The End Was Only The Beginning
The Month the Earth Stood Still
The date was Friday, February 20, 2015, one I will never forget. It was a quintessential Southern California Friday in Los Angeles. The sky was
crystal blue, and I was on my way to meet a longtime friend, Tom
Arcuragi. He suggested we meet at AGO, a popular Italian restaurant in West Hollywood. I had arrived in Los Angeles the day before and
spent the night in Santa Monica, not far from the area where I had lived three decades before.
I got to AGO just before noon, eager to see Tom and catch up (he had
moved from Atlanta to LA years earlier and stayed). Tom was already in the restaurant sipping his usual Campari and soda, and we took a table
on the patio and dove into deep conversation. Just as we began, my
mobile phone buzzed and I saw the caller was my ex-wife Jan, the
mother of my two sons. I decided to take it, excusing myself for a
Jan asked if I had recently heard from our younger son Matthew. She
was concerned she couldn’t get in touch with him, since they stayed in
constant contact. (She lives in South Florida, and Matt had recently
moved back to Atlanta.) She also told me that he had never arrived at
work on Friday, and she felt something was wrong. I told her that
I would try to call Matt after lunch and asked her to keep me posted.
As worried as I was, Tom and I enjoyed our meal and talked nonstop
for two hours. As we finished lunch and I was retrieving my rental car,
the phone rang again. It was Jan, in tears. Through her pain and grief,
she told me that Matt was gone.
Shocked and numb, I asked her what happened. Jan told me that Matt’s
landlord had called to break the news that he had discovered Matt on
the floor of his bedroom fully clothed and not breathing. My mind raced with questions and my heart broke.
Matt, a certified jeweler who loved rare stones, was 31 years old. He had recently found his “dream job” (his own words) and was thrilled to be
working in his chosen field for a well-established and venerable Atlanta
company. Less than 24 hours earlier he had texted his mother to tell her he was so happy with his new job that he loved getting up every day
and going to work; he also said he could see himself there in five or ten years. His employer seemed delighted with him, and Matt was thrilled
with the company.
Jan was unclear on the details of Matt’s death because she was in Floridaand had spoken only briefly to the Atlanta landlord. Apparently he had
opened the apartment door to an electrician who had come to make
repairs in Matt’s unit, and when they went in they found Matt
Stunned, I sat alone in the rental car in Los Angeles, a place where Matt had spent the first two years of his life. I had moved my family to
California soon after Matt was born in June 1983 so I could work on the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and we enjoyed two wonderful years there.
Once I faced the brutal reality of Matt’s untimely passing, I reached out
to Mary Alice — my wife, my best friend, my ally. Cool under fire,
Mary Alice always took a wise, practical approach to any crisis, no matter how difficult. When I tried to talk with her about Matt she seemed
distant and aloof, and her reluctance to connect with me about this life-altering event made my sadness even more devastating.
I returned to my hotel room eager to hear from Jan and get more
information. The medical examiner had Matt’s body, and it would take a
couple of days to complete the autopsy. It was so sad to think of my sonlying on a gurney in a cold morgue as a pathologist measured his body
and weighed his organs.
Jan and I agreed to have our son cremated, and we both made plans to
travel to Atlanta as soon as possible. Continued attempts to reach
Mary Alice proved futile, and my inability to communicate with her
during this painful and sorrowful time was extremely frustrating.
Once the medical examiner released the body, Jan and I agreed to have
Matt’s remains driven to a funeral home in Griffin, Georgia, Jan’s
hometown. His ashes would be buried in the family plot in Griffin,
where Jan’s parents were interred.
My repeated attempts to connect with Mary Alice were futile. When she
finally responded, she told me very clearly, “I cannot help you with this
situation. You have to walk this path alone, John. There is really nothing I can do to help you through this.”
I was surprised and disappointed to hear these words coming from my
wife, not understanding why she was so detached during this difficult,
painful time. Yet it was clear that this was my path to walk alone,
despite the fact that Mary Alice and Matt had been very close. Mary Alice
was like a second mom to Matt, especially once he lived with us after hismother moved to South Florida and remarried. John Paul, Matthew’s
older brother, was as distraught as the rest of us, and could make no
sense of Matt’s death as he and his wife grieved.
Two days had passed, and meditation, prayer and exercise allowed me to begin to face the reality that my beautiful, sweet son was gone. I went
for a long walk on Santa Monica Beach — a place where, on so many
evenings 31 years earlier, Matthew and his brother had crawled in the
sand as Jan and I drank cocktails and watched the sun sink slowly into
the Pacific Ocean.
Still, Mary Alice remained remote, leaving me to deal with the feelings
deep inside my mind and soul on my own. Her message was clear and
concise: “You have to walk this path alone. You will find the answers
inside yourself. I cannot help you with this.”
Mary Alice was always communicative and had a solution for every
problem, so her silence confused me to no end. But I worked through thepain by myself, and stopped trying to convince her to talk with me aboutMatthew. Still my sense of “aloneness” was disconcerting until I finally
came to embrace it.
At the graveside service in Griffin on February 24, the weather was
cloudy, cold and dreary, with a bit of drizzle in the air. Overcoats and
boots were the order of the day, and the mood inside the tent was
somber. Tears flowed freely as the cold reality of our collective loss was
underlined by Matt’s remains ensconced peacefully in an urn atop a
pedestal near his final resting place.
Presiding over the brief, private memorial service was a longtime friend,
Reverend Lang Lowrey, who had known Matt since he was two years
old; also present was Lang’s son, Pierce. While going through Matt’s
belongings, John Paul had found a bowl full of smooth river rocks
inscribed with inspirational words. He put the stones in a basket, and
at the end of the service each attendee was allowed to take astone and
place it on the box containing the urn. The stone I randomly pulled out of the basket said simply, “PEACE.” The stones would be buried with
Matt’s earthly remains.
Mary Alice remained quiet and stoic. Was this her way of contending
with her grief? Was she simply keeping a cap on her emotions because
Matt was my son from a previous marriage? Questions flowed through
my heart and mind, but it was clear that life would go on in spite of the loss of my son.
I then tried to focus on lessons to be learned from Matthew’s death.
Prayer, meditation and reflection combined with the reliving of memories — recollections of moments with my son and his brother and their
mother. Embracing my solitude, I tried my best to find answers to the
many questions that persisted. And still, Mary Alice remained aloof.
I cleared my calendar of all meetings, dinners and appointments for the
next several days, and after deep soul-searching and solitude had a
“eureka” moment. I suddenly realized there was truly a message in
Matthew’s death, and it became clear that my recently declared mission in life was being amplified by the loss of my son. Helping others is
something I had committed myself to long ago. As a member of various
charity boards, I’ve volunteered many hours to benefit more than a few
organizations and their constituents. The lesson I came to was loud and
clear: Stay on my spiritual path. Seek higher levels of enlightenment.
Enhance and amplify my commitment to helping others, using Matt’s
death as the exclamation point for a transformational life lesson — one
that will bring comfort and hope to anyone who may have weathered a
Once I arrived at these life-altering conclusions I made them known to
Mary Alice. She was delighted with myrevelations... and while she didn’t exactly say. “I told you so,” she reopened the lines of communication. I
acknowledged her decision and told her that she was absolutely right: I
did need to walk the path alone. I did need to seek the answers within
Once I saw the light, my dialogue with my wonderful wife reverted to
the energetic level we had enjoyed before Matt died. Weeks and months
passed, and at one point I had almost forgotten that Mary Alice herself
had passed away nine months earlier, on June 5, 2014. And that is so
because her spirit lives on and guides me to this day.