I wrote this almost two years ago, and read it at Matt’s Vermont memorial. I think I’m ready to post it.
“Did you water the plants?”
The g-chats would come from Asia, South America, Africa. I would sigh and smile and type back in that too abrupt chat shorthand. “Yup” and then we’d bounce to some other topic, often dirt-or-word related. Matt Power could be both singularly obsessed and as scattered as the visas in his passport. Did he know that I cared as much about the plants’ survival – the striated leaves of the spider plant in the bay window of the parlor and the abundance of the vegetable-berry-herb-opium poppy garden of the summer – as he did? If I wasn’t on my own travels, I was babying the babies too, giving them water as they soaked up the south sun, all of us awaiting his next return to Hawthorne Street. I lived there with Matt and Jess for five years, from the first day when we sat on the bare floor in the bare limestone (“It’s not a brownstone,” Matt would correct.) eating takeout, as a cast of characters came and went, until I left too. Did he know I loved the plants? Did he know, we all asked last week, when news of his death in Uganda arrived, how much we loved him?
We often step into each other’s lives in quiet, non-monumental ways. Matt Power showed up in mine in January 2006, in a big puffy down jacket that enveloped his body. He arrived to Jeff Sharlet’s journalism class where I was a student who was older than both professor and guest lecturer, both of whom would become my mentors. Matt was not long back from living in India, and told us about the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Asia, where I had blood family, and the tree-sitters of Oregon, where I’d just left the tribe of my heart to come to grad school in New York. He was a bridge between worlds and when we learned we lived a few blocks from each other in Prospect Heights, our homes forming an easy line between Freddy’s Bar and Prospect Park, we began to explore both regularly. When a blizzard dumped almost 30” of snow on New York a month later, we didn’t change plans to go to the Museum of Natural History, just ended up sledding in Central Park and reveling in the car-free streets and drinking hot coffee in a diner between multiple moments of wandering the museum, a church for people like us. Friendship began.
Matt carried his Vermont upbringing into the city, reminding me of the Oregon country kindness I’d left behind and showing me there could be a more warm welcoming side of the city. He was one who bear-hugged in a city of air-kissers. He was the one who sat through drinks with his puffy jacket zipped up awkwardly, in a metropolis of slick personas. He was the one who had a compost bin behind the group house on Prospect, and let me carry my valuable vegetable peelings I deemed too precious for the city dump to be deposited. He didn’t question this act, my own obsessive bent, and would transform the waste into tomatoes to feed his friends.
We had both done front-line activism and left it — still passionate but tired of all those damn meetings — for journalism. He was the one in a city of emotionally guarded men who said, “I love you,” early and often. He was the one who lived with housemates because he wanted to, not because of the reality that no freelance journalist could afford to live on their own. I begged to be considered for a room should it open on Prospect, but when he met Jess, they began talk of buying a house, and I tagged along when they looked at real estate in Bed-Stuy and Crowne Heights and then Prospect Lefferts Garden, where life on Hawthorne began. My flatmate Basharat Peer, whom I’d met through Matt, and I transplanted our two-bedroom apartment to the top floor.
When activist Brad Will died, we saw our friend circles overlap through the commonality of the rabble rousers who migrate frequently between both coasts. We traveled with hundreds of others through the East Village, taking over the streets, and he recalled his memories with Brad and the gardens and the break-ins and lockdowns. Now, the gathering will be for him.
Matt’s smile was toothy and crooked, yes, but I also saw the Joker in there, corners turning impossibly upwards, reaching. I likened him to a puppy: exuberant, boundless, eager, on occasion, exasperating. We connected on the hunger for stories and people, and the travel and explorations that led us to them, but others — his editors and fellow Harpers interns who have all gone on to be such fabulous writers like Matt — have already written so well on that side of him* over the last painful week. Instead, I find my mind turning to the memories of him that are more dominated by domesticity, the haunts around Hawthorne, the place we returned to from our frequent and respective travels. As his housemate and semi-sister, I witnessed that same energy he took to journalism directed at the garden and house. He obsessively poked and scraped the intricate woodwork that someone – blasphemer! – had painted white, so that he could reveal its true inner nature of brownness. He would climb out at night, with a headlamp, onto an icy second-story roof, to hack away at an ice dam. He’d ignore a deadline so he could install a skylight in my darkened center room, and still overwrite by two thousand words when the story came due. He’d break a window in the process of fixing it. He was always in movement.
When he found Jess, it was like he’d been waiting just for her. He would turn to me and say, repeatedly, “Isn’t she awesome?” as she stepped out of the room, his thumb jutted to her retreating figure, years after they were married. It may just be that he’d attained the holy grail of marriage, loving her as much as Calvin loved Alice. That the stormy skies transformed to blue, swept with white clouds, moments before their country marriage seemed right. Dancing barefoot in the mud afterwards even righter. The night before, we had strung the origami cranes that Jess had folded – a thousand, in secret, with a wish contained in each one – for her wedding gift to him, an echo of Matt’s gift to Ginsberg. We carried the dangling dreams to our own homes where they still hang.
That Jess has lost him before their fifth wedding anniversary is an injustice too grave to comprehend. Now, we set to folding cranes again, for her, for his family, for Matt. I use the Seeds of Change catalog, and cut the squares from the pages of tomatoes.
The last time I saw Matt was days before I left for a five-month trip to India. He and Jess and I met up for Vietnamese food in Park Slope. I’d see Jess again a couple months later, when we overlapped in Delhi at Basharat and Anya’s, Brooklyn and India merging in these households where we’d gather with our computers and our story ideas before venturing out to find them. But on that September night in Brooklyn, we slurped Vietnamese noodles and gossiped about the Hawthorne house and updated each other on the latest stories we were working on. Outside on the sidewalk we exchanged i-love-yous and great big hugs, he lifting me off the ground, and I wrapped my arms around Jess, and then they both climbed onto his motorcycle and drove into the night as I went underground, never to see Matt again.
We leave each other’s lives in monumental ways, every memory heightened, every g-chat immortalized, every photo dug up. There is the searing moment we learned of the impossible. The moments, one after another, when the impossible becomes unbearably real, in undulating grief that none of us know what to do with. My love is with Jess, for the irreversible shift of her world, and his parents, who have suffered the wrongness of losing a child, and his family, who have lost a brother and uncle and nephew. My thoughts too, gravitate to Jason Florio, the photographer and kind and gentle soul who was with Matt on the Uganda trip that went so wrong, who helped send back what remained.
He was always leaving. We all were. But we always came back. There will be a tree planted in your honor, Matt. I suspect there may be many trees planted in your honor. And I’ll water mine faithfully and each spring when its leaves emerge, each fall, when it turns into flame, you’ll return. Always, always, you’ll be missed.