This Christmas season as executives for my the company my husband died for are collecting fat bonus checks for performance and spending time with their own families on the backs of people like Matt, we won’t forget.
We won’t forget the devastation that a Stage 4 Colorectal Cancer diagnosis had on our family. We won’t forget watching him scream in pain for a year and a half. We won’t forget watching him bravely fight a losing battle.
We won’t forget the effect it had on our daughter. She was only 4 when he was diagnosed and she doesn’t have a single memory of her dad, the love of her whole life, not sick. She watched him suffer. She was a happy kid with not a care in the world before cancer crushed us. We won’t forget because she still suffers. We won’t forget because she cuddled in bed next to him hours before he died in our home, telling him she loved him and kissing his arms. We won’t forget because she was here in our home, the only home she remembers, when he took his last breath. She won’t ever forget. It will change the trajectory of her life in ways we aren’t even aware of yet. Her perfect world was shattered.
We won’t forget the way we watched him take his last breath. We won’t forget his body failing in front of us and being completely helpless in that moment. We won’t forget holding his hand and listening to him moan in pain while the disease that was caused by a job he loved took him away from us. We won’t forget watching him gasp for air. We won’t forget hearing the death rattle and knowing the end was near. We won’t forget saying goodbye to him. We won’t forget watching our superman, the one who always protected us, whither away in the home we shared.
I will never forget watching his parents lose their son. The pain and the wails and the suffering is too much to put into words. The looks and sounds of a mother who just lost her firstborn, a father who lost his best friend, is something I hope to never see again. But the memory of the trauma of that moment haunts me and keeps me awake. I won’t forget the suffering. I will also never overcome the suffering.
I won’t forget him slaving for a job that didn’t value his life. I won’t forget the days he couldn’t go in because he was dying and we didn’t know it yet. I won’t forget the names of the people who reprimanded him for attendance, or the jobs he was passed over for because cancer was eating him alive. I won’t forget the faces of the supervisors who told him point blank “I don’t care if you have a doctor’s excuse or not, if you call in again, you’re fired”. I hope you see his face as you’re surrounded by your families this Christmas. I hope his death haunts your every day life like it does mine. I hope you feel a tenth of the pain I do for your role in helping destroy his beautiful life.
We won’t forget the first hospital stay, when we almost lost him and NO ONE from work showed up. Not a single call from anyone. Not a single “What can we do to help?” We won’t forget how you chose to remain silent throughout his entire fight and death, yet sent private investigators to take pictures of us going through day to day life, presumably to prove that cancer wasn’t “affecting his life” in case of a lawsuit. Harassing us in hospital parking garages, church parking lots, and even scaring our child at our own home. We won’t forget the feeling of that invasion of privacy when we were at our most desperate and you, still, were worried about your bottom line.
We won’t forget the funeral. Standing in line and watching people file by and hug us and give condolences. We won’t forget that you weren’t there. The only people that showed up for him for a job he gave his life for were his coworkers, many doing the same dangerous job he was doing. Not one of his superiors made time to so much as shake a hand, hug a neck, or send a sympathy card. Heartless until the very end.
I will not forget speaking at his funeral and carrying out his last wishes, speaking the truth about what caused his cancer and how working for you wasn’t worth what he lost in the end. I will not forget looking out over the people who loved him the most and seeing the pain on everyone’s faces. I won’t forget looking down at our perfect little 6 year old daughter as we memorialized her Daddy while mine stood behind me to catch me if I passed out from grief.
I won’t forget the nights he sobbed into my arms, begging God to let him see our daughter grow up. I won’t forget the lies I told him, how he was going to beat it and live a long and happy life and grow old with us. I won’t forget him at his lowest, grabbing a gun and wanting to end it all because no amount of pain medicine was enough. I won’t forget begging him not to kill himself because there was always hope. I won’t forget hiding the safe keys from him for his own protection. Seeing someone so strong so desperate for relief from debilitating pain and suffering, both mentally and physically, changes you at the core. I won’t forget watching him break down and sob and apologize for even thinking about doing the unthinkable.
I won’t forget the first time someone uttered the words “railroad cancer” to me. I won’t forget the horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach and dry heaving into the hospital trash can when I saw the thousands upon thousands of hits of that google search. I won’t forget coming to the realization that people die every day for this industry. I won’t forget him recalling every time he was asked to move a train into the mechanic shop when an inspector was on site. I won’t forget every time he told me the smell from a railcar was so overwhelming or that the thick layers of weed killer sprayed on the tracks that he walked up and down made him gag. I won’t forget the sound of his almost lifeless body gasping for air and knowing that he couldn’t breathe because of what he was exposed to at work. I won’t forget the conversations I had with men and women who also work for the railroad who shared their stories about exposure that was covered up for the sake of a dollar. They may go on with business as usual, but we won’t forget what that cost our family.
I won’t forget my own desperate times, driving away from home when he was fighting so hard and suffering through chemo and I just couldn’t take the pain of it all anymore. I won’t forget sitting in my car and holding a gun in my hand and putting it in my mouth. I won’t forget the desperation to be free from the emotional pain of his physical pain. I won’t forget seeing my child’s face in that moment pop up on my phone screen on a FaceTime call asking “Mama, where are you and can I have ice cream?” I won’t forget the shame of that moment or the shame I feel still for wanting to check out of the suffering. I won’t forget how my love for my family and my faith in God pulled me through the darkest times and put me back on my feet time and time again.
I won’t forget how dark times came back after he died, when I thought getting away to Atlanta for the weekend would make me feel better because I hadn’t slept in weeks. I won’t forget how downing a bottle of champagne and looking out over a city we loved together took me back down a dark road and made me contemplate taking a bottle of Ativan and slipping away to be with him. I won’t forget how close I came to leaving this world. I won’t forget the people I confided in who made me realize that life, even with all the pain and trauma and aftermath of his death, is worth living.
We won’t forget what and who killed him. I promised him when he knew the end was near that I would spend the rest of my life talking about environmental exposure and cancer. I won’t forget him sobbing when Luis Alvarez, a 9-11 first responder, bravely told his own story in front of the world about how his exposure in the weeks following the darkest day in American history caused his colorectal cancer. I won’t forget Matt telling me that, now that it was documented on that level, they couldn’t ignore us.
But ignore us, they did. And they continue to.
But they cannot ignore us forever. A day of reckoning is coming and, when I feel like I cannot take another step or face another day, I do. Because it is my life’s mission to make sure no more families have to suffer like we have. It is my goal in life to make sure everyone knows that safety at the workplace has nothing to do with the safety of the employee and everything to do with safety of the profits. I promised him. And I never broke a single promise to him.
We won’t forget. Please don’t forget him, either. Matt Smith was a Father to one very special kid, a Son, Grandson, Nephew, Husband, and Friend to everyone he met. Instead of holding him this Christmas, we are holding a picture of him. Instead of hugging him Christmas morning, his favorite day of the year, I will board a plane next week with our daughter and deliver his remains to his grieving parents in his home country of England. His remains will be home for Christmas, but he won’t be ever again.
We handed him to the railroad in perfect health. Happy, vibrant, full of energy. They handed him back to us lifeless, ashes and bone fragments in a cardboard box.
We won’t forget what they took from us. We won’t shut up about it, either.
MATTHEW JAMES SMITH April 5, 1984- August 10, 2019.
35 years on this earth was not enough. We had so much life left to live together but they took you from us.
We won’t forget.