I have been planning to write about this topic for months, and I’ve put it off because it’s a hard thing to write about. Then this week, I learned some unexpected news that made me realize I can’t put it off any longer.
Let me start by telling you about my friend Matt. I met Matt during a period of my life when I was overcome by despair and grief. I had returned to the USA from Africa and had lost everything I cared about. Furthermore, I was going to a very strict university that felt like a prison and the man I thought I would marry had dumped me in a craven and cowardly manner. And then, the one close friend I’d made there ran off to get married. I felt utterly bereft and alone in the world.
One of the quaint features of that school was that we had assigned tables at suppertime. We would get our table assignments and would have to sit at that table with those same people for three weeks, at which time we’d get a whole new assignment. We all complained about it, but I met some interesting people that way, and Matt was one of them.
I learned he was an art major, and I loved art, so we talked about that a lot. He was so knowledgeable and thoughtful and unassuming. He had a different way of looking at the world, which I’d never encountered before. He turned many of my naïve assumptions upside down, yet at the same time he was the most “normal” person I’d met there.
I was so sad when I had to change table assignments. I knew chances were slim that I’d ever see Matt again. But as luck would have it, shortly after that the school had what they called “Reverse Courtesy” weekend. This was a weekend when girls were allowed to ask boys out instead of the other way around.
Now remember, I was deeply grieving the loss of a relationship. I had no romantic interest in anyone. However, I was very interested in having a chance to talk to Matt again, so I asked him out. There was a very rigid system in place that required dating to be arranged by notes. So I wrote him a note asking to eat lunch with him during Reverse Courtesy weekend.
As it happened, I had several casual friends in the dorm who were also art majors, and one of them asked me if I had asked anyone out, and I said that I had asked Matt. And she and her friends literally gasped in horror. They then told me how incredibly clueless and stupid I was. Matt was a senior. I was a freshman, and therefore beneath his notice, and not just because of my youth. Turns out he was basically considered the king of the art department. The other art majors were so intimidated by his prodigious talent, they would never dream of approaching him to ask a simple question, let alone for a date. “He won’t even answer your note,” they said.
But he did answer, and he accepted my invitation. I was wracked with insecurity. Maybe he had no idea who I was. Maybe he thought he was accepting an invitation from someone who was actually worthy of his company. I almost chickened out, but when the day came I walked on shaky legs to the agreed-on meeting place.
He greeted me with his quirky smile and I immediately began apologizing for my existence. I specifically mentioned the fact that I was a lowly freshman, whereas he was a senior. He just grinned and said, “Everyone’s got to start somewhere.” That was the perfect thing to say. After that, I could enjoy our conversation.
Our conversation ranged over a huge variety of topics, but art of course came up often. He invited me to come up to the art department sometime and look around. He had some paintings on display there, and he said he was usually up there painting in the evenings.
Shortly thereafter, I couldn’t resist going up to the art department to check it out (it was on the second floor). Because my departed friend had also been an art major, I actually knew quite a few people up there. I looked in on people creating etchings, sculpting, and shaping ceramics in a room full of potter’s wheels. I saw no sign of Matt.
Finally, there was one room I hadn’t yet looked into, because the door was mostly closed. Cautiously, I pushed it open a few inches and peeked into the large room. On the far wall hung a huge canvas, and Matt sat on a stool in front of it, painting. There was no one else in the room. I wasn’t sure what to do. If he was busy, maybe I shouldn’t interrupt him.
Before I could withdraw, he turned around and saw me. His face lit up with a smile, and he invited me to come see what he was working on. He pulled up another stool so I could sit beside him and watch him paint.
This might be a good time to mention the fact that he was primarily an abstract artist. Before I knew that, I had blurted out that I didn’t like or understand abstract art. He was not in the least offended. He didn’t argue with me. He did something so much better. He spent many hours over several months letting me into his world and making me fall in love with what he did.
From that very first night, he kept up a constant dialog explaining to me what he was doing, what the painting meant and why he made the choices he did. I was gobsmacked. I had always thought abstract art consisted of aimlessly throwing paint at a canvas and then charging obscene amounts of money for it. Now I saw how much thought and care went into every stroke. Watching him work was an escape from all the grief and stress that filled my life during that time.
After that first visit, I went back to the dorm and my art major acquaintances wanted to know what I had been doing up in the art department, because a couple of them had seen me there. I told them I had been watching Matt paint, and they had a group conniption about it. “You can NOT disturb Matt when he’s painting!” they said. “No one ever goes into that room when he’s in there working. You cannot disturb a genius at work. Don’t ever do it again.”
