Updated: Dec 14, 2021
An Excerpt from The Tin Torch River Affair
The truck passed me, and the license plate caught my attention immediately. The color of the truck was irrelevant. It could have been grey – in fact, I think it was. Nothing else really mattered to me but the plate, which read TINMAN.
TINMAN. It brings to mind Judy Garland and the Wizard of Oz, the song by the band, America, Broadway shows, books…any number of associations to Frank L. Baum. To me, however, my friend, Matt Shelales will always be the Tin Man.
I met Matt when I was in my freshman year at Framingham State College. I had found a flyer advertising a gaming group and decided that joining a Dungeons and Dragons group might be a really good way to alleviate the homesickness that I was feeling. Calling the number on the flyer, I spoke quickly with the game master and agreed to meet him at my college dorm later that day.
He was more or less what I expected since gamers only come in so many flavors. Matt was tall and skinny, inflicted with psoriasis, and ill at ease around women. We hit it off just fine, however, once he realized I was not going to bite him, and somewhere in that first conversation, he managed to tell me that he had had a heart transplant when he was sixteen, just three years earlier.
I was stunned, but did not think much of it at the time because I had no idea how to process that information. It was too big, too scary for me to grasp. I remember, however, the first time I saw the scar that ran down his breastbone, and it really hit home that he had really been through a serious operation. It was then that I truly understood why he had chosen the AOL screen name, Tin Man.
Matt was definitely not one to take life seriously all of the time. Riding shotgun with him as he drove through the back roads towards his home in Bolton proved his zest for life. Windows down and our hair flying, we would race along through the autumn afternoons after classes had let out for the day. The sun would be slanting low through the trees, lighting the fields of wheat or corn with its own brand of magical light, and Matt would aim capriciously for squirrels, cursing out the ‘tree rats’ as they darted out of his way. For all he had been through, Matt still fought for the normal teenaged life and the ability to be free of the fear of death that had plagued him for so many years before the transplant.
We came close to dating a time or two, but the timing was never good and, once he met my best friend, Jen Goodwin, all my chances fled. He loved her more deeply than he had ever loved anyone, mostly for her generous spirit and unfailing loyalty. She did not reciprocate in any way other than friendship, however, for all he wrote her volumes of poetry and doted on her. Jen was stymied by the same problem that had occurred to me more than once. What would happen when he died? How would we handle that? How could anyone have a normal relationship with Matt, given what he had been through and knowing that his time was more finite than our own?
Heart transplant patients were a special breed in the late 1980s; a new breed and, to some extent, a rare one. Matt had been the second recipient to ever have a heart transplant done in Massachusetts. The side effects of the procedure were not fully known at the time, and the life expectancy for most patients was very limited. Even on anti-rejection drugs and steroids, most patients didn’t live for more than five years after their operations. Young patients had a better chance at prolonged survival, but even then the odds were slim that they would make it to see ten years. Yearly check-ups are required of all patients to monitor the continued function of the transplanted organs and annual biopsies were done to check the health of the grafted tissues. Many, many did not fare well during this time.
Matt broke that record. He had that heart for thirteen years before it began to show signs of wearing out. He went into the hospital in late December of 1997 for a check-up, and on New Years Day 1998, he received an unprecedented second heart transplant. We were all relieved to have him safe and sound, and those fears that we had all had about losing him at a young age began to recede. Matt would live forever, we thought. Nothing would ever slow him down.
The second heart transplant was preceded shortly by the birth of my daughter, Rosie, and we named Matt as her Godfather. When she got older, he would often joke with her about being “Da Gawdfaddah” in a horrible Marlon Brando accent, causing her to giggle as only a little six year old can. He was always around for both of my kid’s birthdays and during Christmas, and it was around then that he began to play Santa yearly at a local children’s hospital ward, buying little stuffed animals and giving them out to the kids who were stuck in the hospital over the Christmas season. His spirit of giving seemed to grow over the years, and his generosity never seemed affected by his condition.
The last year he was alive was a special year. He celebrated my marriage to Rob along with Jen and Liz O’ Neil as they had been at all three of my weddings, but we noticed when we got the pictures that he was looking thinner than usual. He didn’t say much, but instead elected to come visit often and spend a lot of time with his friends over the summer of 2006. Nothing seemed amiss, though, and because of all the attention we had to pay to our own busy lives, we missed the signs that all was not well. His scarecrow-like appearance should have been a clue, but we all had come to assume that he would be with us forever.
The call came at 4:00 on a Wednesday afternoon while I was at work. I took my cell phone outside with a feeling of dread, and Matt’s mother asked me if I was sitting down. I sat on the cement barrier that edged the stairs as she told me that Matt had passed earlier that afternoon. It was September 19, 2006. The world stopped for a long moment then as I tried to grapple with the enormity of the situation. When I went back inside, my boss took one look at me, listened to my news, and urged me to go home. I went, numb to everything except the hot tears running unimpeded down my face. I could not think, I could not breathe. On the ride home, I began to make the calls that I knew I had to make. I was the liaison for Matt’s friends on my side of the ‘family’ in New Hampshire and Eastern Massachusetts as Linda Hodge was the liaison for the other group out near Worchester. I can’t remember now how many of our friends began to cry at the news and how many actually broke down completely, but all of the members of our group reacted with a great deal of grief.
