My brother, Matthew Atkinson, died in a bizarre and tragic accident this past weekend, on the night of June 21st. He was cleaning one of his guns after a day of honing the marksmanship he enjoyed so much. The gun fell, a bullet somehow left in the chamber misfired, and Matt happened to be in the wrong place at that one moment in time. Matt was 21 years of age, and left the world a man in love.
He was in love with nature. He loved roaming in the wild, whether it was in the deserts and woods of Arizona or the forests and mountains of Washington. On all his hikes and hunting trips and fishing trips it was clear that he saw the little intricacies in the natural world around him. He just noticed things that others didn’t, and admired things no one else saw. He was going on an internship with the Game & Fish Department this summer which would’ve taken him out patrolling and maintaining often the southwest land he loved. He breathed most comfortably when he breathed the free air away from the cities, and he set up his life so he did so, often.
He was in love with animals. He adopted a rat and a dog from the Arizona Humane Society, and loved them both dearly. His friendships with the animals in his life, whether they were my parents’ cats or butterflies on a hilltop, seemed to show something charmed about him, something that the animal world just connected with. To see Matt caring for the animals in his life was to see a man who loved all the life around him, whatever form it took.
He was in love with people. He was dearly romantic with the woman he loved, and his friendships were deep with his comrades in my family and beyond. His caring for others cast a deep net throughout his life. One Christmas he asked for no gifts, but for the budget for his gifts to be donated to charity. He gave help and food to strangers when they needed it without questioning or hedging. It was the right thing, so he did it. Matt lived with a clarity I envy toward the way he treated the people in his life, however transient his connections with them might be.
Whatever Matt wanted to do, he did. The day he turned 18 he signed the paperwork to buy a motorcycle in Prescott, and with a friend he shipped it to Phoenix in a rented U-haul trailer. It was an operation as complex and clandestine as a bank heist just out of my parents’ attention. My parents returned shocked to find the machine they forbid him to buy in the driveway, surely feeling a bit of pride along with their frustration and surprise.
I didn’t always get along with Matt, in that simple typical way of not getting along that that siblings do. It seems horrifying now that I didn’t appreciate every conversation we had, every walk through the streets and on the desert trails, and every moment we lived under the same roof since he came home from the hospital. I remember that day clearly. The December air was crisp and chilly, the concrete of the driveway cool on my feet, Matt and his twin brother looking as fragile as porcelain dolls but as alive as all the Earth. The memories stand out like afterimages in the flashbulb shock of his absence. Fortunately the good times, when we felt linked together in brotherhood and a shared bliss in observing the world, far outweigh the times we just didn’t understand each other.
There’s a temptation to think the world an evil place for allowing Matt to depart so soon. We expect so much, so used to wealth and peace as we are in this country in this time. We expect that we’ll all have decade after decade flowing lazily into the future, forgetting how patiently time waited for life to emerge and blossom on Earth, and how transient life is. It’s a privilege beyond measure to breathe a single time, and that Matt breathed for 21 years is a heroic wonder. It was a privilege to be able to call him “brother.”
Matt believed the world was good, and lived his life accordingly. To live authentically with such love for nature and people requires a belief that there’s goodness at the heart of all that is, and this is the legacy that I think Matt wants us to carry on. Look not on the strangeness and the randomness of his departure then, but on the way he touched the lives he contacted, brief as that contact was. I long to live as Matt lived, full of passion and firmness and joy. In my brothers and my parents and in me, I hope and pray that these parts of Matt may live on.