We leave the meaning of death to the pens of the poets and the words of the clergy. There isn’t always, it turns out, a reason for everything. God does, in fact, occasionally give us things we can’t handle. There is no handling the death of a 15-year-old child. There is only rain rolling slowly down a windowpane, for all time.
Matt Stratman was full of life and always had been. “I never recall Matt sitting down,’’ remembered one of Matt’s eulogists on Thursday evening.
The community gathered in the gym at Lakota West High. “A celebration of life,’’ they called it, so appropriate for a young man who epitomized living. Two thousand people attended. They filled the gym. Quite a turnout for such a young man. You had to know Matt to understand why.
He went into a coma three weeks ago, collapsing after playing in an alumni lacrosse game, and died Saturday morning. Matt had something called arteriovenous malformation, or AVM. The website Medicinenet.com defines AVM as “a congenital disorder (one present at birth) of blood vessels in the brain, brainstem, or spinal cord that is characterized by a complex, tangled web of abnormal arteries and veins connected by one or more fistulas (abnormal communications).’’
That is neither satisfactory definition nor acceptable explanation for how someone who’d just begun his walk now would travel a different, unknown path. No one should die at age 15 while doing something he loves. No one should die at age 15 at all. There’s no sense to it. In the aftermath, the best we can do is cradle our own lives, find gratitude within ourselves and use that gratitude in service to others.
First, there has to be a letting go, a cathartic remembering. “Feel free to cry tonight,’’ one the five men who spoke on Matt’s behalf said. “And feel free to laugh.’’
Matt Stratman was never still. He was always riding his bike to the UDF, playing any and every sport with his friends and his father, Ron. On a vacation not long ago, he perfected a backflip. When someone asked him why, Matt said, “So I can do one the first time I score a goal’’ during a Firebirds lacrosse game.
He had a wry sense of humor. Matt had a youth football coach whose favorite expression was, “Cool heads win.’’ One steamy August practice, the guy didn’t heed his own lesson. He got after his charges pretty good, then sent them on a water break, after which Matt returned and said, “Coach, you need to calm down. Cool heads win.”
“You got me,’’ the coach said.
The coach, who spoke Thursday night, had a sister who died young, so he had a window into the Stratman family soul. He said Matt was “teachable and coachable. His heart was full of humility.’’
That was another thing about Matt Stratman. He had a generosity of spirit that had no room for judgment or meanness. In the days Matt spent at the hospital before he passed, he received stacks of cards filled with well wishes. One of the cards came from a teammate, who admired Matt’s ability to get along. “You didn’t criticize players not as good as you,’’ he wrote.
Matt’s dad put it this way Thursday: “He laughed with people, not at them.’’ Empathy is a prized trait, not often owned by someone so young. Matt had it from the first.
We are a city of good communities. Coming together is what good communities do, so it was no surprise that a car wash raised $13,000 for Matt’s medical bills, or that a rally at the football field the night after Matt fell attracted several hundred people who let the Stratmans know they were loved. One of Matt’s football teammates created a GoFundMe page.
The Stratmans became the West community, and the West community became the Stratmans. That’s how it’s supposed to work and mostly does. It’s what makes us human.
“Grief is the gap between what is and what should be,’’ one of the eulogists said. Matt is dead. He should be alive. But the man also said, paraphrasing, “a body is temporary. A soul is eternal.’’ It’s up to the rest of us to find meaning in those words. We can honor Matt that way. As one of the eulogists said, “We can honor him by applying his traits to our lives.’’
Our children are put here to teach us things and remind us of lessons lost to the years: What innocence looks like, and how it feels to be honestly happy. How a life well lived can make its mark, even if the living ends too soon.
After the celebration, 2,000 people walked from the gym into the cooling and soft night. They formed parallel lines on the football field, 25 feet apart, endzone to endzone, four and five celebrants deep. The Stratman family carried Matt’s casket the length of the field, between the lines of people. A bagpiper walked with them, slowly. He played Amazing Grace. It was appropriate.