By Bob Pano
Matthew Pano of Westborough was only 18 years old when he passed away of bacterial menigitis in 1989. Shortly after his passing, his father Bob wrote this article where he shared how his family came to believe their beloved Matt was still with them, looking over and protecting them.
Westborough – Matt was 18 when he died, one of three children in our family. We had always made it a point to do things as a family unit, even though at times it seemed as if everyone was going in different directions.
Matt and his younger brother, Rob, 21, had spent wonderful years growing up together. Like two great friends, both of the boys enjoyed identical activities. Together, they participated in sports from Little League to high school football and baseball. They always respected and complimented each other’s achievements.
Every winter, they went off to conquer the toughest ski slopes in Vermont and New Hampshire, and later they proudly displayed their bruises and bumps to prove it.
They were close buddies in the truest sense, and they loved each other’s company.
I can still see them wrestling like two playful bears on the floor or on their beds, and Matt was usually on the bottom despite his larger frame. Somehow I always got the feeling that Matt had never unleashed all his strength. Some called him, “The Gentle Bear”.
Matt’s sister, Penny, also enjoyed a special bond with him that developed even more during the summer they both visited friends in England and France. The ties between them grew even stronger as she enjoyed playing the role of big sister as well as mother. Looking ahead to the future, we seemed to have everything going for us as a family
On May 6, 1989, however, our expectations suddenly underwent a wrenching alteration. Matt had shown signs of flu several days before, but we did not pursue it until his fever became dangerously high. On the morning of the 6th, we had to hospitalize him, and it wasn’t until the very last moment that we discovered he had bacterial meningitis. Within 12 horrifying hours this strong, healthy, likeable, fun-loving young man with an impish smile was abruptly snatched from us.
Matt’s last words to my wife, Tania, and me still echo so strongly within us.
“Dad, Mom, am I going to die? I think I’m going to die…I love you.”
We were thrown in a state of shock. It was a demonic nightmare, and we weren’t waking up. As the four of us sat in the waiting room that day, in complete shock, staring into empty space, the core of our beings was totally numb. His absence has left a gaping void in our lives that can never be filled. Where were you God? How could this be happening to us?
Nearly 900 people attended the services – we were told that it was the church’s seating capacity. I never realized the impact my son had on so many people, both young and old.
As we try to live our lives without Matt, we struggle for answers. I cannot accept total detachment from my son as I ponder the questions of life and death. Something in us must survive- soul, spirit, being.
Though I knew I had to let God handle those touchy questions, I needed reassurance and some sign that Matt is in a better place.
This, I knew, would be part of my life’s quest as I struggled to try and comprehend it all.
Eventually, in my search for meaning, I came across a remarkable story of how a butterfly had spiritually transformed a grieving family. There was comfort in being reminded that coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.
I was so moved, that it was with a sense of hope and excitement that I related the butterfly story to Penny one day. Now, I realize that I was desperately trying to convince myself that there are things in this life that give evidence that our loved ones still exist and want us to have faith and know that they still love us very much.
Several weeks passed after I had spoken with Penny about butterflies, and one day, she called from college.
“Dad, Dad,” she exclaimed in a voice filled with excitement and joy. “You’ll never believe what happened to me today! As I walked through a certain part of town, I was a little scared, but my attention was suddenly drawn to this particular parked car. I moved closer and there it was, a huge, Monarch butterfly. Remember that story you told me? I reached out my hand and it flew onto my finger. Suddenly, I lost any fear I had, and I felt as though Matt was comforting me.”
Not only had the butterfly perched on Penny’s finger, but it stayed with her for nearly half an hour as she continued back to her dorm. All the while, the butterfly moved from one extended finger to the other in comforting assurance that everything would be okay. It seemed to be telling Penny, “Don’t be afraid, I’m with you. I love you.”
Was this the sign I had hoped for? I was overwhelmed with joy and excitement as I told Tania and Rob about Penny’s experience.
This butterfly had begun to transform our lives. Matt, you are helping us to grow. We are reaching far beyond our wildest expectations.
Is this how God shows His compassion to those of us who grieve? Does He heighten our sensitivity to nature and all living things as a way of widening our vision of the Divine? Had we peered through a small window to see the inner workings of our Creator?
Was there more to come?
Later, I received another convincing message when Penny came home for the weekend. I was in the kitchen when I heard Penny nearly fly down the staircase from her room. In a matter of moments, I was gazing upon a miraculous sight that I now realize will impact us for the rest of our lives.
While cleaning out a desk drawer, Penny had come across a colorful photograph of a butterfly in it’s natural setting. My heart raced as I gazed at the picture.
Penny somehow sensed my anticipation that there was something more, and she anxiously said, “Now turn the picture over.”
I can’t quite describe the feeling of exhilaration that came over me as I tried to comprehend it all in that split second, but there it was in his unmistakable handwriting, “MATTHEW”.
Somehow, some way, everything had been synchronized.
Why had I selected the butterfly story? Why had I told it to Penny? How was it that Penny had come across a Monarch butterfly in a most coincidental time and way? How was it that an unlikely photograph, personally signed by my son, Matt, appeared at just the right moment? Why had Matt chosen to give Penny his picture of the butterfly?
Through these events we have come to realize that Matt is still very close to us, and he continues to love us as we love him. His message of love has given us hope and reason to continue living our lives to the fullest. Our lives will never be the same, and our wounds will never completely heal, but they shall be a reminder of our love for our son.
We have received a message of love on the wings of one of God’s creatures, and we rejoice in that.
Each day, we wake with anticipation.
Who knows, somehow, somewhere, we may hear, “Hey Dad, Mom, Penny, Rob, come on now- it’s me Matt.”