Jim Varagona

Tag: Matthew Thomas Varagona

Redirect – Dealing with Loss

14 years ago, my brother, Matt, died. I know. It sounds like that other post, but it was on this very day, 14 years ago. It may have been an average day outside, unlike what we’ve seen this year, but it was anything but that for the friends and family of my brother.

Matt, in his later years with his prized Haro bike

Matt, in his later years with his prized Haro bike

Typically a February brings this all back and I’ll have flashes of it through the month. Writing the other post helped quite a bit by purging much of what flashes in my head from that time. I think it’s not very understood what happens after such an event, especially for folks that have never experienced a death of someone so close. I know I can make conversation awkward for people when they ask about siblings and I clarify by saying “two siblings, one deceased.” That’s fine. I get it. I’ve gone through the stages of grief and believe I have made peace with that horrible time.


Brothers at the top of the Sears Tower

Guilt is useless but happens on occasion. Early on, I wondered if we could’ve done more. We trusted opinions of doctors we had seen for quite some time. On a side note, the same pediatrician office blew off my sudden weight loss and frequent urination saying I was a growing boy. It turned out to be Type 1 Diabetes which we only discovered after pushing further beyond the initial analysis. Even when we got Matt to the hospital though, it took them over a week in their care to get a solid idea of what was going on. It was too late for him once he arrived there. You can place blame but it does no good.

I was angry at doctors. I was angry at Matt, thinking he had any bit of control over his situation. I wished he would’ve complained more when he had the ability to, but the thing was just like the rest of us, his condition seemed bad, but nothing that could’ve ended the way it did. I was angry at any remaining notions I had of a god. I remember watching my mother struggle with it initially, but my parents’ faith seems to be pretty strong now. I don’t discuss my belief system much, not wanting to push others or listen to a spiel for me.

The depression was horrible. Many would say “I can’t imagine.” One girl I went to high school with actually said, “If that happened to me, I would kill myself.” I actually calmed her friends down and said that is an honest reaction. I’m sure a lot of people felt that way. I thought of Matt a lot. I would think that one day I would run upstairs to his room and he’d magically be there. Maybe it was a magnificent ruse. Maybe it was all my bad dream.

The dreams were interesting, incidentally. Every night was a different spin on what had happened. Most often, Matt came home from the hospital but was very sick. He had enough time and good days though to have gatherings and say goodbyes. Other times would be a normal dream, like the ones where you show up at your grade school in a towel, but it’s your high school and people you work with are there, and he just drops into it like it’s nothing. I actually welcomed the dreams.

Anxiety brought on an ulcer. My father had a bout of anxiety to the extent that we thought it was a heart attack. This was a week after Matt died. My parents said I had to get him to the hospital. We got into their Grand marquis and made the 15 minute drive. My dad was laying in the back seat, moaning, and telling me to flag down a police car. I flashed my brights at a cop car. The officer seemed puzzled and asked what was going on. I explained and asked if he could escort us, at my parents’ insistence. He replied that he didn’t do that kind of thing, so we went on our way. I hopped on the highway and sped to the exit for the hospital. The cop actually followed me and didn’t pull us over. We were in the Emergency Room at Barnes Hospital for a while as doctors checked him out. I paced around the waiting room most of the time. I called a friend from a pay phone to let her know that I probably wouldn’t make it out to bowl with them s planned that night. It was an odd feeling to explain what was going on after what had already occurred in the previous few weeks.

As I sat and waited for news in the waiting room, I had some tears in my eyes. A man probably 10, maybe 20 years older than me, that looked pretty tough, glanced over at me and said “Hey man, let me show you something outside.” It was a vulnerable moment. What else did I have to lose at that point? I walked outside the ER and he had a brand new, black Monte Carlo parked outside. He was really proud of it. Honestly, the car didn’t do much for me. We talked for a bit about why I was there and his mother that was there. It was nice that someone seemingly so different from me would attempt to cheer me up or at least distract me. Sometimes sharing experiences is all we need to do that. Or just listening to someone share theirs even.

Dad didn’t have a heart attack. It was anxiety. I managed to meet up with my friends at the bowling alley. A guy that didn’t come around as much, a friend of a friend if you will, was there. Last I saw him was back at the birthday party on February 13th when Matt was in the hospital. His first words to me were “So how’s your brother?” Oh boy. I said “He died!” and stormed off to chain smoke my Parliaments. I believe it was that same night that “Only God Knows Why” by Kid Rock came on the jukebox there, which we played at Matt’s burial. Something was trying to condition me for that grief thing.

