Matt and I became friends through theater. We had been in many high-school plays together. One semester, we tackled Chekhov. Matt was my brother, crippled by debt and an unhappy marriage, longing for a new life in Moscow. The next, he was my unyielding Chinese father in a silk robe and sloppily affixed facial hair. Whatever the role, he was a fantastic performer. Despite his slight stature, his presence easily filled the theater. He was kind and compassionate. He was curious, smart, sometimes naïve, always unafraid. He was often hilarious. He was small, but he was larger than life.
Years later, I was a sophomore in film school living in my very first apartment in a particularly dreary building in Allston, MA. My roommate was gone that weekend and I had the place to myself. I woke up bored yet restless. My sister called talking a mile a minute thinking I had already seen Matt all over the news. Confused, I switched on the TV, and there he was.
Matt had once visited me when I was in Albuquerque. He was doing a world tour of sorts, visiting all his friends before he started college in the fall. When my family and I drove him to the airport, he took his sweet time in each and every gift shop hunting for perfect New Mexico trinkets for his family. After pestering him to hurry up, Matt assured me he had plenty of time. I quickly went to the bathroom as Matt stood in line at the register. When I came out, he was gone. The frenzied gate attendants had whisked Matt onto the plane so it could finally take off. That was the last time I saw him. Since then, I thought of him often. But truth be told, we slowly lost touch.
In October of 1998, I remember stealing my neighbor’s newspaper because Matt was on the cover. I stayed glued to the TV at all hours of the night praying he’d pull through. Days later, as I packed for the funeral, I felt a wild jumble of emotions. Most palpably, I felt guilt; guilt for skipping out on a proper goodbye, for being alive and well when he wasn’t, for losing touch, for so many things. To this day, whether it makes sense or not, I feel enormous guilt that I failed Matt as a friend.
Like many of us who were close to Matt, it remains difficult to express the impact his story has had on my life. Throughout the years, I’ve pored over countless articles and scoured the internet for a revelatory observation or forgotten fact, trying to make sense of it all. I’ve watched every news special and movie inspired by him partly to make amends for not being there for him that night. As if to say, “Look, I’m here now.” But truthfully, as my memories of Matt at school, at the airport, and on the stage begin to fade, I devour those articles and movies mainly because my friend Matt is disappearing and I’m not yet ready for him to be gone.
To many, Matthew Shepard is considered a martyr, a public symbol undeniably important not because of how he lived, but how he died. To a few others, Matthew Shepard was so much more. By sharing our stories, perhaps we can tell the world about Matthew Shepard, the martyr, as well as the son, the brother, and friend whose passing we mourn quietly every day.