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Today In History: The Vigil

Jim Burroway

October 11th, 2008

Ten years ago today, Matthew Shepard lay quietly in the surgical-neuro intensive care unit of Poudre Valley Hospital in Ft. Collins, Colorado, surrounded by his family. This was his fifth day since that awful night. Despite his comatose state, doctors recommended that his family remain there and surround him with things that would be familiar to him in case he had any lingering awareness.

We don’t know much about the scene in the hospital that day. Matthew’s parents, Dennis and Judy, haven’t talked about it publicly. Whenever they’ve spoken publicly since then, they’ve always remained focused on Matthew’s life, not his suffering.

But we do know that ten years ago today they spent every minute that they could at his bedside, surrounding him with as many familiar things as possible. Beyond that, we can only imagine the scene.

But we can imagine that, among the many thoughts that must have raced through his family’s minds, they must have reflected on the many events in his life that they shared with him, the good times and the bad.

They must have thought about their son growing up in Casper. Kids do grow up so quickly, and Matt was no exception. And yet to them, Matt still must have seemed like such a little boy. He was born prematurely, and he struggled to survive as an infant. He was always small for his age — at 21, he still only stood five feet, two inches tall. He started wearing braces at the age of thirteen, and he still had braces as he lay there in that hospital bed.

It must have been very hard to see him laying there quietly like that, a son that was know more for his boundless energy. He wasn’t a star athlete while growing up, but he did played soccer. And in the Cowboy State Summer Games which were held every year in Wyoming, he ran the five-kilometer race and swam the 50-meter freestyle. He entered the swim meet at the last minute knowing that he would likely finish last, but that wasn’t going to stop him from trying. He finished last.

His friends described him as walking with a characteristic bounce, and his playful energy every room he entered. He just seemed to exude a certain kind of energy, the sort of confidence that comes from acting in in community college plays in Casper at the tender age of twelve. When he was a high school junior, he and his family moved to Saudi Arabia where Dennis worked as a construction safety engineer. Matt spend the summer there, and then he went off to boarding school in Switzerland. There he discovered a facility with languages, quickly learning German and Italian.

And yet, he wasn’t always so confident. His parents knew there was always something different about him. His mother says that she knew her son was gay since he was eight. She saw him struggling with himself as he negotiated the tricky minefields of relationships with school friends and neighbors while trying to keep his secret to himself. And she saw him struggle as he tried to figure himself out. But she didn’t try to bring up “the subject” with Matt, opting instead to wait until Matt was ready within himself.

Matt didn’t come out to her until he was eighteen, and even then he couldn’t do it face to face. He came out during a middle-of-the-night phone call. Her response? “What took you so long?”

Matt was more hesitant to come out to his father, and that reluctance had placed a strain between them. Matt had built up this worst-case scenario in his mind that his father would reject him. After all, he had been Matt’s soccer coach, and they had taken many hunting, camping, and fishing trips together along with Matt’s grandfather. You know, the guy stuff that Matt loved doing with his father and grandfather. But more to the point, he didn’t want to disappoint them or risk their rejection.

So when Matt finally decided to have “the conversation” with his father, he took a deep breath and nervously told his dad that he was gay. And then he just waited for Dennis’s reaction. To Matt’s immense relief, his father just said. “Yeah? OK, but what’s the point of this conversation?”

And with that, they went back to just doing guy stuff again.

But of course, that confirmation did lead to a sense of loss with his parents — no bride-and-groom wedding, daughter-in-law, grandchildren — those things. But they quickly got over it. They still loved him.

And besides, that loss was nothing like the one they were facing now.

As Matt lay there, it was probably easy to think of him as an angel. But he was still only human. He had his foibles. His mother would later recall that he smoked too much — including a little weed from time to time — he drank too much sometimes, and he didn’t study enough.

And now there was something else to worry about. Just after Matt was admitted to the hospital, they conducted an HIV test as part of a standard battery of tests. Matt came up positive. He had been tested every six months for the past three years, ever since he was sexually assaulted in Morocco, but those tests always came up negative. Was this a delayed reaction? Or, more likely, was this a very recent infection? In any event, it’s probable that Matt himself didn’t even know.

There was always things to worry about with Matt. Despite his small size, he was very quick to stick up for himself and others, and he didn’t always care who the offender was. If he saw something that he knew was wrong, he couldn’t let it go by. What’s more, he really did seem somewhat naive about his belief in the innate goodness in people. And that, coupled with his size, had scared both of his parents. It made him vulnerable in Morocco, and it made him vulnerable wherever he saw an injustice.

We don’t know where Matt’s family’s thoughts ran as they sat with him ten years ago today in that surgical-neuro intensive care unit, with the ventilator, the temperature, hearbeat and blood preasure monitors, and all the other equipment around his bed. It’s virtually impossible for anyone else to put themselves in their shoes.

But we do know that ten years ago today outside that intensive care room, the nurses were distributing an over-abundance of flowers to patients throughout the hospital, and hospital staff were busy fielding phone calls and emails from around the world.

And we know that ten years ago today in Laramie, on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, members of the LGBT Association gathered to observe the tenth National Coming Out Day to kick off a week of activities for Gay Awareness Week. The gathering took on special meaning ten years ago today, not just because of the somber reality of Matt’s beating that week, but also because Matt was missing from among them. He had helped to plan some of those events.

And we know that ten years ago today, Bill McKinney, father of Aaron McKinney, one of Matt’s attackers, told Reuters that while there was no excuse for what his son was accused of doing, the attack didn’t deserve national attention. McKinney was also quoted as saying, “Had this been a heterosexual these two boys decided to take out and rob, this never would have made the national news.”

And we know that back in Fort Collins ten years ago, Poudre Valley Hospital put out one more medical update. It read:

As of 3 p.m. today, Matthew Shepard continues to remain in critical condition with severe head injuries.

As of today, the hospital will no longer offer medical updates on a scheduled basis as we have for the last three days to accommodate the media. We ask that you use our phone-in line and our web site to keep track of Matthew’s medical condition.

If Matthew’s medical condition changes, we will issue a new medical update and, depending on the significance of the change, we will immediately contact as many members of the media as is practically possible.

Ten years ago today, as crowds continued to gather outside the hospital to keep vigil, Matthew Shepard lay quietly in the surgical-neuro intensive care unit, surrounded by his family and the things he loved. This was his fifth day since that awful night, and it would be his last full day with his family.

See also:
(Oct 16) Today In History: Rest In Peace
(Oct 13) Today In History: “Something In the Culture”
(Oct 12) Today In History: Matthew Wayne Shepard (Dec 1, 1976 – Oct 12, 1998)
(Oct 11) Today In History: The Vigil
(Oct 10) Today In History: Armbands and Scarecrows
(Oct 9) Also Today In History: Details Emerge
(Oct 9) Today In History: “We Just Wanted To Spend Time With Him”
(Oct 8) Today in History: Two Men Arrested
(Oct 7) Also Today In History: Another Assault In Laramie
(Oct 7) Today In History: “Baby, I’m So Sorry This Happened”
(Oct 6) Today In History: Before Matthew Shepard

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