My parents and I attended a few sessions of group grief counseling. One time was helpful, I suppose. It’s good to see other people struggling like you are. I had just finished reading “Fight Club” though and was a big fan of the movie. Support groups are used to comedic effect as the narrator attends them to be something that he isn’t. There’s the stereotypical going around the circle, introducing yourself and why you’re there, and then everyone says hello. Being a real part of that was a little humorous to me after the first session. Luckily there were no group hugs. I did hear fascinating stories of how others’ loved ones died from a brown recluse spider bite to being decapitated after driving under a tractor trailer. Several people talked of seeing apparitions of their loved ones. I just couldn’t get into that. Obviously, everyone deals with grief differently.

What helped me get through it all was the dreams. I felt crazy at the time since most nights I was interacting with my dead sibling in different versions of his future. It was better than being around people that didn’t necessarily understand. It was a dark place. I grew apart from friends. Mental and emotional states change so much. No one is really prepared for it. At some point though, I woke up from hanging with my brother and knew that I had to redirect the emotions.

Scan066, February 15, 200401

My mother and I in deep discussion at the benefit

My family became good friends with the parents of some of Matt’s friends. I conveyed to a mother of one of his friends that we needed to have a benefit. I provided the idea, but everyone else ran with it. It was a beautiful thing to watch everyone direct so much energy into something positive to remember Matthew. Instrumental were my mother and sister as well as Teresa Harvey and Denise Miller. Everything was donated for raffles and silent auction. Food and drink for an open bar was all donated. We had a speaker from the Wegener’s Granulomatosis Support Group (now the Vasculitis Foundation), Judy Brown, give a slide show presentation of the condition that killed Matt. It was important that we create awareness on top of bringing people together to remember our loved one and raise funds for researching Wegener’s Granulomatosis. We did a smashing job, raising $19,000 that one night, March 31, 2001, a little over a year after Matt had passed away.

Scan066, February 15, 200404

Grooving with Explosion On Impact

That night I emceed the affair, some of the time with my torso wrapped in Saran Wrap. Hey, it looked so cool. I sang with a band made up of brothers Dan Roth, on keyboards and guitar, and Dave Roth, on drums, who were friends of Matt’s, and Sarah Baggett, a friend of mine, on bass. We called ourselves “Explosion On Impact,” which Matt had said would be a great band name. It was our only performance. We stormed through a set of covers of Presidents of the United States of America, The Doors, “What Would Brian Boitano Do?” by DVDA (as I swam through a crowd of old folks barking into a wirless mic), and a polka medley a la Weird Al Yankovic of Limp Bizkit and Cypress Hill songs. At some point I said if anyone had scissors and the crowd could gather up some cash, people could get in line and cut my afro off. It was the longest my hair had ever been. A member of the band that played before us, Red Afternoon, said he actually had clippers in his van. Perfect. As we played through Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling,” a favorite of my brother’s, the inebriated folks came up front, cash in hand, and took swipes at my hair with the clippers. We made $300 from that, despite some old man at the union hall we held this at telling us to get off the stage and pack up.

Explosion On Impact performing “Kick Out the Jams” by Presidents of the United States of America. Video by Ted Stahl.

 Explosion On Impact performing “The Crystal Ship” and “Light My Fire” by The Doors. Video by Ted Stahl.

There was an amazing after party at a house following this event. On top of that open bar, we took what was left over to finish it off. There had to be around 50 people that were there spread out over 2 floors, easily. There were a lot of hugs and saying “We did it!” I can’t say I know exactly how Matt’s death affected each of those people in that year prior, but that night was a great release of so much energy and emotion.

Scan066, February 15, 200407

After party

The following morning, my mother and I drove the proceeds to Kansas City, 4 hours away. I was hung over and my blood sugar was high and out of control. She pulled over for me to puke twice. We seemed to make it to KC in pretty good time nonetheless. We met up with the director of the organization we raised the funds for. I imagine I looked like death, considering I was freshly bald, pale as a ghost from the nausea, and exhausted from the night before. The director was a nice, older woman that thought it would be good for me to eat something and she wanted to show her appreciation, so she took us out for a steak dinner.

It seems fitting that shortly after this, just a couple of months, I met the woman who would someday be my wife. You don’t completely move on from episodes like that, but we must go on living without being miserable. We must remember the person we lost and make something good out of whatever bad there is. There were golf tournaments that my parents hosted in memory of Matt. In total, with those events and smaller internet fundraisers, our family has raised close to $30,000 in Matt’s name for the Vasculitis Foundation, which created The Matthew Thomas Varagona Memorial Grant, which was applied to a study that investigated the susceptibility of genes to lead to Wegener’s in family members of patients. There’s a scholarship in his honor that is awarded at the St. Joan of Arc Golf Tournament every year to an 8th grader entering high school, as he was that year he passed.

I talk to my 5 year old son about his Uncle quite a bit. He’s playing many of the same games and with the same toys Matt and I played with. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Legos never get old. Matt may be gone, but he’s still around.


