He Became the Sky
Written in memory of my friend Staff Sergeant Matthew “Tito” Thompson
I’m writing these words because writing is the only way I’ve ever really known how to deal with anything.
It’s 4am and I’m stuck in a computer lab doing a training session for work that I’ve stopped paying attention to. This situation is hell on any level but it’s especially torturous on a day you learn that a friend has died.
I am sitting here considering the life of Matthew “Tito” Thompson, my friend and military hero, killed this week by an IED blast in Afghanistan. The exact details are pending a formal investigation but no matter what is eventually discovered, the excruciating bottom line will remain the same: Tito was here last week and he’s not here anymore.
I do not see how I will understand this. I don’t even see how I will accept it. My friend walks in a desert. A bomb goes off, and now they are both gone.
There can be no news worse than this.
It is now 6am and I’m standing on a street corner in New York furiously typing this sentence into my phone. I am a mad man. I think I’m going to throw up. I do not want to write right now. But I keep writing because I want you to know and it’s the only way I can help you to understand.
Under any other circumstances, the mere mention of his name would have set me off on a bigger smile than I’d ever normally be comfortable with. I would try to suppress it, but even trying to contain it would make my cheeks hurt more, like downing a shot of steak sauce.
But under these circumstances the news sent me reeling, activating the normal happiness reflex that his name evokes and then immediately smashing down a red-stamped X over every mental picture I draw and every moment of closeness and friendship we shared.
As such, hearing about it on the phone triggered a mental collision that short-circuited my brain and left me listening to a whistling blankness inside my head for an hour. There is no telling how we will react to things as terrible as this, and my mind’s choice was to go mute and dumb. It was another hour before I came to and started to feel the vacuum in my mind recede, replaced with the nauseating pain of advancing grief, the stuff of migraines and hangovers and illness.
He’s gone, and there was nothing anyone could do.
Though once everyday friends, drawn together by our mutual awe of life’s possibilities, his transfer to another college and subsequent military obligations made it hard to keep in touch. Nevertheless, Tito isn’t someone you easily forget — he was a human of extraordinary value and charisma. He had actual honest-to-god real integrity. His moral compass was so strong that his goodness inspired you miles before it would even consider making you feel badly about yourself. He always occupied a warm corner of my mind, even though we hadn’t seen each other in quite some time.
But he is gone now. Why? Why like this? Why in hell was it him?
There’s something incredibly cruel about him going this way, ripped out of this world after 28 years of cumulative existence without even a whisper or a wave. The death of someone so young is a tragedy by any standard, but for it to happen to him is a special kind of unfairness that I don’t know if I can ever settle up on. He was life. He was vitality. He was doing it right. A singular being unto himself, earning each good moment that life can offer, an existence that won the right to exist over and over again each day. Yet for all the tangible and transcendent dues he paid, he was still taken away. In a blink. A glimpse. A nerve signal traveling from his eye down his body to his feet and…not enough time. He never even got to know he was going.
I hate that for him. Because even if he was still here, he wouldn’t hate it for himself.
The last time we spoke was over a year ago, and only happened on account of a happy accident. While setting up a Skype account I imported my contacts and tried to make a test call but hit the wrong name. When I saw it was him, I stopped my panicked reaction to end what I thought was a random connection and instead just let it ring. When he picked up, the audio distorted my voice and he couldn’t tell it was me. He sounded cold and clinical. I wondered for a moment — had he changed? That, in the time since our last conversation he had finally rid himself of his boyish joyfulness and optimism? Perhaps being in the service had taken it out of him? Was he still there?
But when he finally did figure it out, it all came stampeding back. He laughed his laugh and I smiled my smile as the pitch of his voice rose to unfathomable heights like it always did when his joy reached a fever pitch and could no longer be constrained by the limits of an adult male’s vocal chords.
I can’t pretend to remember what we talked about, only that before we hung up he told me he missed me “so much.” So much. He said it with a sense of longing that I could not match, and I remember feeling guilty that I did not give more in my relationship to this once young kid who looked up to me no matter how much I instructed him not to. That I had somehow done him wrong in trying to always push him toward caution and restraint and selfishness masquerading as assertiveness. I realized it was a waste of my time to try to change someone like him — a person who actually knows who he is.