The day of his wake was amazing and heart wrenching. People I hadn’t seen in years turned out in droves to talk and remember our beloved friend. One member of my group, Glyn Jacobs, couldn’t go in to see the body. He stayed in the outer reception area and one of us always stayed with him as he shook and could go no further. We all stood around in a half-daze, not being able to say much or react well. His family welcomed us as the close friends that we were, and expressed gratitude for us being there. Rob was told, much to his surprise, that Matt had requested him to be a pallbearer. He accepted the honor, stunned. Linda took me aside a few minutes later and explained why.
“Matt didn’t like Rob for most of the time you two have been together, but something happened this spring to change his mind. He didn’t say much, only that he was wrong about him.”
That was a huge concession for Matt. He never admitted to being wrong and for him a to change his mind was a big deal. He had never really warmed to Rob and I still to this day have no idea what it was that caused his change of heart. I can only surmise that it had to do with Will and Rose since he loved both of my children very much and saw how good Rob was to them.
Rain sheeted down the following day on the long drive to the church in Bolton, Mass. My mother was following us, and her fear of inclement weather was only outdone by her fear of driving with one of us. She managed to frustrate a whole caravan of people by refusing to drive over forty miles per hour, but we eventually got to the church safely and on time.
In his knowledge of his own impending death, Matt had arranged his entire funeral and had requested that certain people read poems or passages that related to him. I was assigned “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., and read it aloud to the packed church.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . .
Matt had wanted to learn to fly more than anything, but because of his heart condition, he had been unable to get a pilot's license. He had trained at East Coast Aerotech for several years after leaving Framingham State, and was well versed with all manner of flying things. I remember going up with him for a scenic flight around Boston one fall and how much he had enjoyed it when the pilot had handed him the controls. This poem was a gift to me, in memory of that long ago day.
Jen, Jean Henchey, and Linda also had poems to read, and Jean broke down halfway through her piece and had to be taken out for fresh air. The rest of the ceremony was brief and we were soon on our way to the gravesite.
Rob rode with the rest of the pallbearers, and I drove with a very distraught Rosie to the cemetery with my mother behind me. The graveside service was also very quick as it was still pouring rain, and our group gathered together in a knot to give each other comfort. It was over, we were leaving, and it was done.
The last part of the day was held at an Irish tavern that Matt had liked and all of us stood up and told stories of our adventures with Matt over the years. From the refusal of cork sniffing at the Four Seasons in Boston to waving giant king crab legs in Vegas, we all had stories to tell about Matt. The evening ended with Matt’s brother Steven leading us in singing “My Old Friend” by Tim McGraw, a tribute that the church had refused to play during the service and that Steven felt had to be done properly. He accompanied us on the guitar, and we all sang along.
“My old friend, I recall
The times we had hanging on my wall
I wouldn't trade them for gold
Cause they laugh and they cry me
Somehow sanctify me
They're woven in the stories I have told
And tell again
It’s true. I tell stories of Matt over and over again as time goes on. I remember things that impress me and make me smile when I think about them. Like the one starry cold night we had gone out to gaze at the stars on the hill by St. Francis’s church in Dracut. He had told me that he did not believe in magic, and I told him I could change his mind. He didn’t believe me, until a bright splash of light glittered across the night sky in a streak of momentary brilliance. he had turned to me then, his voice quiet and almost reverent and said words that he rarely uttered. I was wrong. It was stories like that that made Matt who he was.
My old friend, this song's for you
Cause a few simple verses
Was the least that I could do
To tell the world that you were here
Cause the love and the laughter
Will live on long after
All of the sadness and the tears
We'll meet again, my old friend.
We will meet again, too. I feel that, and I strongly believe that somewhere, Matt is watching over all of his friends, gently guiding us when we do things that we shouldn't and rejoicing when we strive to be greater than we could have dreamed we could be.
Several years have gone by since that time and we have had a chance to reflect on everything that happened over the years that we knew Matt. He changed our lives in large and important ways that we may still not totally recognize. The important thing is that we knew him and that he was a huge part of our lives during the years he was alive. Matt often had commented how much he felt like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz and how much he didn’t feel like he was whole. I think that the song by America says it best, though:
“Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man, that he didn’t - didn’t already have…”
Matt’s generous nature and loving heart proves that the seat of emotion and love does not sit in the heart, but in the soul. Or maybe it does lie in the heart after all. Certainly, without the love for other people that the heart donors had shown in giving to Matt, he would not have lived to be with us as long as he did,
The truck bearing the license plate is gone now, driven out of sight, far out of even my rearview mirror, but I don’t need to see it anymore to remember my friend and all that he has meant to me. I have songs and memories that will live in my heart, and words that will pass them along to others so that they remember this very special man. Far from lacking a heart like his OZ namesake, he had the biggest heart of anyone I will ever know.
Goodbye, Tin Man. I will love you forever.
For agents or publishers interested in The Tin Man, please contact Deborah Jarvis at The.firstname.lastname@example.org