in loving memory of Matthew Feliciano, 1973-1988
There are certain events in life that are defining moments. They are inextricably linked to the very definition of who you are and what you are about. For me, the single most defining event is the death of my best friend at age 15. Monday is the 20th anniversary of that death. 20 years feels like forever and it feels like last week. So much of that time in my life is a blur and everything I have done since then has been in so many ways connected to that event.
I can honestly say not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought of him – something that happens or someone says something that reminds me of him. Or I hear a certain joke, or see something that I know he would find funny. Or I read about someone who dies too young, or someone takes his own life. There is always something. Every November comes and it is all I can do to focus and really not give in to the sadness.
If I actually believed in such things, Matthew was my soulmate. he was the one person who, up to the age of 15 anyway, knew everything about me, every thought, every worry, every fear, every hope and dream. we would talk about everything and i knew everything, including his plans to take his own life. I think a few people knew. He said he had told his sister, and I think a few friends. A cry for help as they say.
I didn’t try to tell him that was stupid or that it isn’t that bad, or any number of the dumb things some people try to say. I completely believed him and I knew his pain and his anger and hopelessness for his tomorrows. And I did the only thing that occurred to me to do – I begged him not to leave me. I BEGGED him. I distinctly remember a conversation we had. I asked him if he loved me and I asked him if he would stay for me. he was my protector in situations when I was scared. When someone at school was giving me a hard time, he confronted that person – an experience that i never talked about to anyone else until very recently. Matthew became so angry that someone would try to hurt me and he acted on it, even when i was too intimidated to barely even tell him what had happened. He was the one person I turned to with my problems, and my confidence in others died with him.
My first reactions to his death alternated between hating him and then hating myself for hating him. He deliberately disregarded my pleas and I felt that I was not important enough to him to stick around. i would feel this way a thousand times in my life between then and now. And it would always stem from November 1988. when someone would let me down or make less of an effort to love me, my first thought was always – IS always – Matthew. I wish I could shake that. I wish to GOD that thought would go away, that at least it wouldn’t be my first gut reaction.
In 10th grade, I started to shut down. I went through the motions and busied myself with church things and all the good things you’re supposed to do. I was a silly girl and I kept everyone at a shallow level – I made no friends when I switched schools in 11th grade for almost a full year. People thought I was smart and nice and had potential. But I was screaming inside and had hateful thoughts about them all.
I didn’t try to make anyone else really understand the indelible mark left on my soul with his death. In some ways I felt even thinking about it was the most selfish thing I could do. The pain was real for everyone and my own pain was just a fraction of that. So I put it in a symbolic box and chained it shut and pushed it into the far back wall of my closet in my heart. And these 20 years later, it still has a voice that screams at me in my darkest moments of insecurity and helplessness.
In some ways, I realized early on in my 20s that I would never trust anyone again. Not really. That the hurt I felt from him not sticking with me would grow into my distrust of others, and eventually turn into a blatant disregard for emotional attachment at all. I found myself consistently getting involved in relationships that i knew would not work out so that I had an excuse to leave. I found myself in abusive relationships, physically, emotionally, and sexually, and I felt in the darkest part of my mind that I deserved it and that this was the best I would ever experience. That Matthew was gone as my protector, and that he abandoned me.
My dating relationships became a series of working out this demented need I had to find Matthew and at the same time, being afraid I would find him. The men I got involved with were inevitably scarred, dark people, needing salvation and wanting an out. I was always trying to save them and “fix” them – hoping for them, and daring them to be better and to fufill my need to feel that someone loved me enough to press on and not give up – to do what I felt I had failed to do for Matthew.
Years later, a therapist would refer to this as part of my abandonment issues associated with my adoption. I suppose you could argue that, but I have never been as angry and hurt by my birth mother as I have with Matthew. It has been an uphill battle that I have only very recently felt I could even attempt to win. I have come to admit it is more of a co-dependency issue. I need to feel appreciated and loved, even worshipped to some extent, so that I feel that important to someone else. That is what I thought I lost in my relationship with Matthew and have been searching for that since. But in the twisted way of looking for the least likely candidate – a kind of slow torture for me, since I am a glutton for punishment. And the pattern, looking backward, is clear.
And it has to stop now.
Twenty years feels like forever. And it feels like last week. Part of my decision when I came to live with my parents in beautiful sleepy little Williamsburg, Virginia, was the chance to start over. To stop the patterns and break away from the life I had made for myself. I could have tried it in Denver, but I wouldn’t have. I know this. So I was here for this year to reflect, to renew, to set things right with my parents, to regain ground I had lost for so long. And now to push on and do what I am made to do.
And these twenty years have shown me only one thing consistently over and over. That I can’t do anything. That I will fail and I will crash and burn. That I will never be victorious or conquer anything. That I will always be alone and without true connections. That I will suffer through on my own.
That is… without God. because the end of each of those phrases is “without God.” I have tried and I have come up short. I have come only to the point of desperation and despair, much like Matthew on that dark night in 1988. It’s the only place this life can lead us – to the edge, the pit of hell itself. We are so alone and defeated.
And yet the Light shines through somewhere very deep and distant. I can see it best when I close my eyes and let all this life go. It is the still small voice that says “No one will ever love you. No one will ever be there for you always to the ends of the earth. No one… but Me.” And there is my search ending, the only true Love I will ever find and need. Though it is sometimes wrestled down by the harshness of life, the consequences of my past, the darkest parts of my heart’s desires… still it is there in the quiet when I let those things go.
You can call it a crutch. You can say God is for the weak and the limited. I have said all these things. I have struggled with the existence of God and the notion that He claims to love us. I have called Him sadistic among other things. I have shaken my fist in His face and dared Him to strike me down. You could say I have been in a very dark place and you will have only touched the surface of where I have been.
Yet I have come back to a place where there is nothing left but hope. Hope in a God who is both loving and full of wrath. A God who is complex and sometimes burdensome. I will forever be working out the complexities of my faith and my purpose and my daily activities. I will always be struggling through my relationships and my fears and distrust. My life will never be without heartache and struggle and loss. But the context remains the same, and all I can do is hope – hope that He will bring us all home. That I will see His Face, the very one I spit at and cursed, and that Face will be beaming to see me and I will fall at His feet in awe and wonder. (Come quickly Lord Jesus.)
So at the end of the day, whether it’s November 3rd, or any other day, the definition of me must shift. It changes to be one filled with peace and beauty. Life is precious and a gift. We are given it to cherish and we are graced with each other’s, however briefly, to share. So I am grateful. I am grateful for Matthew’s life and I am grateful, in a heavy hearted way, for his death, because it took me through the woods and the valleys, the long way, but I feel finally, it brought me back home.
NOTE: All my love goes out to you all, reading this, today. Some of you knew Matthew; some are family and friends. this reflection is for you. We are fragile beings, and we need each other and we need hope always. May God bless you and give you hope today and throughout your days. I love you very much.