“I was seventeen and he was eighteen when I saw him standing inside Sunset Bowl, a bowling alley in San Diego, California. He was quiet, shy, and very handsome. I had no idea this young man would change my life in the way he did over the 7 years I had with him, let alone he only had 7 years left on this earth. His name was Matt and he asked for my number, lost it, and got the courage to ask for it again. He walked up to me with his maroon hat on and stuttered, ‘I am sorry I didn’t call but I lost your number. You are so pretty, and I thought you would not give it to me again if I asked.’ He did not have to say anything else. That night he called, we talked for hours, and we started dating in August of 2001. We bowled together, got tattoos, went to college together, laughed all the time and he quickly became my best friend. It was young fun love. For the first time in my life, I felt like a man had swept me off my feet. I even brought him to meet my dad in Virginia. My dad told him he had to mow the lawn and do all the man things to show him he could be with me. He passed the test. My dad approved and so did I. Little did we know what was coming for us later that year.
I came to his house and told him I thought I was pregnant. We stood in the bathroom as I took a pregnancy test, and I was terrified. The test was positive. He stood there with this huge grin and said, ‘I hope it’s a boy. I can’t wait to play ball with him.’ Soon we found out his wish was coming true as we watched the ultrasound tech type in, ‘It’s a boy!’ In August of 2003 we welcomed our son, Matthew Hicks II, and he could not have been prouder. For the first year we struggled. Matt wanted to provide for our son, but regular jobs just did not cut it. He did not have the courage to tell me he wanted to join the Navy and did so without telling me. At first I was upset, but I knew he needed to do this. So off he went, and he joined the Navy in January of 2005. It was an honor to fly to Chicago with our son and watch him graduate boot-camp. But it was tough on our relationship. We suffered and fought. There was always lots of love, but it was hard to manage being young, taking care of our son, and being on the other side of the country.
Luckily, the universe was on our side. He was stationed in San Diego on the USS Peleliu. But he was gone a lot. The Navy goes out to sea to train as well as go on many deployments. From 2005 to 2008, he deployed three times. We did all we could to stay connected as a family during deployments. He would email all the time, sneak to parts of the ship and call. He knew everything about Matthew, and I would always read his emails to our son.
Our son and his daddy were two peas in a pod. When he was home, he would take Matthew to get donuts every Saturday morning. He would go outside and lay in the grass with him at the front of his parents’ house. The smile between those two could melt your heart. I wish they had more time. As a young couple with a young child and him being in the military, we would break up and get back together more than I would like to admit. But this man would come over to my place and stay late every night rubbing my feet and talking. It was not easy, but anyone could see we loved each other deeply.
In the beginning of 2008, we were starting to grow up and get better with our communication. Most people never new that right before his third deployment, he tried to get me to go into a courthouse and get married. I told him, ‘Let’s just wait till you get back and do it right.’ Those words I would regret for the rest of my life. He left in May for his third deployment. We walked him onto the ship, and we were one of the last families off. It was odd, Matthew did not want to leave him, and I just felt like we needed to keep saying goodbye. We got off the ship and found him standing on the side after it pulled out and did an odd wave to get his attention in which he did the same wave back. We talked through email every day from that point on. On June 6th, he called me from his phone. I only had a minute to talk, and we said I love you. That was the last time I ever heard his voice.
That Sunday Matthew and I had gone for a hike. We found this weird bug and got a video that we were going to send ‘Daddy’ when we got home. We came home and made cookies. They were in the oven and the house smelled amazing. The phone rang and it was Kara, Matt’s sister-in-law. All I remember is she said, ‘Hey Jenn… something Is wrong with Matt, and I need you to come over to Mom and Dad’s right now.’ I truly do not remember much after that. Over the next few days, we found out he had suffered a seizure and they were bringing the ship into Thailand where he would be flown into a hospital to figure out why he was not waking up. Because I was not married and I did not want to bring our son to Phuket, Thailand, I had to pay for my ticket. I had a friend drive me to Los Angeles to file for an emergency passport and I stayed in a hotel so I could wake up and fly to him.
In the middle of the night there was a huge bang on my door, I remember being so scared. I opened it and my mom was there. They had found out some news and I had not picked up, so she drove two hours. She told me, ‘The doctors are giving him a 1% chance to live.’ I clung to that 1% as I flew to Thailand by myself. My parents had Matthew and all he knew was I was going to check on Daddy. I remember seeing Matt’s dad at the airport. He is a 6’1 older man with great hair and you couldn’t miss him. He took me straight to see Matt. He was lying in a bed with a tube in his mouth still alive, and I just held his hand. The doctor came and talked to us all. We saw the scans of his brain. The Navy sent in a doctor to translate and what it came down to be was, my love was brain dead.
My 25-year-old best friend had a brain aneurysm and there was nothing left to do. We all sat in a circle and agreed he needed to be removed from life support, and they respected my wish to wait till the day after Father’s Day to take him off. I wanted our son to have one more Father’s Day with his dad. So, we put his Father’s Day shirt on, and Matthew called his dad to talk to him and I played a recording of Matthew reading a book to his dad. The next day I held his hand and listened to his heart as it beat one last time. This was the moment that broke me as a person and as a mother.
I flew back to Los Angeles and saw my baby boy; he was only four at the time. He ran to me and said, ‘Mommy did you bring back Daddy?’ and I said, ‘No son, we will see him soon.’ We got home and the next day I sat in a room with our four-year-old and said, ‘Matthew, Daddy was very sick. Mommy tried everything to save him, but he could not make it and died.’ He had so many questions and we answered them all. Now, I do not know if the universe just works in the craziest ways but that day Matt’s book, that he read on tape and recorded for Matthew, came in the mail. He read the book I Love You So Much… and the book just made so much sense. We had weeks of craziness after that. We watched his casket taken off the plane, we went to his viewing and at the funeral where I read his last letter to me. We finally laid him to rest at Fort Rosecrans in San Diego, CA. No one or anything can prepare you for the aftermath.
