Matt Brown died the other day from ALS. I was gut punched by the news, although I hadn’t seen or talked to him in 20+ years. When I think of Matt the word that leaps to mind is Laughing. Not snickers or giggles or chuckles – screaming laughter. When Matt was around the world’s absurdity was clear because he showed it to you. And when Matt laughed, everyone laughed.
Matt was my first openly gay friend. Mind you he never came out to me. I’m not sure he came out to anyone. He was flamboyant but it was more than that. He just lived his life openly and honestly and never curbed himself for anyone. He talked about his romantic interests like anyone would, he wore the occasional dress on campus (no make up or glamour just the the dress and sneakers), was a very active participant in the campus LGBT groups. And he did that on a very conservative college campus in the 80s during the un-treatable AIDS epidemic.
How unfair it is that he survived the AIDS epidemic unscathed and was killed by ALS. It feels like he should have won the medal of survival to 100 for making it out of that nightmare alive.
When Matt graduated he fell in love with Dick, a man nearly twice his age. They moved in together, had a commitment ceremony, signed all the various contracts that were needed to provide the sort of legal rights that just come part and parcel with marriage. I was lucky enough to be part of their circle of friendship. They took me with them on vacation to Maine, rented me one of their apartments, took me to ridiculously priced restaurants and had me over for Lasagna and TV.
When we were in Maine, Matt and I made a daily tortuous and joyful ritual out of going into the Ocean. It was barely into June and the Atlantic Ocean was ice cold. It hurt to go into the water. We would hold hands and scream as each step exposed another part of us to icy water until we finally gathered up the courage to just dunk our entire bodies under the water. That is the only water I’ve been in, where my body never acclimated itself to the temperature. It continued to bite the entire time. So we would try to see who could stand it the longest, generally agreeing to leave together. We weren’t good at competition. Dick would watch us from the deck and I’m sure thought we were just insane children. And I guess we were.
When Matt and Dick broke up, I was heartbroken for both of them. Looking back from my current age, I can see that a generation gap is a very hard thing to overcome. They did it with grace and remained friends. Matt told me he still loved Dick and didn’t think he would ever find anyone else to be that committed to. I hope he did. But I don’t know. His obituary did not mention a husband or partner. But it did list a whole host of friends who helped him during his illness. Matt never lacked friends.
He went back to school after the breakup and got his PhD. He moved to Colorado and taught college. The last time I saw him he came back to visit and tried to talk me out of getting the gastric bypass I had scheduled. He had done his research – in a time before the internet was omnipresent – by going to the library. He explained all the risks and most likely outcomes. He was worried about me. But I was determined. Being 400 lbs is miserable in all the ways. He was right by the way. On every bit of it. Not that I regret my choice but it was a far more informed one because he talked to me. That was who he was. He challenged my decision with facts that it took effort to find and took on an emotionally risky conversation to do it. He wasn’t in our friendship just for the laughter. He was there for the hard things too.
Matt lived a life of integrity. If he believed something, he acted on it. In a society where most of us are content to just feel right, Matt lived it. He used to be a Planned Parenthood escort. Because he believed women had the right to healthcare and choice. So he volunteered once a week to escort women from their car to the door in order to ward off the assholes who hung around to hurl insults and worse at the women who came to the clinic. He did this despite the fact that he had NO DOG IN THAT FIGHT. Because he knew it was right.
I wonder why I feel so lonely now that he has died. I hadn’t spoken to him in 20 years. I think the knowledge that I could pick up the phone and reach him has been stolen and in it’s place is just the void. Time and space separated us, but Death made the chasm unbreachable.