Yesterday, I attended the funeral of Richard Matthews, my former brother-in-law and a wonderful uncle to my son, Jacob. I hadn’t seen Richard in some time—my ex-husband and I separated in 2007, and although he and I have remained friends and I continue to consider his family mine, Richard and Marian moved to Northern California in 2008. But I remember meeting Richard for the first time in 1998 and being intimidated by him—tall and thick with graying hair and beard, dark eyes. He was a sheriff, a drug enforcement agent, a Vietnam War Veteran. He was a bear. And then he smiled, and my heart melted.
Richard died peacefully on December 29th at the Sacramento VA Medical Center in Mather, California of complications from Diabetes. There is much speculation about his illness. He was exposed to Agent Orange during his years in Vietnam. For four months, he fought against the infection that was attacking his body. There were a number of times between early September and December 29th when he “might not make it through the night”. But he did. Again and again. He was tough. During yesterday’s service, I discovered just how tough he was.
From the service program, I learned that “Richard was an infantry ‘boots on the ground’ squad leader in the republic of Viet Nam, 101st Airborne Division, 187th Infantry Battalion Battle Lion ‘Rakasans’. He continued to support the military for 20 additional years as a Sergeant for the California Army National Guard, 40th Infantry Division. He was awarded two army commendation medals and three meritorious service medals. Additionally, he spent 31 years with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department. He held numerous ranks and positions within the Department, including Deputy, Sergeant and Lieutenant. He was the SWAT, Narcotics, Jail, Night Watch and Search and Rescue Commander, as well as Volunteer Coordinator for the Posse, the Aero Squadron and other volunteer services. Richard led and participated in a decade of medical missions with the Episcopal Church to Honduras where he served and protected villagers who became his friends. During the last chapter of his life he became very active in the Episcopal Church, the Salvation Army and the Solano County Search and Rescue.”
Friends and family at the service spoke of Richard’s bravery, his compassion, his dedication, his courage. But it was in the letter written by his wife, Marian, and read by a friend of Richard’s where I realized just how brave, just how compassionate and dedicated, and just how courageous Richard was. The first part of the letter was a message to Richard from Marian (of how much she misses him, how many tears she has cried and will continue to cry, and how difficult it is to wake up without him and to come home at night and not have him there); the second part was Richard’s last words to his family and friends, to his daughter and three little granddaughters (in Richard’s words to Starly, Bella and Mazzy, “You’ve only just started to know me, and I’m sorry we won’t be able to know each other more.”); and the final part was a message from Richard to all of us on how to live our lives. It was intense. In the letter, Richard revealed his appreciation to the nurses and doctors at the VA hospital where he spent a majority of his last few months. It was at this hospital where he felt—for the first time since returning from Vietnam—thanked for his services. He became very attached to one particular doctor and a nurse, so much so that he told the doctor about an incident in Vietnam he’d never before shared with anyone. In one horrific day, he lost nearly his entire brigade, including a commander who he’d become very close to and who he looked up to as a mentor. The commander died in Richard’s arms. Richard told the doctor, just prior to a procedure where tubes were to be implanted in Richard’s neck to administer Dialysis, that he had to keep living, that he owed it to the men who died for him on that day. The doctor told Richard that he’d done his service, and that those men would not want Richard to keep living the way he was. He told Richard those men were now waiting for him to rejoin them. In addition, there was a nurse who tended to Richard, helping him with all of the things he could no longer do for himself. Richard kept apologizing to him. The nurse told Richard to stop apologizing, that if it weren’t for Richard, he wouldn’t have a job. He would not have the life he had. He told Richard he was going to tend to him and stay with him until his days were done. And he did.
In attendance at Richard’s funeral were members of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department, as well as members of the California Army National Guard and other military branches, and members of the California Rescue Dog Association (Marian’s dog, Barbarosa, is a member, and he was at the service as well). There was also a group from Honduras and Guatemala. At the end of the church service, there was a processional led by the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department—a full police escort with streets blocked by sheriff vehicles. At the cemetery, bagpipes played and military personnel stood watch. There was a gun salute and a lone trumpeter far off in the distance who played TAPS. As flags were given to Marian and Richard’s medals were given to his daughter, the sun popped out from behind a cluster of clouds. It took my breath away.
I was reminded of the importance of family and friends, and the importance of saying “I love you” whenever and however we can to one another. Life is just too short and too precious to let days and days go by without saying those words. Richard’s advice to us (Marian sat by his side for days writing down what he said, word for word) was that we should live each day to the fullest, and if we want to do something, do it. And if a day should pass when we don’t do what we want, wake up the next day and try again. And again and again.
On my drive to Visalia yesterday morning, I noticed a hawk circling above me. It first appeared near Pyramid Lake, but then seemed to follow me for another 20+ miles until I reached the bottom of the Grapevine, at which time I realized it had remained in the mountains above Tejon Ranch. I’d like to think that was Richard up there, watching over me as I tackled Interstate 5 to attend the dedication to his life, a life he lived in honor of the men who died in Vietnam by his side and in his arms. It was a beautiful tribute to a man who served his country and lived to help those most in need.
Goodbye, Richard Matthews. May you rest in peace, sweet man.
Richard and Marian