Judy Shepard Writes About Son Matt's Life, Death

It's often said that we see a white light before we die. I wonder if that is what Matt saw that last night of his consciousness, or if the last thing he saw was Aaron McKinney's hateful face.

A phone call woke me with a jolt at about 5 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 8, 1998. My husband, Dennis, and I were living in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a construction safety manager. I assumed that the call was from my 21-year-old son Matt, who was living in Laramie and studying political science and international relations at the University of Wyoming. At that time of day, it was almost always him. Unlike our other family members and friends in the States, who usually calculated the nine-hour time difference between Wyoming and Saudi Arabia before dialing, Matt always seemed to be living in the moment and wanted to share things with someone right now, regardless of what time it was anywhere else. Or maybe he thought it was just too much math to work out the difference.

Sometimes he'd telephone to talk about a new friend he'd just met at a coffee shop—Matt loved to bend a stranger's ear over a cup of coffee. Other times he'd want to get my opinion on something in the news or alert me to a breaking story. "Did you hear what just happened to Princess Diana? She's dead!" he'd blurted when I picked up the telephone a little more than a year before.

Not that I didn't understand, and appreciate, the impulse. Matt and I were incredibly close—so much so that at times it seemed like we were feeding off each other's energy. I always felt that the normal bond between mother and child was for some reason stronger between us—perhaps because we depended so much on each other for company when Matt was a colicky baby, when I was a fledgling parent and Dennis always seemed to be on the road for work.

Now that Matt was an adult and he and I were living continents and oceans away from each other, our conversations were shorter than I would have wished (at $5 a minute, they had to be) and more spread apart than they used to be. But when he did make those early-morning or late-night calls, the joy I felt from hearing his voice more than made up for any resulting loss of sleep.

But the phone call that Thursday morning wasn't from Matt. It was about him. When the man on the other end of the line announced who he was, an emergency-room doctor from Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie, I went numb. I don't remember what he said, or what I did next. I'm not sure whether it was the ringing phone or my subsequent gasp that startled the still-sleeping Dennis. Whatever it was that woke him, Dennis took the phone from me and then, after a seemingly endless silence, made a noise—a sort of helpless and mournful groan—that I'd never heard before and haven't heard since. Coming as it did from my husband, a man whose reserved manner is as typically masculine and Western as his Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots, the moan confirmed my worst fears.

Matt had been attacked. He had sustained injuries to his head that were so critical, his chances for survival were nearly impossible.

"In fact," Dr. Cantway told Dennis, "Matt's wounds are so severe that he had to be transported 40 miles south of Laramie to a hospital in Ft. Collins, Colo., that was better equipped to deal with head injuries."

As short as the call was—not more than five minutes—it was long enough, not only to turn our world upside down, but to send it spinning forever in the opposite direction. As I remember it, neither Dennis nor I had much to say to the doctor—or to each other. But we were dizzy with questions: Who? Where? Why? What? And most important, how was Matt? But Dr. Cantway couldn't answer anything we asked—other than to say that things didn't look good and that the only piece of information the police had found so far was Matt's University of Wyoming ID card. Thankfully, that card led them to his emergency contact, Matt's godmother, who worked as a nurse at Ivinson and had our contact information. The hospital called us immediately after getting our Saudi Arabian telephone number.

The rest of that morning was a blur. I do remember thinking,"If I come apart now, I'm never going to make it." Dennis and I were in shock and sort of went into autopilot, knowing there were things we needed to accomplish before we could give in to our fears.

As with all parents, our first instinct was to run to our son's side. Unfortunately, we happened to be 8,000 miles away. The flight to Denver, by way of Amsterdam and Minneapolis, didn't leave for 19 hours. To add to the already surreal situation, we still had to deal with the bureaucracy of Saudi Arabia and get the proper documentation to leave. Dennis and I were forced to wait almost an entire day before we could even begin our trip to be with Matt. We used that time to call a few relatives in the States to let them know what was happening and to make sure Matt wouldn't be alone in Ft. Collins. None of us knew what we'd find or would have to do once we reached Colorado.

As Dennis and I rushed around in a daze—packing our bags and preparing paperwork rather than staring at the slow-moving clock—I did everything I could to stay hopeful. Dennis and I had only limited information about the extent of Matt's injuries, and absolutely no information about the circumstances surrounding his attack. We knew he was critically injured and that his hold on life was tenuous, at best. Still, our highest hope at that point was for Matt's complete recovery. Our most basic, and perhaps most realistic, hope was that he would hold on to life until we could be with him, by his side.

During the 19 hours that Dennis and I waited in Dhahran, we were in constant contact with Ivinson hospital and then Poudre Valley Hospital. But in all that time, there was very little they could tell us about what had happened to Matt. Although the medical staff knew he had been attacked—his injuries were too severe to suggest anything else—nobody could explain who had done this to my son or why. When it came down to it, I knew that no amount of speculation on my part would help answer any of the thousands of questions that were already overwhelming me. Even if I could find answers, I knew that none would ease the panic or the excruciating pain welling up at the root of my soul. No answer could help Matt, who was hanging on to life with every ounce of his incredible strength. So as our plane finally took off, for the first leg of our long flight, I gripped Dennis's hand and tried to force myself to think of better times.

Shepard is the Executive Director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. This selection is excerpted from her new memoir, The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie and a World Transformed, which comes out today from Hudson Street Press.

Judy Shepard Writes About Son Matt's Life, Death | Culture