October 2007. Erica was about four months pregnant with our little girl Isabella.
In spite of my conflict of grief regarding the loss of my brother, I was excited at the idea of us having another baby.
After being stationed outside of the United States for over five years, we had returned to the land of the red, white and blue. Our last tour of duty in the continental United States was back in April 2001. Since that time, we had been stationed in Guam and Japan. After being stationed farther and farther into the Pacific, it was time to start working our way back to the United States, and so in the fall of 2006, we were transferred to the tropical island state of Hawaii.
With the move to Hawaii, I still carried the pain of the grief caused by my brother’s death. I didn’t know how to properly morn or process such a massive loss. The last time I lost someone that close to me was back in 1984; when my dad had shot himself…I was never allowed to grief then…how was I supposed to know how to grieve the death of my little brother?
The answer is that I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to grieve healthily, and I didn’t know how to process such powerful emotions. Instead, I turned to isolation and alcohol.
When I reported to my command in Hawaii, my work schedule was a rotating shift; I would work two consecutive 12-hour day shifts, from 6am to 6pm, have 48 hours off, followed by two consecutive 12-hour night shifts from 6pm to 6am, have 72 hours off… and then repeat the cycle all over again. My sleep schedule was completely erratic. The times I tried to sleep were interrupted by nightmares and vivid dreams; not just of my little brother, but of my father Michael too.
Many times, I would wake up in the middle of the night, moaning in my sleep, tears streaming down my face, as morbid scenes of my father’s and brother’s death haunted my dreams. Erica would shake me awake, bringing me back to reality, and would assure me that it was all just a nightmare.
The agony and grief became more than I could bear. I started to seek solace and refuge in places and things that only proved to compound my pain; solitude and booze. I struggled with anger and hurt against God…I blamed him for my brother’s death and how much I was hurting.
Because of my rotating work schedule, my nights became my days and my days became night.
I would spend hours late at night, reminiscing and drinking. I’d look at old pictures of my brother and dad, thinking about how alone I felt; this cycle of dysfunction was a strain on my marriage and family life. I was always tired; either from the hectic schedule or because of a hangover.
Sunday afternoon, October 7th, 2007.
I was outside in front of our townhome, washing my Jeep and enjoying the warm Hawaiian sun. Suddenly Erica walked out and handed me the phone. “Matthew, your cousin is on the phone…it sounds important.”
Putting the phone to my ear, I could hear my cousin on the other end. He and I are close; in many ways more like brothers than cousins.
By the sound of his voice, I knew something was wrong. I knew something terrible had happened.
Through his tears and sorrow, my cousin told me that his little sister had passed away…she had taken her own life.
I stood in my driveway stunned. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My heart broke for my family back home in Rhode Island. Collectively we had already suffered and lost so much already…one loss was one too many, yet once again, we had lost another of our own.
During the conversation with my cousin, I mostly just listened and empathized. There wasn’t anything I could say or do to make what he or the rest of my family was feeling, any better…but I was confident that I was going to go back and show my support as best I knew how.
After I hung up the phone with my cousin, I told my wife what happened. Erica couldn’t believe it. She was stunned. Her exact words were, “Your poor family…they’ve been through so much.”
The next phone call I made was to one of my uncles, the one who had looked after me when my little brother Benjamin died, back in 2004. We spoke for a few minutes, trying to comprehend and absorb what had just happened…it was another massive blow and loss caused by the same thing that had taken our other loved ones. I told my uncle that I was flying in, gave him my flight information and how I wished we saw each other under much better circumstances.
After talking with my uncle, I called my chain of command, told them what happened and was granted emergency leave. The next day, I was on an airplane heading back to my hometown. I was flying back to Rhode Island alone this time. Because Elizabeth was in school and couldn’t take the time away from her studies, my wife and daughter stayed in Hawaii.
The funeral was held the day following my arrival in Rhode Island. My uncle and I drove into the cemetery; a place that had become tragically familiar to my family and I. The sky was overcast and air damp with a misty rain; as if the weather empathetically mourned and felt the sorrow of that place.
My family and I greeted each other, as best we could. The sting and shock of my cousin’s sudden and tragic passing were vivid. The hurt was felt primarily by those who knew her best; her siblings, her parents, and our grandmother. Her beautiful, young life was extinguished by the same lies and whispers which had stolen others from our family.
After spending several days in Rhode Island, I flew back to Hawaii. Going back home and seeing the hurt that my family was enduring because of my young cousin’s death, only complicated what I was already trying to navigate. My faith grew colder, and heart became more bitter. I was struggling with feelings of anger and even anxiety. Receiving the sudden news about my cousin and revisiting the cemetery where others in my family were buried, made me start to wonder, “Who’s next…am I?”
I was angry at whatever it was that kept causing people in my family to make a choice to give up hope and abandon life. I became preoccupied with making it, whatever that darkness was, pay…but I didn’t know how. I was dealing with my own crisis of faith, and I was not in a secure place emotionally or spiritually to face the answers to questions I didn’t even know how to ask.
As the internal conflict simmered in my soul, life around me continued. In April of 2008, my wife Erica and I welcomed our second child into the world. We were blessed with another little girl. At the time, I didn’t know why God had given us a second daughter. After the loss of my brother, in my mind, it only made sense that I should have a son…to carry on my name and the name of my father.
God had other plans.
He knew I wasn’t ready to raise a boy – I was still a boy myself in so many ways. How could I teach someone to be a man when I, myself, had such deep wounds which needed mending. Dysfunction needed fixing, and my heart needed healing; a new legacy of hope, purpose, and faith had to be established.
He also knew that Erica and I would need this little girl. There would come a time when our family would desperately need the tender and precious softness that only a little girl brings into a home.
My life leading up to this point had been riddled with instances when a Divine Invisible Hand had been working and moving on my behalf; this time I was barely starting to notice it.
As our season in Hawaii drew to a close, I chose to move my family closer to New England where I had grown up, so I picked orders to a warship homeported in Virginia. After being away from the east coast for so long, we moved and settled into the Tidewater area, a mere 10 hours drive from where I grew up in Rhode Island.
This was the beginning of a significant shift in our lives. My schedule aboard the ship was hectic, and I was hardly ever home. During my seasons of absence because of back to back deployments, my wife Erica was faced with a set of challenges with our oldest daughter Elizabeth. Slowly things started to change with our oldest daughter; a dark emotional and spiritual climate shift, which I wouldn’t become aware of until later.
It was while I was a long way from home on deployment, the Brotherhood I had gained would prove to be a vital lifeline; in August of 2012, I had to go back to Rhode Island, and once again visit that same cemetery…