Of all the things we can say about Matt Raphael, one stands out in my mind. Matt Raphael was… his own man. Even if he would call you on the telephone and pretend to be someone else… he was, wrapped in sharp wit, a great sense of humor, solid integrity balanced with a sense of mischievous menschlikeit… he was his own man.
And although he might, or might not, have been… troubled by the traditional prayers we recite on this sad occasion… I think he would be…amused in his own way, by the stories we will share, and the obvious love of family and friends around him.
Over time and many conversations I thought I had gotten to know Matt somewhat well, but I learned over the past few days and in descriptions of some alarming adventures that I had seen only a small side of him. For some of you, perhaps, in these words you will have your own sense of this man broadened a bit as well.
Matthew Raphael was born in 1944 in Brooklyn, New York, the oldest of two children of Fred and Elaine Raphael His father worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, and must have had some kind of government clearance in order to do so, despite certain… left-wing tendencies in his own life. Actually Fred and Elaine met at a social gathering of like-minded socialists, and they almost didn’t meet at all – the train Fred needed to catch to reach his fellow Trotsky-ites took a long time to come, and he said to himself if it was not there on the count of 30 he was going home. At “27” he saw the lights coming, waited, went, and met Elaine.
Matthew did not remain in Brooklyn for long, although he did have an early memory of feeding the ducks in Prospect Park. The family moved to West Palm Beach, though, when he was very young, and before Rosemary was born.
Matt did say, very clearly, to his sister that she ruined his life by being born. And that she should have been born on Pearl Harbor Day, instead of just near it, since she was such a disaster. He called her a crybaby, she would burst into tears, and he would say “see, see!” And when the two of them shared a room he would toss things over the divider between them, to distract her or get her attention. There was a time when Elaine was distracted enough by her children’s interaction that, when driving, she turned around to scold them and promptly ran into a tree.
Despite this superficially inauspicious beginning, however, all was not as it seemed, and Matt and Rosemary got along very well. They were very close; losing their mother at such a young age brought them even closer together. If the fights were real at all they got it out of their systems as kids; they never fought as adults, and even recently, at a time when Matt was convinced he was not going to make it through the day, his words were “I want my sister.”
Matt was quite the reader – over the past year he and Rosemary shared a Kindle account, reading the same books, reminiscent of the days when she would go into his room and dive into whatever he had read, whether it was age-appropriate for her or not. Thus at a young age did she devour Catcher in the Rye, and Tropic of Cancer.
From his earliest years Matt loved baseball. He would play APBA, the first baseball card game with dice, invented in the 50’s and set up so that, based on a roll of the dice and last year’s statistics, you determined the probability of your chosen player getting a hit.
And music. Alice, Matt’s aunt, tells the story of when Matt was around four years old, and he loved the juke box in restaurants. Once when he family was out to dinner, he played so many songs he ran out of nickels, and asked his family for more. But they wouldn’t give him any. So he walked around the restaurant, asking nickels of all the other customers.
Matt’s grandparents eventually threw out all of his collections, his baseball cards and comic books, and his old ’45 records as well. But Daniel has, framed, the first album he ever bought, a Buddy Holly record.
Matt had polio in his legs when he was young; he could not walk for a year. But being in a wheelchair did not stop him from going out, or from getting in trouble. One day he was out playing with friends, shooting rubber tipped dart guns towards a nearby road. One of the darts hit home more than intended, perhaps; it went through an open window of a passing car, which pulled over and came after the boys. Everyone ran off… all his friends ran away, except for Matt, who could not move that fast. So he promptly stood his ground… and ratted them all out.
Later there was an incident with his friend Duffy’s car. Or Duff’s father’s car, to be precise. A brand new car, which the kids took on a joy ride, drank more than they should… and Duff got sick, all over his father’s nice new car. Worried about the reaction and the trouble which he would – and did – get into, Duff recruited Matt to help him out, scraping at the seats with Popsicle sticks in a vain effort to clean everything up.
Matt and his friends also went mansion hopping in Palm Beach. This meant visiting the empty estates of families whose primary residence was elsewhere, but whose beachfront homes all had pools of their own. So Matt and his friends figured it was a shame for such spots to go unused for so long, and they obliged by putting the pools to good use. Matt also recalled once swimming in the ocean off one of these private beaches, and a manatee brushed up against him. Thus began the Legend of Matt swimming with manatees.
In high school Matt was painfully thin; he had a unibrow, as his family described it, which Rosemary picked at and cleaned up for him. It was an enmeshed family… and an engaged one. Rosemary describes endless discussions over the dinner table, arguments over politics and patriotism, criticism and citizenship, international relations and the world, a proud immigrant grandfather holding a vastly different world view than a leftist father.