I did do it again. And again. I was hooked. I had to go to the art department almost every night, because I had to see the progress on whatever project Matt was working on. I raced through my homework so I’d have time to go watch Matt paint. He always greeted me with joy and kindness, and he always kept up a running commentary on what he was doing. We talked about many other things too, of course, but mostly about art. Looking back on it now, I’m stunned that he was able to be such a good conversationalist while creating art at the same time. I mean, nobody better try to carry on a conversation with me while I am writing! But he did it without any apparent effort.
In all the hours I spent watching him paint and listening to him talk, no one else ever dared to come into the room. I am so glad I was too clueless to know it was an unwritten rule that Matt could not be disturbed. I have no idea what he thought of me and my interest in his painting. If I annoyed him, he certainly never let on. In fact, I think he might have been kind of lonely. Maybe he even welcomed my company.
One day in the spring of my freshman year, I received the news that my grandfather had died. I had always been close to my grandfather, and he had made it very clear to me that I was his “favorite.” Now I am not in favor of the practice of having “favorites,” but it’s not too bad when the favorite is you!
I was devastated by this news. I cried out to God. “How much more are you going to take away from me?” I’d lost my home, all my friends, the man I loved, my one new friend, and now even my grandfather. I dragged myself through my classes that day blinking back tears. All I could think about was getting through everything I had to do so I could go see Matt and tell him about my grandfather. Matt was the only person I felt “safe” talking to.
That evening I dragged myself up to the art department and into the room where Matt was working. He greeted me with his usual smile and his usual question: “How’s life in the academic world?” Although he was a college student, he didn’t see himself in any way as being part of academia.
We exchanged some trivial small talk. I was kind of waiting for a chance to broach the subject of my loss, but the chance never came. I believe Matt saw the pain leaking out of my eyes, saw how close to tears I was, and he took action. He talked as he painted, and he kept up a constant stream of words, leaving me no opportunity to say anything.
A funny thing happened over the next hour or so, as I watched and listened to my friend Matt. Somehow, he managed to pour peace and comfort into my soul without appearing to do so. The threat of tears receded. The magic of art drew me away from my grief and made me realize that joy still existed and could be found, and that I had been so blessed in so many ways. By the time I headed back to the dorm to beat the curfew, I realized that he had found a way to comfort and encourage me when I needed it most desperately, even though I never even told him about losing my grandfather.
I realized that somehow Matt had become my lifeline. I don’t think it’s exaggerating at all to say that for the second half of my freshman year, he kept me alive. I certainly had not wanted to stay alive for some time before meeting him. His unique point of view perked me up and forced me to look at everything with new eyes. What a gift that was.
The school year came to an end. Matt graduated, and I left for home without having a chance to say goodbye to him. I knew I wouldn’t be coming back, and of course he’d be gone anyway. There was no Facebook, no way of staying in touch unless you exchanged addresses, and we certainly never did that. I wasn’t even sure he knew my last name.
I stayed out of school to work a year, and then came down here to Texas to attend LeTourneau College (now a university) where my husband still works. The following spring, two years after I’d last seen Matt, my future husband flew me out east to attend his sister’s graduation from nursing school. I had the nerve to ask him to let me go a couple of days early, so I could visit friends at my old university.
I stayed with my former guardians and of course I couldn’t resist going over to the university and up to the art department. It had been my “happy place” during that dark, dark time in my life. I wondered if anyone I knew would still be there. It was the middle of the afternoon and not much was going on. There were a couple of ceramic artists at their wheels, but the floor seemed all but deserted.
The room where Matt used to paint was silent, the door ajar, so I knew there was no class going on in there. I couldn’t resist peeking in one last time. Imagine my surprise when I saw Matt there, sitting on his stool and painting a large canvas. I couldn’t believe it. He turned around and saw me, and welcomed me as he always had. He gave no sign he was aware that two years had passed. It was as if I had seen him the day before.
Like a girl in a dream, I walked in and he started his usual running commentary. He was working as a graduate assistant while doing graduate work at another university, which is why he still had access to the facilities. He was getting ready for his first big exhibition.
After talking to me about his current painting, he said, “Do you want to see the others?” Of course I did. He led me back to the room where all the paintings were stored upright in cubbyholes. He pulled out painting after painting, like a little kid excitedly showing off his favorite possessions. As he displayed each artwork, he explained it to me, and eagerly watched my reactions. It was like opening gifts on Christmas morning. Treasure after treasure.
That afternoon was one of the most joyful experiences of my life. How I wished I could afford to buy one of his paintings! They were dirt cheap back then, but I was also dirt poor, and could never scrape together even $30 or $40 to get one of his smaller paintings. It’s one of my big regrets.
