It’s been almost 4 weeks since I stepped up to be the guardian of my late best friend’s mother, who has Alzheimer’s. I was shaken awake by something that night 4 weeks ago, and I know without a shadow of a doubt it was our friend Matt. I checked my messages immediately and noticed one from our friend Megan, worried about Matt’s brother. We reached out and found out he was safe – but quickly discovered Matt’s mother was not being cared for as she should be cared for while living with Alzheimer’s. We military folks don’t stand by on the sidelines when someone needs help (friend or stranger) – it’s not in our DNA. We jump into crisis action planning mode with relative ease – planning, rallying logistics, organizing personnel, and much more. Through our expansive network of resources and people – we get things done.
And that’s exactly what I did, placing a mass group message call for resources and local “boots on the ground” to go get eyes on Matt’s mom, to find out how bad it was. In mere hours Matt and my friends wired me $1250 to help his mom, the resources keep coming each day from near and far. The power of Matt’s legacy made so many amazing friends step up without hesitation to help! For that I am grateful! His mom says it’s like a “fairy tale” having all these angels helping her. Well it’s what she deserves! A woman who raised three sons as a single mom, one son being her sister’s son she adopted at 18 months after Carol died of cancer. Ralyn Rossi is a woman who persevered, put herself through school to be a pharmacy tech, and deserves this “adventure and fairy tale” in her years now living with Alzheimer’s
The last 4 weeks have been incredibly powerful for my own mental and spiritual wellness. I still remember the last few conversations I had with Matt before his death last December. He had finally reached out for advice and help with his mom and her Alzheimer’s – we started to set up a game plan, support groups for him, local memory care resources. The same resources I sent off to his brother months ago. (Matt’s initial goal was to turn their new home into a smart home so he could do everything from Laundry to keeping her engaged with games on iPads from his smartphone) I found the iPad for his mom with a sticky note of apps to download. So this weekend I set those up and will have them ready for her in her new apartment with 24/7 monitoring and continued companion care from her care angel Betty! (Talk about destiny, Matt’s birth certificate from 1976 showed the two people who delivered him were Dr. Rose and OB nurse Betty! Whoaaaa man!! no way!!! As he would say if he were alive!)
I am sure he was laughing his butt off up there watching me try to hack his washer last Friday, only to realize he put it in child lock mode (thank you Google!) And again laughing at me while I taught his mom how to use her new iPhone I set up for her. (I child proofed that too). We were laughing as we two ladies disassembled what felt like a 2,000 lb hand carved wood and marble king sized bed to sell for rent money!”
Laughter truly is the best medicine and his mom was laughing right alongside me as I had to squeeze through the gate to exit the storage unit because neither of us could find the exit button (Thelma and Louise part 2…I’ll share part one story later.) My heart is full! 💗
I still remember our last conversation a few days before he died. He was sitting impatiently at CVS getting his mom her memory meds so we texted for a few. Later he called me after she was settled in bed and released his day.
I felt the caregiver stress in his voice, a sense of hopelessness creeping in. And then he asked me, “Erin how the hell do you do it all and not lose your mind?” For years he was always one of four close friends I could release both my stress and blessings to without any judgement or “you should do this! You should do that!” So in that moment it was my turn to help him. I said simply “I can do it because I have friends like you here for me when I need support or laughter.”
He chuckled and said “I’ve got one for you! I found out where mom was putting the house garbage – in the trunk of her car!” We laughed for a few minutes and I told him “She’s lucky to have you Matt! She cared for you and your brothers all those years and I’m proud of you for being loyal to her and returning home!”
He switched the conversation back to me telling me how happy he was for my “freedom” and retiring from the Air Force, he sent me a screenshot of his calendar with my “Freedom” weekend clearly marked (he was ready to come see me retire from Big Blue!) he was excited for me to finally (after hundreds of interviews) to get a great job, “Now I really won’t be living in a van down by the river!” I told him. To which he replied, I’d never let you live in a van down by the river. We always seemed to quote movie lines…I now know why (his DVD collection was as extensive as mine) We laughed and said goodnight.
Three days later while I was writing my term paper on Ethical Leadership and thinking “Matt would love this paper and these case studies of mine!” A few moments after that thought crossed my mind, my phone rang.
Our friend Tom who was stationed in Korea called and said “Matt’s dead!” “Matt who?” I said. “Erin, Matt Rossi is dead! I don’t know how, but he’s gone!”
I couldn’t believe it and argued with my friend, No, that’s not possible! I just talked to him three days ago! No!!!! I hung up and immediately dialed his number – an older woman answered, took down my name and said yes he’s gone Erin – a bad car accident.”
Death hurts, but the death of a good person really sucks ass! In the early weeks I looked tirelessly for signs of his presence, read old texts, stared at our conversations, wondered “what the hell is the purpose of all this?” He wasn’t afraid of death! He lived a life of adrenaline, adventure and always as a free-spirit! Hell last year on the thru-hike of the AT for @milesfornolan he called me after surviving a fall from Dragon’s Tooth where some Swedes or Dutch hikers saved his life. I was scared for him but he wasn’t. He lived his life with gusto, love, loyalty, grace, humor and much more!
Since Matt’s death, I have felt his spirit around my kids and I often. His closest friends told me at his wake in April they too felt an energy around them. His deep love, loyalty, and care for us during his short life on earth is now manifesting itself to help us care for his mother – to help me care for her from 1,444 miles away.
Leaving her last Sunday was by far the hardest thing I have faced since 2015 when I had to leave my children for 8 weeks with my ex husband’s parents. Matt knew how hard it was for me to hear them missing me, the fun we had, them asking me why their dad couldn’t keep them that summer, me wrestling with the non-stop verbal abuse (texts and calls) from my now ex-husband who stayed in Mississippi where he worked and had a secret life.
What I didn’t know then and found out this past weekend in Dallas, was my best friend supported me with weekly check-in calls that summer (talking to me almost the entire 122 mile drive every Friday and on most return trips every Sunday) he was present for me when I needed a friend. He talked to me and really listened, interested in my life, what I was learning about myself as a leader among marines, how this chapter would make me a better mother, a better leader, and so much more. He did all this for me (and probably other friends that summer too) all while he was going through his alcohol rehabilitation program.
I had no idea until his close friend Nancy and I started putting together the timelines this past weekend, timelines from his DUI after years of coping with PTSD and more. He was the strongest person I’ve ever met, always problem solving for himself and others, always the altruistic, soul driven, loving friend & man! Far from perfect, but a perfect friend! Sure he made mistakes and as I have discovered, kept reminders of those mistakes as far back as a ticket he received as a teenager. He was a perfect friend to us all!
If you are lucky to find loyalty like that in a friend, family member, or partner…I pray you are lucky enough to repay that loyalty! Hold tight to that person because they are rare! That my friends is a legacy worth having!
The road ahead caring for Matt’s mom has been paved clear and obstacles are removed daily because of Matt’s legacy of loyalty and service onto others! In helping his mother, I’ve gained a great peace over my own soul – I’ve felt love come from so many directions for her and for me!
I never expected my life after the Air Force would be like this. But it’s been something my kids and I wouldn’t trade for the world! As Ralyn said to me again this morning “Everyday is a new adventure!” Her words are both sweet and sad because her memory fades daily, yet her hope remains. Her son was a man of adventure and his mom and I have had some adventures already and there sure will be more to come!