Matthew Hilburn Dec. 4, 1971 - July 1, 2012
* * *
Sunday morning the first thing my friend asked me was how is your daughter... how about your wife. Did you lose power in the storm?
He was typing out these words but our conversation flowed as easily as it had since we first met some 30 years ago. We joked that the recent storm was caused by his telekinetic irritation at yet another hospital admission. We made a plan to revisit a local treasure house of secondhand books.
We talked about the recent scare that had brought him to the ICU. He compared his current physical state to some horror movie special effects. If he wanted a Hollywood comparison, I said, with his short haircut he looked more like Bruce Willis in the later scenes of a Die Hard film, beaten up but unbowed.
He said, regardless, "I need a new agent!"
Just a typical conversation with Matt.
* * *
Matthew Ethridge Hilburn was born to Glenn and Phyllis Hilburn in Gainesville, GA on December 4, 1971.
He grew up Shookstown Road where it climbs up the Catoctin mountains west of Frederick, Maryland.
Some time around 1982, my mother took me to her friend Phyllis' house. I remember that her son Matthew and I literally hit it off as we engaged in a Dungeons and Dragons-inspired battle using firewood I think we were supposed to be unloading.
It was the beginning of a permanent friendship of the kind he forged with many in this room.
We ended up at the same schools, in many of the same classes, on the same teams, embracing the same nerdly enthusiasms.
In middle school and high school we found our place in the social order.
He was an Eagle Scout, a swimmer, and a visual artist.
Sometimes, his open heart and kind nature made him vulnerable to bullies, but a circle of people formed around him that has endured to this day and this place.
Most of us spend our lives consumed in secret calculation, measuring the fear and advantage that comes from how others judge our words and action.
Matthew was not that way. He was not a liar or a poseur. He was authentic, honest, and earnest. He could be cool. Or not. Unlike most adolescents, Matt seemed unable to construct a protective shell of easy conformity.
Peter Gordon, Andrew Hazlett, and Matt Hilburn strike a pose (circa 1991?)
Emotions and thoughts and words I would suppress from fear of peers, he would express. Without guile or pretense, he was passionate about books and ideas. He stayed centered when I veered to ideological extremes.
Under the benevolent dictatorship of some gifted teachers (including our parents), and especially those in the Frederick High English department, we learned and grew.
At Virginia Tech, Matt fought to balance his aptitude for engineering with his passion for history and love of literature. Meanwhile, at my liberal arts college, I was learning that smart, well-read kids could be bullies too. That some used books and jargon and ideas and politics as weapons of ego, as levers of personal power, and tools of ridicule.
Intelligence does NOT equal character. College is not a magical place filled with thousands of Matt Hilburns.
Through that time and those unreal post-college years, we became the sort of friends who might not see each other for a year or two, but pick up our last conversation in mid-stream. That never changed.
* * *
Being a good person, being loved, being compassionate and kind, being intelligent and curious... these things do not spare you from darkness.
I suppose we are all surrounded by darkness. Some of us are more vulnerable than others, but we try to fight it... with things, with distractions, with alcohol, with transient pleasures... but love, work, and wisdom are the cure.
In time, like Matt did, most of us find some balance and peace.
He gravitated to work as a project manager in the technology side of legal support. He combined tech savvy with an interest in the human beings behind litigation. He worked at CACI and the law firms of Dewey & LeBoeuf and Howrey.
Listening to Matt talk about his work and the legal profession was revealing. He could explain what was happening with the dramatic collapse of firms he once worked for, he always mentioned specific collegues and lawyers who knew what they were doing.
Matt's intelligence and curiosity was boundless and obvious... he could read and digest a thousand page tome of military history as readily as most of us can comprehend a tweet.
From hacking together his own computer from parts to building a wilderness cooking fire from a single match strike, Matt's "book smarts" were matched by a Scout's preparedness, organization, and real-life capabilities.
In case of zombie apocalypse, you'd want Matt by your side, for his survival skills AND his knowledge of sci-fi and horror conventions and tropes.
But, for all his abstract and practical knowledge, Matt was as interested in other people as he was in the contents of his brain. His unaffected kindness and compassion was always evident. Because he had no filter of phoniness, of insincerity, his emotions and concern for others were impossible to hide.
In finding Michelle Weiss, there was a joy that enveloped us all. I first met her at my bachelor party of all things. It was obvious from the start that she would be the outgoing Yin to Matt's more introverted Yang, that they complimented and perfected one another.
It is not at all surprising to me that Matthew, who loved language and history, would find a congenial spiritual home in the rich traditions and faith of Judaism. He approached his conversion with characteristic sincerity and enthusiasm.
Before long, he was teaching Jewish history to young children who knew him as "Moreh [teacher] Matt."
* * *
A few more things...
When Matt visited me while I was living in New York, he defied my newly acquired urban toughness by giving an East Village panhandler some cash. We mocked his "naive" compassion, but he was unashamed.
He danced with abandon to Punjabi bhangra at my big fat Indian wedding.
He was without guile or pretense.
The conversations... I think of our friendship as built from bricks of individual conversations...
I remember so many... On politics and the war... TV reality shows about pawn shops... The cosmopolitan Vienna of a century ago... The morals and economics of collapsing institutions... tech gadgetry and media... art and art history... on the famous Jews Maimonedes and Ayn Rand... performance art and burlesque... TV shows, and movies, and books and books and books...
I've met contributors to the New York Times Book Review and such outlets, and Matt could have more than held his own with that crowd. But Matt also possessed a compassion and emotional generosity not usually associated with men of such intellect.
* * *
Since Sunday, online and in person, there has been an outpouring of appreciation for Matt, Michelle, and their families.
As so many different people struggle to find language to express their feelings about Matt, certain words keep bubbling up from the stream. Here are a few. Take a moment and turn them over in your mind as I read them...
friendship... teacher... humor... interesting... cupcakes... books (a lot)... conversations... laughter... character... sincere... surly... adventure... mini-golf... wonderful... play... holi... strength... courage... and above all... love.
* * *
In my life, I've only recently started to understand the difference between what we can and can not change. I don't believe that everything "happens for a reason", but we can find meaning and purpose in our response to what the universe gives us.
Not even our age of medical and scientific achievement can control or explain everything.
There is wonder and beauty in how we cross swords with fate.
No one can meet calamity without a trace of crabiness, but Matt and Michelle met blow after blow after blow with humor, grace, and courage.
They endured and reeled and rose again.
Matt's response to what he called "the Eternal and Never-ending struggle" with his body, was of a piece with his whole life.
These were the keynotes of his character...
Honesty + Curiosity + Courage + Compassion
Matthew has bequeathed his good deeds to us for all time.
All who knew Matt will spend the rest of their lives remembering instances of his courage, compassion, curiosity, humor, and generosity of spirit.
I will spend my days learning to emulate his example.
For now, I am grateful, so grateful... to have known Matt, to have seen him find happiness with Michelle.
Matthew and Michelle have spent the last year and a half comforting us, reassuring us, helping us feel useful, keeping us informed, staying positive for our sake as much as their own.
Now, you can rest. You can lay down that burden. You need not carry us all. Let this loving community carry you... Let us. Let God.
Matthew, our friend, our brother, teacher, son, and husband...
Our hearts break, but we are filled with gratitude... flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
A lightly edited version of a eulogy for Matthew Hilburn delivered on July 3, 2012 at Congregation Etz Hayim, Arlington, Va.