The lights turned blue in a corner of our world for a sad day in this blue year. Blue for Matthew Wzorek, whose friends still miss him. Blue for his mother, in whose arms the 7-year-old collapsed from a flu-like assault just weeks before we knew the coronavirus pandemic was upon us last year.
The lights turned blue on porches and front lawns in and around Broomall this month because how else could anyone tell a grieving mother that they love her without saying the wrong thing? That they care, without making her feel worse? That they empathize even though no one but a mother can truly know the devastation of such essential heartache.
For 11 months, contagion fears have forced alienation into our lives. But friends and neighbors of this child and his family have managed an embrace that illuminates the strength of the human spirit under duress. Instead of letting the pandemic win, they have lit up the town in Blue For Matthew. It’s a gentle gesture for Rebecca, Barry Wzorek, and their older son, Jacob, on the one-year anniversary of the younger boy’s shattering death.
There is anger, resentment, and suffering all around us in this dark winter. But the lesson of this lit-up place in Delaware County is that love and kindness should remain our No. 1 tool. It is the one thing that can defeat even our most crushing disappointments.
The community surrounding the Wzoreks seem to know this. They have projected their empathy in the halogen hue of Matthew’s favorite color. For several weeks through Feb. 28, zip codes west of Philadelphia are glowing at twilight with blue against the blankets of white snow that have encased us deeper into quarantined isolation.
“I know you will make it beautiful,” Rebecca Wzorek said when I reached out to say I would be writing about the lights. A year earlier in these pages I had told of the family’s excruciating ordeal. At the time, we had only just begun a seemingly endless pandemic lockdown.
This time around, though, Rebecca opted to let lights do all the talking and me all the writing. Maybe that was all she could handle. Maybe the beauty of Matthew’s blue was enough.
We do not know fully what killed the child with little warning. He died at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Montgomery County after collapsing in Rebecca’s arms at their Marple Township home. He’d been sick with the flu — or so they had been told. The nation was still a few weeks away from health officials declaring the novel coronavirus a pandemic.
Local officials had little knowledge about the virus that had been raging in China. The Montgomery County Coroner’s Office spent months on a post-mortem investigation because of how unusual it was for a young child to die with double pneumonia from the flu. They concluded, in May, that he had died of complications from Influenza B virus infection — extremely rare, First Deputy Coroner Alexander Balacki said Friday. No COVID-19 test had been done.
When he died, COVID-19 testing was not “on our radar,” Balacki said. “Resources were thin.”
With the difficult anniversary approaching this past Tuesday, friends and neighbors grappled with what to do. They could only imagine the pain it would bring. They wanted to lift the Wzoreks in some small way.
“You feel helpless,” family friend Karen McCollum said. “Nothing will change what happened February 16th, 2020.”
Helpless is a commonplace feeling in the year since Matthew died. There have been countless cruelties to so many far and wide. A half million souls have been lost to the coronavirus alone, people have been stripped of intimacy and human touch. Other souls have succumbed to isolation, extremism, grievance, exhaustion.
But losing a child has always been and remains a special, horrid grief. You lose a part of you — a living being whose every breath and motor skill and moment on earth has been made by you or made possible at some point by you. You are incapable of forgetting this human’s introduction to the world; you remember their eyes from the moment they first brandish a toothless smile; their giggles cascade through an all-consuming childhood like summer raindrops; and, in Matthew’s case, he delighted in cooking so much that Mom always had a baking assistant in the kitchen.
McCollum and her husband, parents themselves, kicked off their idea by buying several cases of lightbulbs and giving them away. Matthew had been friends with one of their children.
As the town started to turn blue two weeks ago, they left a white box at the Wzorek home. Inside was a letter explaining what was going on. Outside a gold ribbon and a blue lightbulb.
The next morning, as McCollum headed out of the house, she saw Rebecca Wzorek in the driveway. Matthew’s mom had brought doughnuts, coffee, and McCollum’s favorite creamer. All to say thank you. The two women shared an emotional embrace.
The night of Feb. 16, after a breathtaking sunset gave way to a crisp night sky, McCollum and others placed blue luminaria lanterns around the Wzorek house.
To say any of this wiped away their grief, of course, would be ridiculous. There is no perfect salve for that. But there is an enduring truth about pain and healing that far too many of us have conveniently discarded in our anger, our annoyance, our righteous narcissism.
I’ll explain by lifting Barry Wzorek’s own words from the #blueforMatthew Facebook page a few days ago.
“On the anniversary of his passing the best way to honor his memory is to just be kind to each other,” the grieving father wrote. “Blue lights are great, but just be kind.”