July, 19, 2006
Dear Jim and Cindy (please share this with Cindy, Jim) –
This is by far the hardest and most difficult thing I've ever had to write in my life, which is saying something given my career as a writer/communicator. For 17 years, I've been wanting to communicate with you both, but have not been able to find the right words for what I want to say to you.
Obviously this letter is about Matthew…and I know that this isn't probably something you like to be reminded of on a daily basis.
As a father myself today, I can't imagine what it would be like to experience what you did on July 19, 1989. But I want you to know that Matthew had a tremendous impact on people that he didn't even meet – and I am one of those people.
On that fateful day, I was working as a carefree Lifeguard at a swimming pool in Sioux City, enjoying my summer after my freshman year in college. I was 18 years old, and like any other 18-year-old, I thought I knew everything and had the world in the palms of my hands…as I was taking a break in the Lifeguard room at the pool, I heard a news report crackling on our cheap radio. There was a plane crash at the Sioux City airport…big news for around there…but it didn't even phase me at that point that it would impact me.
Within 24 hours of that moment, my life would be changed forever, and your son was at the very heart of that change. That night, on the 19th, the local Red Cross asked for lifeguards to come out to help serve food and refreshments to the rescue workers. As an 18-year-old, being naïve and thinking I was indestructible, I served kool aid and hot dogs to firemen, national guard troops and EMTs covered with soot and sweating from the intense Iowa summer. I strained to get a look at the crash site some 1000 yards away, but could not see anything. As I left that night, I assumed that was as close as I would ever come to this disaster.
The next morning, I received a wake-up call that will never be paralleled in my lifetime. I was told that I was needed back at the airport for volunteer work, and that the pools were going to be working on a skeleton crew basis. Without going into too much of the details that you don't need to know…I ended up working in the makeshift morgue that morning, and Matthew was the first person we had come through that morning.
I was in the phone room when you or one of your loved ones called in with descriptions of what Matthew was wearing, and I recognized the clothes the minute he came in the morgue. I couldn't begin to describe what I felt at that moment, but it was a moment that forever changed me.
As a lifeguard, I was used to teaching and coaching kids like Matthew to swim, either just for the sake of being able to swim, or for competitive purposes. It had never before occurred to me that we as humans did not have control over our lives or deaths…but Matthew changed that for me in the blink of an eye.
Today, the father in me can't imagine how each of you has survived through this…and admire your courage and bravery just in waking up each day and living your life. But I also know that there is a positive that came out of this horrible time in many peoples' lives…the fact that we all learned that life is not in our control, we don't know when our time will be up, and it is up to us to wake up each day and live it as if it might be our last on earth.
It is a lesson that most in life never learn, and yet, because of your son, I learned it at a very young age and have applied it to my life. I am not a particularly religious person, but I do believe in a higher spirit, and that our souls go elsewhere when we leave here. I have a tendency to think about Matthew on a fairly regular basis, and even "talk" to him sometimes to thank him for the lesson he taught me…but I wanted this thanks to come to you as well…so you can see at least a sliver of the good that came out of his death.
He did not die in vain, but instead impacted not only me, but everyone who was in the morgue that day. I hope that this letter does not cause discomfort for you…my intention is for this letter to give you, and probably to some extent, me, some peace on this. Matthew, from all that I've read about him, was the typical All-American boy, much like my childhood was for me, and I have never been able to shake the fact that he had no control over what happened that day. I tell my story to as many people that will listen, hoping that they will get something from it…to learn to live life more deliberately and not take anything or anyone in life for granted.
Your son was a hero to me, even though we never met. I wanted you to know this. I hope that this letter gives you a positive feeling, and I apologize if it doesn't.