But it was wasting his time that I feel more guilty about in this moment, as I sit in this subway station for the second hour hammering this grief into my phone, thumbs achey and feeling shitty for talking about myself at all in a eulogy for a person who stood mountains taller than me. If I’d had known that he had less than a decade left, I would have saved my cleverness and bullshit and simply appreciated that someone like him would take the time to be around someone like me. And now he’s gone, and I never realized how precious and fleeting and finite our time really was.
As uncomfortable as it was for me to hear him tell me he missed me at the end of our last phone call, it was not at all surprising. Matt was someone that gushed with such earnest and authentic emotiveness that I remember it used to make me feel embarrassed. I did not come from a place that valued such honesty and vulnerability amongst men. I even used to tease him for this, deflecting his loving expressions of friendship by telling him to write me a letter or sing it from a tree. Inside, though, I knew the score. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I wished I was more like him.
And I am. In the years since then and now I have thought of the time that he was in my life and I value it as the means by which I became more okay with telling people how much I value and care about them. He helped me to be more tender and unguarded, even when someone might not feel ready for it.
As I think of it, a month ago I did just that. I told someone how deeply I cared for and valued them, and it caused a reaction in them that that was not unlike the one of my former self. They were probably very overwhelmed. They felt embarrassed for me too, I’m sure. And I maybe even felt a little embarrassed for myself.
But never again. If I could affect the same change on anyone else, if I can make one person even a little bit more like Tito, then I can withstand any amount of embarrassment or shame or regret. All feelings that Tito did not seem to have in stock.
He was the best of us. What happened? Why did it have to be him?
Why is there no him anymore.
One night, while still in college, Tito and I and two of our friends walked from our Milwaukee college campus to the shore of Lake Michigan. It was the weekend, we weren’t working, and we were RA’s so we couldn’t drink anyway. So we walked to the Lake. It’s what you do when you don’t drink in college.
In a brief moment of relief tonight, I got lost in fond memories I have from that adventure, laughing and running and being carefree college-aged idiots. Earlier tonight I recounted the story with my friend Emily who was there with us. She reminded me of the end of the night, when we all laid down in a circle with our heads meeting in the middle. We stared up at the stars with our backs pressed on a concrete circular slab that was part of a bigger monument. Our bodies were fanned out in the four cardinal directions and we felt each other’s hair move along our own as we talked about our lives. Staring at that sky, the feeling of freedom and possibility was so vast we could have opened our mouths to yawn and inhaled the entire Milky Way.
I’m home now and I have nothing left. The exhaustion has overcome me. The recursive thoughts about my friend are manageable enough to sleep and I have only now begun to think about the soldiers in his command or his family or his new wife. How my loss, though it seems deep enough to reach into my marrow, does not remotely compare to what they must be feeling right now.
I even began to feel ridiculous for processing my sadness and sharing it so recklessly and so soon, without consideration for the family. I even felt a pang of fear over the small possibility that they might one day encounter my words I’ve written here before they’re ready to confront the candidness of my mourning.
I have written here as if I could offer a perspective, which is a fool’s errand only hours after discovering Matt Thompson’s fate. Thinking about this caused shame, and the feeling was almost enough to delete everything I’ve written here this morning if not for one final closing thought that I think is important enough to share; enough to justify the 29 paragraphs I’ve written so far.
I texted back and forth with Emily a few hours ago, whose blonde hair rested on the pavement that night in the park as we stared up into heaven.
Hoping to reclaim an ounce of the feeling I shared with Matt that night, I searched Google Maps for a picture of that concrete slab we laid upon. And then I looked up what that circle of cement actually was. And nearly fell apart when I realized the circle was part of a monument that stands in memory of fallen soldiers, right in the middle of Veteran’s Park.
And in this moment I nearly cried in a room full of strangers that didn’t know my friend, and didn’t understand who he was, and didn’t have to deal with it like I was, alone, in that room. People that weren’t nearly mad enough or even AT ALL for the undignified way that this beautiful human being DIED. In a FUCKING EXPLOSION in a DESERT
And then I heard that explosion in my head.
And then it was quiet.
And then I realized one very important thing.
I realized that the way I see Tito’s death is not the way Tito would see it. He would not choose a prolonged battle with illness that would have people focusing their attention on him. He would not have wanted to make a speech or write a memoir. He would not have wanted to die doing something he didn’t choose. He shared his life not through small words like this, but with a heart as big and powerful and endless as that sky we stared into.
The sky he is in now.
I love you Tito, and I know it’s a few years late, but I just wanted to say that I miss you too. So much.