The first had occurred one night after Matthew’s death. Having somehow managed the strength to write Matthew’s eulogy, David had staggered to the master bedroom, where in a rare gesture of obeisance to a God whose existence he doubted, he’d sunk to his knees. The time was night. The room was dark. David’s eyes were raw with tears. Hands pressed to his swollen face, he’d prayed with a fervor that he swore would kill him.
Matthew, Matthew, Matthew! I want you back, son! This has to be a nightmare! Soon I’ll waken! You’ll be here!
One day before the septic shock that had ravaged Matthew’s body and eight days later killed him, David had used some brief time alone, when he and Donna weren’t sharing anxious hours together watching over Matthew in the hospital. David had driven home to change clothes. On impulse, based on a twenty-year daily habit, he’d decided to exercise, to run as was his custom, to clear his head and sweat tension from his body. After four miles, the farthest he could manage given his stress and weakness, he’d staggered into his kitchen, sipped a glass of water, and collapsed. Surely while he was passed out on the floor, this nightmare of his dear son’s death had come to him, and he hadn’t wakened yet. That was the explanation. None of this had happened. It was a nightmare.
So he’d hoped forty years ago as he’d knelt in trembling anguish beside the bed. While he squeezed his hands to his face and tears seeped through his clawlike fingers that threatened to tear his cheeks away, he’d prayed with all the desperation his soul could sustain that he would wake up from his stupor on the kitchen floor and his son would still be alive.
Oh, please! he’d prayed. Oh, Jesus, please!
But he’d known in a terrifying recess of his remaining sanity that he had indeed revived from his stupor on the floor, that he had indeed staggered back to the hospital, that his son had indeed suffered septic shock one day later and died eight unimaginably traumatic days after that.
Matthew! Matthew! Please! Come back to me!
Forty years ago, in his kneeling paroxysm beside the bed, his thoughts flashing through his mind like lasers, David had suddenly remembered yet another example of his wonderful son’s promising gifts. Not only the life-affirming pulse of music, whose throbbing chords continued to reverberate like a neverending tape through David’s head, but as well a poem, one of many, this one written during the disorientation and nausea of chemotherapy, a poem that Matthew had later submitted for an assignment at school.
Fifteen years old. With verbal gifts far superior to those of his father who defined himself by and made his living out of words. Fifteen years old, and in a panic at 4:00 A.M., the boy had wakened Donna, who slept beside him on a cot in the IV-stand-filled room, to dictate to her his sudden terrifying insights. A poem. Not linear, not rhymed and metered, not the singsong unintentional parody of a poem you’d expect from someone his age. Instead a gestalt of fear and memory. A jumbled synthesis of reaction to when life was perfect and then collapsed. A metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle, of each piece having been beautifully assembled and then perversely ripped apart; of lost hair, fading friends, and fractured hopes; of the prejudice ignorant people showed toward cancer patients whose bald heads and gaunt cheeks looked like skulls; of dreams become tears and parties about to turn into wakes. Death and a jigsaw puzzle. If the poem wasn’t perfect, it was better than the father could have written at fifteen, or maybe could have ever written, and if a perceptive reader paid it due attention, the meaning was clear; the craft matched the content.