Whatever it is, it better be good.

But, of course, it never is. There you are, comfortable and snoring, and you’re suddenly jolted out of bed, like you’re being shocked. Which, in fact, you are. Because nothing good ever comes from a phone call in the middle of the night. If it was good, it would wait until daylight.

Still, Judy Shepard was used to middle-of-the-night calls because her son Matt either couldn’t figure out time zone differences or didn’t care. He lived in Wyoming, she lived in Saudi Arabia, and his evening was her 2 a.m. But in the new memoir The Meaning of Matthew, Judy tells of the one call she’ll never forget.

Matthew Shepard had a hard life even before he was born. His mother says she was in labor 40 hours before the doctors did a C-section with her firstborn, who was a month early and born with jaundice. Once home, he was colicky.

Still, the mother-son bond grew and strengthened, and the two spent hours doing things together and with family. Although she says she had an inkling that Matt was gay long before he came out to her, it didn’t matter: he was her child, and that was that.

Matt naturally made conversation and friends easily, Judy recalls, and he loved to travel and meet new people. But on a school vacation in Marrakech, he was attacked and raped — an incident that obviously affected him terribly.

Physically safe but very depressed, Matt became restless, moving from city to city, self-medicating and indulging in dangerous behavior. From their home in Saudi Arabia, the Shepards practiced supportive "tough love" and tried to let Matt sort things out for himself, but the situation was worse than they realized. Bills weren’t paid. He sometimes went days without bathing and weeks without calling.

One day in October, following a long-distance disagreement over money, Matt phoned his mother to apologize.

It was the last time Judy Shepard heard his voice.

"Matthew Wayne Shepard died… Monday, October 12. But our beloved, opinionated, compassionate, contentious, curious, and loving son had died five days earlier, tied to [a] fence outside Laramie."

So begins the second half of one of the most courageous, painful books I’ve read this year.

Shepard tells the story of her son, his life and his death, and the trial of the men who beat Matt and left him for dead because he was gay. She relates the horror she felt at seeing her son’s clothing as evidence, and the stoicism she kept in the courtroom. Above all, Shepard writes in a quiet, graceful voice about love, acceptance, and having a hole in one’s heart the size of a child gone.

Some readers may see controversy in The Meaning of Matthew, but the point is that this is the story of a mother and the child she lost. It can’t be missed.

— Terri Schlichenmeyer

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 4, 2009.
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