My cousin Matt died last Saturday. He is the first in this generation of my family to pass away, and I have not been able to stop thinking about it all week.

I looked up to Matt when I was young. His mother and my mother shared a bond closer than any of my other four aunts and uncles and, consequently, I saw him and his brothers more often than my other cousins.

Matt was a few years older than me and always epitomized what it meant to be cool in my formative years. He had wonderful, shaggy locks of dark brown hair and an easy-going attitude. 

Mario Nicolais

Most prominent of his features was an ever-present smile. The narrow bridge of his nose flared out just above a smile that always seemed too big and too wide for his face. Its breadth caused his cheeks to lift and his eyes to squint shut. Finding a picture with his eyes visible is a fool’s errand.

That made me much less self-conscious of the same traits in my smile. If my cool cousin Matt smiled that way, then my pre-teen self did not need to keep harboring anxiety over my own.

My cousin introduced me to many rites of passage. He showed me how to lift weights, gave me my first beer and let me tag along as he flirted with girls on the Ocean City Boardwalk. He was kind and generous with his time.

Growing up he seemed to be the life of the party, always surrounded by friends and family and laughter and tiki torches and good times. My image of Matt will forever be him with a cigarette dangling from his lips, a drink in one hand as he strode forward to throw a horseshoe with the other. As it happens, it is also my last memory of him — we played a round when I saw him last after our grandmother’s funeral a few years ago. 

Matt certainly had faults. But even those often somehow seemed endearing. 

For example, he struggled to find his place in the world. He found work through his stepfather, but never enjoyed it. He eventually started a fudge shop in Annapolis, something he was passionate about, but he did not have the business sense or discipline to keep it open. He seemed like a grown Peter Pan, always playing games and goofing around but also too perpetually childlike to ever fit quite right in an adult world.

When he died, Matt was 53 years old, the same age as my wife is now and the same age her brother was when he died from COVID-related causes a year and a half ago. 

Matt had been suffering from long-haul COVID symptoms since early last fall. It was surely exacerbated by substance use problems he struggled with his entire life. That first can of Budweiser he gave me was just one of many too many he had throughout his life.

The combination sent him into a spiral of loneliness and depression over the past several months. It accelerated when his dog, Daisy Duke — he loved animals even more than people — passed away in December. The only person he saw on a regular basis was my aunt. Even then, he rarely left the couch as his body, racked by long-term illness, could often give out on him on the way to the kitchen.

His mother was with him when he died and said he just seemed to drift off into unconsciousness. By the time the ambulance arrived, he had already gone.

I like to think his soul simply got up to chase his shadow out the window and is now frolicking in its own version of Neverland. I am sure it has ocean waves and cold beer and dogs running through the sand. 

And now it has the best smile I ever saw as well.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq

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