If you’re in need of a little hope and inspiration, take a look at Matt Laufer.
Matt, who suffers from acute respiratory failure as a result of a spinal cord injury nearly 16 years ago, survived 11 cardiac arrests last year. It was during one of those near-death experiences that he found a reason to live: to paint and give others hope through his artwork.
Matt took center stage during the opening of his exhibit April 7th at the Discovery Museum & Planetarium in Bridgeport, CT. As he beamed and held court, visitors studied his paintings ranging from cheery giraffes and elephants to colorful scenics and abstracts.
Museum officials say Matt’s opening is the largest in history at the Park Avenue venue. That didn’t surprise his mom Jane, who admitted she invited everyone she knew to the opening.
Along with his paintings, some of Matt’s poetry hung on the gallery walls. It shed light on his struggle to come to terms with his devastating injury, which occurred when he was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer truck on Interstate 95 in May 2003. Along with the physical paralysis came emotional devastation. His injury and wheelchair confinement left Matt severely depressed, anxious and reclusive.
“He wasn’t ready to die,” said Jane, who was my high school classmate at Lauralton Hall in Milford, CT. “When he was crossing over to the other side, he realized that he wanted to fight. He has his purpose in life now.”
Matt’s latest chapter shows that even when things seem their most grim, there is hope. It also shows the strength of the human spirit, and that it’s never too late to find your purpose. After battling for his life, Matt emerged with a fierce determination to create. He’s loved art since his teens, but had to teach himself to paint using his mouth.
Using paint and a brush held with his teeth, Matt uses paint to express emotions that otherwise would be bottled up. His paintings reflect a range of human emotion, from happiness and whimsy to darkness and brooding.
Coming so close to death convinced Matt that he needed to take better care of himself too. He put on weight, and got a tracheal tube inserted that’s used at night to help him breathe. He’s back to living on his own with the help of a team of full-time nurses. His parents recently relocated to Tennessee, where Jane has found a job.
I get a lot of invitations to attend events via Facebook. But Jane’s invite caught my eye because the last I’d heard, Matt was in the final stages of acute respiratory failure. Jane left her job as a registered nurse, shuttered her fledgling clothing business and moved into his house to care for him full-time. It was clear his deteriorating condition were taking a huge emotional and financial toll on Jane and her family.
I even asked for her input writing a piece for the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization of Women about a proposed family leave bill. Jane graciously shared her story with me. http://now-ct.org/?s=jane+laufer
So it was with a mixture of delight and curiosity that I read the invitation about Matt’s opening. Along with the invite was a short video clip of Matt painting – with a paintbrush clenched in his teeth. I’d read books about paralyzed artists who paint this way, but had never seen their work in person.
I wanted to see Matt and his work because in a way, he’s a miracle. A year ago, he was at death’s door. Today, he is vibrant and alive, with a sparkle in his eyes, fans waiting in line to meet him and dozens of paintings to his credit.
I tracked down Jane sitting with one of Matt’s full-time aides in an adjacent room away from the fray. She seemed surprised to see me. But if I’ve learned one thing over the years, it’s the importance of showing up. I’ve also learned that it’s incredibly important to support artists because often positive feedback is the only thing that keeps them going.
I go to plays, recitals, band concerts and business grand openings of people I know because I know what it’s like to put yourself and your work out there for public consumption. Sometimes, a positive word or an unexpected laugh from the audience is all you need to keep going.
But I also went because I wanted to support Jane and her love and devotion to her son. I first met Jane when we were both 14 and freshman at Lauralton Hall, where we strolled the halls in blue jumpers, bobby socks and saddle shoes. We were among a class of 90 at the all-girls private Catholic high school.
I’d seen Jane about five years ago – or was it 7? – at our last high school reunion. With her trademark red hair and sparkling blue eyes, she was as bubbly and effervescent as I’d remembered her in high school. She was a popular girl and cheered for our “brother” school Fairfield Prep, but was always down to the earth and friendly to everyone.
On our graduation day in June, 1976, we sang Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The song came on the radio last week as I drove home and I found myself singing along. We had to memorize the words back in high school, and they came back to me – for the most part.
Particularly striking: “Your time has come to shine/all your dreams are on their way.” The song reminded me of Jane and my classmates and how much promise the future holds when you’re 18. Your whole life is in front of you and full of possibility. You have no idea that broken dreams or tragedy could be part of the mix too.
And though my high school days were far from perfect, hearing that song sealed the deal. I was going to Matt’s opening, if for no other reason than to support an artist who has found his way, and the mother who never left his side.