July 2 is Alive Day for Sergeant Ed Matayka, who was blown up while serving as a medic, in Afghanistan, in 2010. His wife Karen, also a medic, served in the same Vermont National Guard unit, the 186th Support Battalion, and was nearby. Doctors told her that Ed would not live.
I was one of Eddie’s teachers. He was a little tow-headed boy when I knew him. Fidgety. A decent kid. Only recently did I learn his story.
Somewhere in the mid-1980s, I got a job as a music teacher at Immaculate Heart of Mary School, north side of Chicago. The principal, Sister Miriam Rose, asked me, if she hired me, what would I do? Without a plan, I blurted out that I would teach the kids to write songs, and the best ones (judged by musician friends of mine) would be recorded in albums, with kids singing. My friend Dennis Gordon had a recording studio, and I hoped I could talk him into the project.
I was hired teaching grades 3-8. And we recorded two albums. Dennis’ band and I recorded instrument tracks at night, smoking grass and drinking beer. By day, I was Mr. B., teacher, on the straight and narrow and attending mass with the students.
Eddie Matayka and his older sister Caryn were part of that project. Their parents, particularly mother Mary, were huge supporters of mine. Indeed, I was adopted into the family. They had me over for dinner regularly, I spent holidays with them. When Grandpa died, I was given his nicotine-stained recliner. There was another child, Katie, born with severe physical handicaps. She died in infancy. I wrote a poem for Katie’s funeral.
My music job only lasted two years, just as I was about to win a playwriting competition and have a production at the Body Politic Theatre. I drifted on, to a 40-year career as a playwright-in-residence for the Illinois Arts Council. The Matayka family moved to near Fox Lake.
At I a.m. on July 2, 2010, out of Bagram Air Force Base, Ed Matayka was in the back seat of an armored vehicle which drove over an IED, a kind of remote controlled bomb. The driver was killed in the explosion. Ed’s feet were blown off. He came to and calmly started saving his own life, telling fellow soldiers how to put tourniquets on his legs. He measured his breaths, knowing he could go into shock at any moment.
Ed was airlifted to Germany on July 4 then to Walter Reed Hospital stateside. He was semi-conscience for six weeks. Both of his legs were amputated. Among many other wounds, he suffered a stroke.
After a brain bleed, Karen was told her husband wouldn’t make it. She insisted to doctors that her husband knew what was going on around him; he was squeezing her hand. A doctor tried an experiment, telling Ed that his wife was a liar. The medical team was going to take Ed off support—if he didn’t give them a sign.
Ed gave them the finger.
Ed and Karen became the first ever military family to receive in vitro fertilization. Today, Ed is a father of twins, Ryan and Alana. He and Karen moved to Texas. Gary Sinise helped publicize Ed’s plight. A special home was built that allows Ed to move around freely with as much physical activity as possible.
The courage that Ed Matayka showed is off the charts. That he helped save his own life reveals a deep hunger for living. His drive demonstrates remarkable intelligence and clarity of thinking.
The courage of Mother Mary, who has absorbed so much fear and pain in her life. She texted me recently, telling me how much I gave to the Matayka family. I am nothing compared to this sister of my soul.
We never know what burdens we can bear—until we must bear it, what pain we can take and still go on, what courage we have within us until courage is the only option. I suspect that Eddie agrees.
And so, happy Alive Day, Sergeant Matayka. It is entirely inadequate for me to say that I love you. What words could ever match your bravery.
May there be no more wars for our kids to fight.
This is my meditation, my prayer.