My brother, Matthew Franklin Cassillo, passed away on Saturday.
He was 28 years old, suffering from a rare cancer diagnosis and in more pain these past four or five months than most of us will ever be in a lifetime. I saw as much when I visited him in the hospital in Houston in April. It was even more apparent when my wife and I traveled to my parents’ house in North Carolina last week to visit him for what we knew would be the final time.
The man I saw largely confined to a chair was a shadow of his formerly witty and cerebral self. I’d be shocked if he weighed 100 pounds, and he couldn’t necessarily stay awake for long or speak for extended periods either. He was on oxygen and copious amounts of painkillers. But nonetheless, he was sticking around long enough for my sister, wife and I to say goodbye. Matthew died less than 24 hours after I arrived back in L.A.
The sadness I have for what happened to him will never truly subside. We were just 20 months apart and we grew up together. He’d been my best friend for all of that time, and even though we’d lived in different cities for much of the last 12 years, it didn’t break the bond we’d built and continued to build.
There’s no way to really put all of that time, history and emotion into words that are fitting. But I did try to anyway. Those who know me more personally are well aware that this — writing -- is where I’m better able to express myself than actually speaking. Before I left for North Carolina, I wrote the letter that I never thought I’d have to, to tell my brother and best friend that I loved him for what I knew would be the last time.
My dad read it to him last Saturday, since Matthew struggled to do so himself. Afterward, he told my dad that he (the person dying of cancer) was lucky. That’s simply the type of person he was.
By the time we left on Friday, his condition had worsened considerably, but as I told him goodbye and that I loved him one more time, he wanted to stand and truly hug me before we walked out the door. He’d barely been out of the chair in days. With an assist from my parents and me, he managed to muster up enough strength for one last hug. It was really the last responsive thing he did before passing away the next day.
I’m sharing my note to him as a tribute, and a reminder to myself that nothing is permanent and to do the best with the time you have here, and the people you have it with. Obviously that looks to family and friends most of all. But I’m thankful for all of you as well, and wanted to share this with my long-time internet “family” and the site that’s in part helped me stay occupied since his health declined.
Rest in peace, Matthew. I’m glad you’re not in pain anymore and will miss you every day. I’ll always be thankful for what you were to me, and the fact that I got to tell you all of this while you were still here.
I feel like a lot of people wait too long to say what’s needed. It’s only after it’s too late that they can construct the right sentences or convey the right message. The feelings were there the whole time, but they couldn’t stomach the delivery while they were there.
Perhaps that’s what I’m doing here by writing all of this down. It’s just the only way I’m truly going to be able to actually go through with it.
When you’re kids, that concept of “what’s next” doesn’t faze you, because it feels so far off -- decades, hell, a century perhaps if luck would provide. You take moments, people, things large and small for granted because the promise of experiencing them again seems pretty high. After all, you’re only five or six or seven… though that quickly turns to being in your 20s and 30s and suddenly, you’re looking back at an awful lot of positives, but without the vivid recollection you may have wanted.
In some ways, that’s me, and always has been. And if there’s one positive coming from your situation, it’s that I’ve used it as motivation to try and fix that aspect of myself. I’d trade being negative forever to have you healthy and here with us for as long as possible, of course. But in lieu of that, the perspective this brings is helping me become a better person and hopefully, a better husband and father as time goes on.
Interestingly, that’s what you’ve always tried to be; a better person to those around you. That’s not to say you were perfect in that pursuit -- none of us are. But it was clear that you tried, even as a kid. Despite the desire to be a smartass or someone that acted out here and there, you were always more of a pleaser than me, at least outwardly. Things didn’t come easy to you, and that meant you had to work harder for them than I did. I’ll openly admit, that made you better in many ways.
I’m sure you’ve had some time for introspection in these recent months, and I hope you look back at a life that’s worth admiring for its intent, most of all. Long before it was a popular notion, you pursued your own interests in your own way. From the outside, they may not have always made sense, but in the grander scheme, it’s clear what they were. Unlike the rest of us (and myself, in particular), you’ve been steadfast in being who you are and doing what you enjoy, even if that didn’t necessarily align with a predetermined idea. Everyone should consider themselves so lucky at some point in their lives, and you’ve managed to experience it for much of your 28 years.
What’s weird is that it’s so easy to see now -- with forced perspective -- than it ever was in real-time. You never called attention to it, instead, you just did it. I know you said earlier this year that you wish you’d taken a couple pages out of my book over the years. While I maybe wish you had too, that also would’ve compromised who you are and what you’ve done. For as much as I may seem to have things figured out, there’s quite a bit left to learn and I’m only beginning to scratch the surface there. One lesson I’ve learned recently is to take a few more cues from my brother, a person I’ve long admired, but rarely took the time out to truly tell how much I appreciated.
If we’re accepting the “better late than never” adage, then this is me trying to make up for all of those lost opportunities over the years.
That’s kind of what a best friend is, to some extent, however. Friendships that constantly tell one another how much they care can seem over-the-top. And obviously neither of us are the types to engage in that sort of behavior. Still, it doesn’t excuse the absence of audible gratitude that you’re owed from me for being my best friend and brother over the last near-29 years.
Perhaps you don’t remember this, but there was an old home video from when we were both under three years old or so. I couldn’t stop talking, obviously, while you were too young (or held back by me) to put any words together. Yet, we both managed to find something under the bed to laugh at, away from the camera and anyone else’s ears. I couldn’t tell you to this day what it was (even my memory has its limits), but that’s still a moment I’ll always go back to as something that bound us together. We were, just as now, brothers who have enough inside jokes to fuel us for years without anyone else getting involved.