When everyone goes back to their life, you are left picking up the pieces. Grief is horrible, but even worse when you are grieving for your child. Our son started kindergarten 3 months after he died. Everyone had a dad there but my child. I could not sleep. If I closed my eyes, I could see him lying in the hospital bed, I could hear his heartbeat and I could see the blood drain from him fingers. I was a mess. I had to work, but it was like I was not there. I remember at one point calling my mom, ‘Hey Mom, can you take care of Matthew? I don’t want to do this anymore.’ I wanted to die and thank God for her. She got me help and I needed it. We also researched and found a support group called TAPS, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, and they saved me.
As I walked into this room, I felt like I was home. I got to meet so many military families and kids who had lost someone like me. It was the first time I felt like I was going to survive since the day I lost him. I got to wear a button with his face on it and talk about him. In the regular world, I had no one that could relate to me. No one I knew at 24 I had lost the love of my life and was raising a son. I cannot explain the relief I got from being with TAPS. Over the next three years I went to the ‘Good Grief’ events and Matthew went to camps. We grew into a little team, and I watched him flourish. He had lived through so much in his short life and I could not have been prouder, however, I was missing something. I did not want to be alone the rest of my life, but I also did not want to replace my best friend. I would eventually begin to date, and sadly the men I dated did not understand. I was in a complex situation. I watched my love die and if he had not, I would still be with him. We have his pictures in my home and we talk about Matt every single day. Most men could not understand that. To me though, it was a deal breaker. If you date me, you get me, my son, and Matt’s memory. So, what does a girl do? I joined Militarycupid.com to see if I could find a military guy. I needed someone who understood the life of a sailor or solider.
One day, in February 2012, this guy pops up named Geoff, and he was great. He wanted to come over and even offered to come help clean my mom’s garage, but I would not let him. I was scared and not wanting to do the wrong thing. I finally gave in and said he could meet me, but my mom and son would be there. It sounds absurd but I had to see if he was serious. Come to find out, he left a going away party and had already eaten and came to have dinner with us. He was sweet, had beautiful green eyes, and I could feel something was different. Later that night, just the two of us, we went to get ice cream at Dairy Queen, and we got flash mobbed. A huge group of teens walked in, set a radio up down, and did a huge production. It was so shocking. I knew it was the universe saying, ‘There is something special,’ so I gave him a chance.
The next four months, I told him everything and I opened up to him. I wanted him to know everything, and he was not scared. Out of nowhere he tells me he is going on deployment. This triggered my grief and I shut down. I told him we could not work, but he didn’t allow me to run away. For the first time my grief could not push him away. Thank God he stood up and fought my grief because I was so scared. The ‘what ifs’ of grief flooded my body and he held me. Then, on Mother’s Day 2012, he asked me to marry him, and I said yes. I could not let what happened to me with Matt happen again. I needed to live now and not take a day for granted. Matthew really liked him and that was what I needed. Even better was he met Matt’s family and they loved him. I needed them to love him. He walked in and shook Matt’s dad’s hand and they had so much in common.
We got married on June 8th, 2012, and in July he deployed for 6 months. We talked every day and he talked to Mathew every day. But what was even better was he came home safe. The day he came home Matthew got his black belt and he surprised him. The support and love he gave us both were what we needed. Now it was time to become a family and it was not easy. I had to teach him the do’s and dont’s of handling Matthew and I when it came to our loss. He welcomed it with open arms. He did not mind Matt’s pictures being up and he did not mind us talking about him. But it was not always easy. There where times I had to remind him, I do not compare him to Matt and at times where he had to remind me that he was not Matt. What made things even more amazing was he started going to TAPS events with us. He became a part of my TAPS family, and I needed that. He would go, he would listen, and he would get involved. We were all learning how to become one. We even went to Washington D.C. for a national’s event with TAPS and he dressed in his Marine Corp dress blues and stood by our side. He has sat with us at his grave site so many times.
Not every day was all sunshine and daisies as Matthew and he have had some challenges. Over time, grief in a child changes, and they struggle with so much more than you could ever know. They would argue and Matthew would say, ‘You are not my dad’ and it was hard on everyone. But over time both have grown, and things got better. We have been blessed with three more kids since being married. Before our son Gavin came, we talked about how we would introduce Matt to them. I was scared. How do you tell a little kid that story? But as a team, we navigated it. Each one of our children has been told what happened and we have taken them to Matt’s gravesite. My son Gavin and daughter Harper always get excited and say, ‘We are going to see your dad, Matthew.’ It brings me peace knowing that they know Matt and they get to celebrate him with Matthew and myself. My youngest, Aria, will soon understand who Matt is too.
Now it is 2021 and we have been without him for 13 years. Matthew turned eighteen and graduated high school. It is hard to believe his dad was never alive to see him start or finish school. I never thought I would make it this far. I never thought I would find love again or have more kids. It is never easy; I still cry a lot but there is hope. There is a chance for love after loss. There is a chance for happiness, for smiles, for a life. My biggest tip is to always give yourself grace, find your tribe, and a never give up hope. One day, that person who accepts you, your child, and your loss will show up. They will love all that you are, and they will love the person you lost.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jennifer Shivvers. You can follow her journey on TikTok and Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
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