This family tradition of… sharing opinions with each other… could be embarrassing as well Matt went to the University of Florida, and Fred visited his son on campus. There, he discovered that Matt’s dorm room was so horribly messy – partly, to be fair, his roommates’ fault – that he got upset. When Matt defended himself by declaring that everyone else’s rooms looked the same way, off Fred went, marching up and down the hall, knocking on every other door to see the rooms and compare them himself.
ROTC was a requirement at the University of Florida, so Matt chose Air Force ROTC, the criterion being the assumption that there, he wouldn’t have to carry a gun.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, given his family’s background, Matt studied political science. Finishing at Florida, he came to DC, to GW for graduate school. And it was here, on Valentine’s Day in 1969, as Amy tells it, that Matt went to a Single’s Club called Wayne’s Luv. At one point nature called, and Matt was at this club for the first time, so he approached a young woman talking to a lot of other people as if she were familiar with the place, assuming she worked there, and asked her where the rest room was. Marilyn was, in fact, familiar with the club; she was there with casual friends that night, not the close friend she usually went with. The two of them started talking, and Matt never proceeded on to his originally intended destination. Instead, at Marilyn’s invitation, he followed her and the acquaintance she had come with back home so they could drop the other woman off, and wound up at Pop’s Pizza in Wheaton.
Matt asked Marilyn out again, for the next night, but he was so late Marilyn thought he was standing her up. Turns out he had gotten lost. But he did show up, and their first planned date was, of all things, a Truffaut double feature, Jules and Jim, and Don’t Shoot the Piano Player. It was an ironic choice given that Matt would be as likely to tease anyone else as a pseudo-intellectual for going to such films. But that was Matt – with layers underneath the surface.
Marilyn’s father was not that impressed when he first met Matt; here was a man who spent all his money on records, but showed up with holes in his shoes. Marilyn, though, knew what to look for. And she knew Matt was in love… when he didn’t spend all his money on records any more.
Matt would occasionally deny this, because he was not typically impulsive, this was not like him, but he informally proposed to Marilyn two weeks after meeting her, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. They kept that conversation secret for a long time. And maybe, Amy said, maybe her father married her mother because she laughed at everything he said… he loved making people laugh.
Matt and Marilyn were married in March of 1970, a year after they met. Their honeymoon was… less than ideal in a number of ways. They went to the Bahamas, went to the beach on the first day, and Matt boasted “Oh, I’m from Florida; I don’t need sunscreen.” He got so sunburned that day he could barely walk, and they spent a fortune at the gift shop on every sunburn remedy they could find. Their return flight had an adventure of its own; both of their sibilings decided to meet them at the airport… Stephen with his beard at the time and Rosemary with her long hair, and in greeting them they looked so stereotypically suspicious – they so whatever profile the authorities were using at the time – that they were all hauled in to make sure they weren’t smuggling drugs or something.
But Matt was not only not doing anything nefarious, he was actually ready to settle into a fairly respectable life. He spent his career with the government, in Labor Management relations with various departments. He called himself a bureaucrat. Amy, who once went to work with him, had no idea what he did before she spent the day at his office… and she had no idea what he did after she spent the day there, either.
We will hear more, from Matt’s family and friends, in just a moment. I want to add just a few final comments of my own.
The first is to say that those conversations I had with Matt… took on a pattern of their own. A known spiritual skeptic, Matt would wonder what I was doing speaking with him in the first place, until I came to learn to announce at the outset that I was there to not pray for him. Matt did consent, eventually, to have his name included here in the prayer for healing. It was only after a discussion when I explained my own fairly liberal theology and my views regarding the non-magical purpose of reciting that prayer in a non-Orthodox setting that he allowed us to do that.
Matt was also not known as a stoic. He did not handle ordinary pain well. He would stub his toe and cry out: “Oh my God, oh my God!” – an ironic exclamation from an avowed atheist. But Amy, and others, have noted what an incredible hero he has been in facing his illness, what bravery he has shown, what grace. This past year… this whole struggle was so hard… And he taught, even as he fought.
There were real things that Matt was afraid of. Because he lost his mother so young, perhaps, he was afraid… of being forgotten. So the promise I will close with is this: that Matt Raphael will live on, in and through… all of you. When a young friend of the family says that she sometimes re-reads semi-sarcastic material “in a Matt Raphael voice,” he will live on. When Daniel says he is going to gather voices and reflections about his father, he will live on. And in all of the stories we share, the smiles they bring amidst the sting of the tears… Matt Raphael will not be forgotten. He will live on.