Even for those closest to us, it’s proven hard to nail down what exactly our humor entails. I’ve always known something’s “ours” when I hear or see it. There’s little confusing the style or approach, the definite and absolute mockery, or the (most importantly) lack of taking anything too seriously.
I’ve recently taken to scrolling through our text thread from time to time, just to recall some of the seemingly pointless banter, the idiotic links and the back-and-forth that would probably only find a home in our minds. Sure, there are other people I have jokes with; other humor that may not include you. But they’re not the same. And as much as I try to imitate it elsewhere, there’s just a level of being on the same page -- something resembling comedic timing, really -- that is hard to come by with others.
They lack the basis for the joke. The shared history that maybe makes our long-running string of absurdist humor “bad” comedy in the traditional sense, because it can’t possibly be funny outside of you and me since the context takes too long. That’s really the only way I appreciate humor at this point -- completely insulated and likely calling into question just how “good” the parties involved are as people, to begin with.
There’s other proof of how good you are, and how much more selfless you are than I am, however. I’d isolate two instances, particularly: The time we were out on Lake George and the row boat tipped over after Dad decided to stand up in it to fish. You were quick to look for me, audibly. I wasn’t necessarily appreciative at the time, and admittedly, I could swim just fine. But that action stuck with me, and probably informed the other instance as well:
After a then-lifetime of me always putting you second, you put me first when we got to high school. Mentally and emotionally, I was admittedly in rough shape and far too consumed with what outside opinions of me were to just stand on my own two feet. Whether you understood that or not, you were there to support me and not just be my brother, but a friend I could actually count on and look to for guidance, social cues and even somewhat of a “crowd” to hang out with.
I’d find my way eventually, sort of, but that wouldn’t have necessarily occurred without you. It’s unlikely I’ve ever thanked you for it. You had your own friends and interests and didn’t necessarily “need” to repay me anything, given my dismissive attitude toward you at many junctures. But by putting me ahead of yourself, it allowed me to get past what was one of the many large crises of confidence I’ve had in my life. You deserved more credit for it back then, and deserve credit for it now.
Even the simple things, like listening to Brand New and Taking Back Sunday CDs in my old room in Deer Park were worth a lot more than you probably understood at the time. Given the circumstances now, it seems cliche to say I’d love to go back to those days of just putting “Your Favorite Weapon” on repeat. But that held true even before this. Those moments, small as they seemed at the time, were a big part of growing up, and maybe I can revisit them again (probably with different music) with my kid(s) one day.
I don’t bring up these things I never, or rarely, acknowledged as regrets. More, I really just want you to know how I felt about them at the time -- and how I’m thinking about them now, in retrospect. Similarly, it’s silly to simply erase our most recent years together, too.
Because truthfully, I’ve missed you for about eight years now. I’m not sure if that feeling is mutual -- I hope it is to some extent. But if not, that’s also understandable. Let’s not pretend I’ve always been the best or easiest person to make time for. As we know, I’m both particular and demanding, while also seeming distant emotionally. I can only imagine what it’s like to maintain any sort of relationship with someone of my general demeanor.
Despite the distance, we’ve still had our highs: The time you drunkenly berated the Mariners on a TV in San Francisco for needing several pitchers to achieve a no-hitter. Attending football games you tolerated when I knew you had plenty more things you’d have preferred to do. Enjoying “cat piss” sour beers. Those few days we got to spend together in Connecticut; a time I hope you loved as much as I did. For really the one and only time, we got to hang out as adults, just the two of us. That seems weird, but it’s true. We probably should’ve prioritized that more, come to think of it. Of course, a bit late to course-correct now.
No matter what happens next, I hope reading this gives you the same sense of happiness I’ve always gotten from being your brother. I don’t think anyone ever told you enough that they were proud of you, so I’ll say it myself here. I’m proud of you. Proud of you for being your own person. For being fearless in the face of whatever’s been thrown at you. For being meticulous and creative and at times, uncompromising. For being a good person, who tried to coax that out of those around them. Some of those people probably listened. All of them are better off for it, even if they don’t necessarily realize it. I only recently did, ashamedly. That’s really my biggest regret of all.
But what I can promise you going forward is that wherever you are, I’ll always have this same love for you. And unlike how it’s gone to-date, it’ll be far more obvious and need a lot less prodding to hear it. That love is going to help me be a better person, and one that better acknowledges those around them for the positives they bring to my life. For some reason, I’ve prided myself on being an emotional shut-in. That’s probably harmed me from truly experiencing the close relationships around me -- even the one I have with you.
I wrote this so that I wouldn’t forget to say anything, but really, how could I ever forget any of it? And how could I ever say all of it, either? The space needed could fill books. Perhaps it ends up doing so anyway one day.
I love you like family because you are. But I love you like my best friend because it’s what you chose to be, even when I didn’t make that an easy task. You’ll always be my brother, and I’ll always love you for everything you are and aren’t. I know I’ve been lucky enough to get that benefit of the doubt from you for decades now, even if I didn’t always appear to return the favor.
Hopefully what’s next is deserving of you. That’s a high bar. But you deserve better than the cards you’ve been dealt. If you do one thing for me, just take my love with you. And I’ll take yours with me.
Your brother, John