Matt’s cancer.
My friendship with Matt is an amazing thing. Our parents were/are best friends and we were pretty much expected to follow their lead. And we did. I could go for months, years even without seeing him and within about 2 seconds of being together, it was like no time had passed. I understood how special he was in my life, which made his illness so much harder.
When I finally made it to Niles, I really can’t remember what I did first. Probably drove out to Barron Lake to Matt’s parent’s house. My dad had been staying there for a few days. That house has only happy memories associated with it. Everytime I was there was for a celebration, planned or not. This time it was different. When I saw Matt’s parents we hugged like we always do, but it was so much more meaningful this time. We didn’t talk about what had brought me there.
The next day we went over to Matt’s house. At this point I had had some discussions with his Mom and Dad about things. His mom gave me medical details and such. His dad just talked about how wrong it was that this was happening. This wasn’t normal. His dad was always the detail guy, his mom the emotional one. It was a whole new world we were living in.
When I walked into Matt’s house, he was sitting on the couch. He didn’t look terrible, but he didn’t look good either. We had been so excited when he went from a gangly boy to a filled out man in college. There I was looking at a gangly man. We just hugged each other for a really long time. I told him I was glad I was there. He said he was pissed I was there and laughed. His laughter took a huge weight off my chest. My friend Erin had driven in from Chicago to come and talk to Matt and to be there for me. She had a lot of experience with different cancer treatments, etc. through her work. I have known her since first grade. I had always imagined Matt and Erin meeting. I hated that this is what made that happen.
We had a normal dinner. Played trivial pursuit. Talked about what the next steps were in the treatment. Just a normal night, sort of. Erin drove home that night and I made plans to come back over, just me, the next day.
Matt had been dating Angie for 2 weeks when I met her. She came up to me at his parent’s 25th Anniversary Party and said “so, you’re the first girl he ever saw naked huh?” I loved her instantly. She grilled me that whole night about him. She wanted to know it all. At one point at the bar she came in close and whispered in my ear “I’m gonna marry that boy, just so you know.” She did marry him almost 2 years later and it was one of the most perfect unions I had ever been a witness to.
Sitting in the rec room of their split level in South Bend, I kept thinking of the night we met, and their wedding, and how we both had joked that we always wanted a sister and now felt like we had one. I thought of this as she told me how she had to physically take Matt’s records out of the oncologist’s hands and see the post it note that said “Too many and too big” on the report about the possibility of removing the tumors on his liver. I held her hand while she talked about trying to figure out how she was going to raise 2 boys by herself. She was just saying all of the things that she couldn’t say to Matt, or his parents, or her parents or anyone. I was so glad I was there for that. We both sat there and just bawled for awhile. Matt came down in the middle of this and quickly ran back up the stairs which made us both laugh while we cried.
I left late that evening after dinner and some more board games. As I hugged Matt he whispered, “Sorry I fucked up New Orleans.” I choked as I was once again laughing while crying. At our 21st birthday celebration in Las Vegas, we had decided that for our 30th, it would be The Big Easy. That just wasn’t going to happen now.
They jumped on his treatment like crazy people. Helps that Angie was a nurse, a tenacious nurse that wouldn’t take no for an answer. A few months later the tumors in his liver were shrinking due to a procedure that cut off blood flow to them. It turned out his pancreatic cancer was never going to be a real issue and that he had probably had it for awhile.
That next summer, Angie planned a surprise birthday party for him. It was a few months before his birthday, which helped with the surprise. My mom flew in from California. Matt’s good friend flew in from Texas. I drove up from Nashville. He never had a clue. He didn’t even know what hit him when he drove up to his in-laws place. We didn’t know what hit us either. He had gained back a lot of his weight and looked great. I couldn’t stop hugging him. I smiled so hard it hurt. He wasn’t out of the woods yet, but some sunlight was shining through.
I got a call from him this past weekend. His doctor gave him the all clear. No longer would he be going to the oncologist every few months, just once a year. He was in complete remission.
The band never got back together. We’re still at war in Iraq (what exactly do we “win” with that one?). But Matt is alive and healthy. So, as far as my little world is concerned, these have been 5 productive years.