After that visit, I never saw or heard from Matt again. Every now and then, I’d do some online searching to see if I could find out what happened to him. Nothing ever came up until last year, when I finally found his website and Instagram account. I was stunned to discover that he had spent a couple of decades painting in New York City. He had never struck me as a big-city kind of guy.
I scrolled through the photos of his paintings, wishing so badly that I could hear his voice explaining them to me. I didn’t try to contact him personally. I have no reason to believe that he’d remember me.
Early this week, I checked his Instagram account to see if he’d posted anything new. He hadn’t, but a comment on one of his pictures struck fear and dread into my heart. The implication was that Matt had died. It took days of fearful searching to find any confirmation. I hoped and hoped it was a baseless rumor. Someone else named Matthew Baumgardner had died recently. Maybe the commenter had got the wrong Matt.
But last night, I finally found the truth, posted by one of Matt’s own daughters. Matt did indeed die on November 20, and by his own hand. It didn’t surprise me, but it wrecked me. Oh, the tragic irony of discovering that the friend who kept me alive could not, in the end, keep himself alive. Even after all these decades, I’m devastated.
I’d guess that no one reading this has ever even heard of Matthew Clay Baumgardner, a kind and gentle soul, a gifted artist, and a radiant human being. Now maybe you have a tiny inkling of what the world lost when it lost him. Oh, Matt. I am so, so sorry. I’ll never not miss you.
There’s a line in Don McLean’s classic song “American Pie” which says, “Fire is the devil’s only friend.” It sounds cool, but it’s not true. Fire may indeed be the devil’s friend, but it’s not his only one. Oh, no. The devil has many friends. Let me introduce you to a few of them. Have you met Hypocrisy, Ignorance, Cruelty, Sarcasm, Pride, Dishonesty, Envy, Greed, Bitterness, Lust, or Rage? They are all very good friends with the devil, along with all their loathsome relations.
In light of Matt’s death, however (and several others in the last two years), I’d have to say that one of the devil’s most powerful friends is Despair. The first thing you need to know about Despair is that she’s a liar. Everything she says is a lie, but she makes it sound so convincing. “You’re stupid. You’re fat. You’re ugly. You’re not good enough. You’ll never be good enough. Everyone knows you’re incompetent. You can’t do anything right. Everything that happens to you makes your life worse. You are wasting your time. Nothing will ever be better than the hell you’re living right now. You’ve never accomplished anything worthwhile. They don’t care about you. No one cares about you. The world would be better off without you.”
Sound familiar? Despair and I have been acquainted for a long, long time—but I never really questioned our unhealthy relationship until the day I shared my discouragement with an older friend who was also a spiritual mentor. She grabbed my shoulders, looked me right in the eye, and said, “Discouragement is a sin, Linda.”
Well, that was shocking. It had never occurred to me that I could refuse to listen to Despair and her lies. I never stopped to think that I had a choice. Now I understand that Despair is often invited in by Depression, and if you are suffering from clinical depression, as I often have, it may be impossible to see Despair’s lies for what they are. Why do you think the devil loves despair so much? She does so much of his work for him.
There have been many helpful things written about suicide prevention lately, and I am thankful for that. But what concerns me is that so many people are still falling through the cracks. Everybody says, “Get help. Call someone. Reach out.” Yet that is exactly what is so hard to do when Despair has moved in with you. When Despair is calling the shots, you don’t think anything can help. You don’t believe anyone could care. So you don’t reach out.
I’d like to see the burden of help shifted more to the people in a person’s life. How can you tell if someone is suffering from suicidal depression? Well, I’m sure it differs according to personality, but here are some things I’ve noticed. They may be very quiet. They may be kind and sweet, but if they are also quiet and withdrawn, that may be more than introversion. They may smile with their mouth but not their eyes. Most likely, they will not laugh, even when you think something is hilarious. Their energy will be low. They won’t be motivated to go out and socialize or participate even in activities they claim to like. They may not care about what they eat or what they wear. They may give away even valuable possessions with no sign of regret.
All of those characteristics are things that I experienced during that hard, hard time in my life. I believe that Matt, with his different way of perceiving things, somehow figured out that I was not only in deep distress but also in danger, and he took action. He befriended me, and opened up at least some of his private world to me. I may not have been all that important to him, but at the time I believed I was. I certainly was not important to anyone else in my life at that time. That one person made all the difference in the world. He never talked to me about depression, but he somehow managed to lift the gloom a little every time I talked to him. Oh, how I wish that someone had done that for him in these last few years. Maybe he’d still be around.
Maybe we could all put more effort into really noticing what’s going in our friends’ lives, and intervening with love and kindness when we see a cause for concern. Whoever you are, we need you. Please stay.