14 Years

14 years ago today, my brother Matt was turning 14. The birthday festivities we had planned for him were postponed. He was glued to my parents’ couch for several days by then. I remember the hacking cough. The pediatrician had said it was a bad case of the flu. He even said that after the hacking cough was producing blood.

A little over 5 years separated us. I remember before he was born, I was wishing, hoping, and praying for a little brother. I guess I put the pressure on my parents. My sister, Sara, and I stayed at our Grandma Phil’s house when my mother went into labor with Matt. At some point, we got the call that we had a little brother. I said, “I think I’m going to cry,” and sure enough. It was my first memory of having tears of joy. He was our little MTV (Matthew Thomas Varagona). I’m sure my sister and I had some kind of a say in those initials.

We weren’t the greatest brothers to each other, but the love was there. There were periods of time when we would cuss at each other and chase each other with eating utensils around the house. I’m sure it was under the acceptable level of what brothers can do to each other. Matt had a reputation of being a shit disturber, and I’m sure some of that came from having to deal with me. Much of it though is up to interpretation. He had a great sense of humor, but much of it came from challenging authority. It was our way. There was a brutal honesty in that attitude. We came to understand each other, I think. He may not have understood why my afro was bleach blonde in 1997 and told me multiple times to dye it back. And I may not have understood his musical tastes, such as his liking of Kid Rock, but we did our own thing and had some respect for each other.

I gave Matt a bell for those days on the couch. He would ring it, and I would scream from the basement, “I’M COMING!” as I ran upstairs. I’d assist him by getting a drink or a bite to eat. I had decided not to go back to school after my first semester of college, so I had the time to help. Around his birthday, the crap that this boy was spitting up was awful. There had to be a couple of inches in the bottom of his couch-side trashcan. He wasn’t acting like it was anything worse than the flu, but something was obviously wrong. I expressed to my mother that we needed to take him somewhere and on the 7th or the 8th, we did. When she told me that I needed to help her get him to the hospital, I began to realize even more how things were. Matt was too weak to change his underwear and pants so I assisted him. We took him to the ER at St. Louis Childrens’ Hospital.

That first day, they had him in isolation. I called my job at the library and told them I wouldn’t be in until I knew more about my brother’s situation. I went back to work a month later. We traded turns feeding Matt ice chips. He was still talkative but in discomfort. Things seemed pretty serious, but no one knew what the hell was going on. The suspense had me smoking heavily. My family didn’t like that, but the Parliament Lights and their recessed filters helped.

He was admitted to the pediatric ICU. They had him hooked up to multiple monitors and IVs. It would be some time before the medical professionals had a decent idea of what was going on though. Matt and I had a moment together that night. A priest had just visited him to do the anointing of the sick. I had remarked how that was strange since they typically reserve that for dire situations. I don’t think either of us knew the severity of his case that night. I don’t remember the conversation but we talked a while and it was light. These are the moments you wish you had perfect recollection of, but those details fade.

I believe I spent the night at home. When I returned, my mother informed me that Matt was put in a medically induced coma to get a better handle on what was going on. I regretted not spending more time with him the night before. Hell, I regretted not being there when they told him they were going to that and when they did. The machines in his room increased in number. There was a canister filling with the blood and miscellaneous fluids from his lungs. It’s a horrible feeling knowing that the people trained to handle the medical case at hand don’t know all. They can only go through the motions, maybe keeping up with whatever is wreaking havoc, but without knowing, it’s just a guessing game. And they told us that in so many words.

Three days into Matt’s stay at the hospital, a doctor took my family into a private room. It was a dimly lit room with plenty of tissue, so it wasn’t the room for good news. The doctor said at this current rate, we needed to prepare for Matthew to die. His kidneys were failing. His lungs were failing. Whatever was in him was tearing through his lungs like razor blades. Of course we all started bawling, and through that, had to repeat it all to my Granddad who was in the room and was very hard of hearing.

Matt’s friends and their families came to visit daily. They brought birthday and ‘get well’ balloons. I would go with them down to the hospital chapel at times to talk about Matt and about life. While in the ICU, his high school acceptance letter arrived from Bishop DuBourg. We talked to him, not knowing if he could hear us. I would talk to him about getting Crazy Taxi for the Dreamcast for us to play and splurging on a steering wheel for it, but he had to get out of that bed first. We had to rub his feet and exercise his legs to prevent bed sores. As the days went by, I was sleeping some nights at the hospital. My sister did as well. My parents never left. I had to tend to our dogs at home. We always hoped for different and better news in the morning. How could this have progressed so quickly? How did it just appear to be the flu to doctors?

On the 13th, there was a birthday party for a friend of mine. My family pushed me to get out. Matthew’s condition wouldn’t change during that time, they said. I had friends sign a ‘Get well’ card for him while at the party. Some hadn’t even met him, but every little bit helps, right? My friend had said he was surprised I went to his party. He didn’t have high hopes for the situation. He had seen the death of his mother several years prior. It was a very odd feeling to be in the midst of all of this and to be considering a future unlike anything I knew before.

We were told what to expect if he made it out of the state he was in. Failing kidneys can get dialysis, failing lungs were trickier. They were considering a few possibilities on diagnosis, including Good Pasture’s Disease, but at some point the doctors settled on Wegener’s Granulomatosis (now known as Granulomatosis with polyangiitis), an auto-immune disease that usually hit folks in their 40s or 50s. The treatment would’ve involved long-term immunosuppression. People could live with the condition though if caught early enough. It did not look good for Matt though.

The doctors informed us he would be put on ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, which from what I remember, helped oxygenate his blood since his lungs were being ravaged. The hope was that it would allow his body to rest and at some point it would be a bridge to further treatment. If the patient is weaned off and the body doesn’t take charge, it obviously is fatal. It was another machine in the mix, adding to the beeping, pumping, and digital readouts around our Matthew.

I had many late nights at the hospital during this time, drinking coffee in their cafeteria and going outside for a few cigs. On the hour in the cafeteria, they played a song. Sometimes the theme to Star Wars, sometimes it was “Yellow Submarine” by The Beatles. I still think of those times when I hear the melody to “Yellow Submarine.”

One day, I was told that they would be taking him out of the coma, only for a few moments, I’m assuming to make sure he was still responsive. I went in there and watched him open his eyes. There was too much crap on him helping him breathe and just live that he couldn’t speak. It has to be so terrifying to wake up basically in a shell of a body, that you can’t move or speak and you have no idea what is going on. I talked to Matt, being as gentle about an explanation as possible. I only hope he was well drugged up at that point enough to not feel all of the tubes, needles, and nonsense connected to him.

I remember waking up on the 20th at the hospital and my sister had told me my dad didn’t think Matt was alive anymore. His body had become purple and swollen. It was a difficult sight. A holy roller co-worker of my father’s came to pray over my brother with a chaplain friend. The family allowed them to do so outside the door to the ICU. They were waving their arms and speaking in tongues. It was a bit much for me. During one of the saddest times of my life, it brought out a snicker. I’m confident Matt would’ve done the same.

The doctors assured us he was still alive, but prepared us for taking him off of ECMO the next day. We remained hopeful but by that time, had prepared somewhat for the end. The 21st was a Monday. The swelling and color had subsided a bit. Visitors for Matthew were arriving that afternoon, not knowing what they were getting into. My mother, father, and sister went to his bedside after they took him off of the ECMO machine. We were telling him to be strong and he could do it. With time, I was breaking down and yelling at him, calling him an asshole, and telling him he couldn’t die on us. I ran out bawling and into a crowd waiting for news. Co-workers, friends, and family were all waiting. The holy roller organized a prayer circle. I am no religious man, nor was I much of one at that time. It was beautiful to see people gather for my brother and wish him the best outcome. Once the speaking in tongues started up though, I grinned through tears.

It’s so surreal to go somewhere with somebody and have to leave forever without them. The grief was unbearable at times. The night he died, I stayed overnight with about 10 of his friends. We stayed up most of the night telling stories about the person that we all knew, many new to me, which painted a bigger picture of the brother I just lost.

Funerals are sad. Funerals for young people are horrible. When that person is someone so close, it is unimaginable. I tried my best to get “Soul Bossa Nova,” the theme to Austin Powers by Quincy Jones played at Matt’s funeral. Alas, I was voted down. I suppose it wasn’t possible in a Catholic church. We did sing “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens, which warmed my heart. On the way to the cemetery, I looked out the back window of the limo transporting my family. I saw a line of cars that went back beyond my line of sight. I remarked that I had never seen anything like it. My dad said, “And hope you never see anything like it again.” We ended Matt’s burial ceremony by blasting Kid Rock’s “Only God Knows Why” on a boombox that my sister gave my brother for Christmas. We blasted it in a national cemetery. There was something very hoosier, very sticking it to the man, very perfect, and very Matt about it.

It’s been 14 years since Matt turned 14. It feels so strange to realize he’s been gone for as long as he was here. We keep his memory alive as much as possible through benefits, fundraising drives, and just telling stories. My 5 year old son has heard so much about his uncle that he never met, that he talks about him as if they’ve spent so much time together. While that dark February sticks with me, sometimes so vividly, it is a constant reminder to not take the small things in life so seriously. It is a reminder to enjoy every moment you have just living and to enjoy everyone around you, because we don’t know how and when it will end for any of us. I’m sure Matt would approve of that.

Thanks for reading.

Matt, myself, and Sara at my high school graduation in May of 1999

Matt, myself, and Sara at my high school graduation in May of 1999

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