Only a few months separated Matthew Potter and his siblings, but he knew it was his job to protect them. They believe he still does.
Weeks before his sister’s birthday, he begged to buy her a teddy bear he spotted at a shop. “I want to get it for her now,” he said when his mom told him to wait.
Days before he died, he ran from the playground and his mommy panicked. “I’m okay. Even when you can’t see me,” he told her.
That morning was clear and bright. A perfect day at the fair.
He was a happy boy.
He was mischievous but always kind.
He was loved.
He is loved.
He is remembered.
The day after Matthew Potter died when a ride at the county fair malfunctioned, I was supposed to call his family. I was a new reporter, and it was my job to share his story. But the day after he died, the towers fell. The country was in chaos and the newsrooms’ total focus became covering the terrorist attacks. I never called Matthew’s family.
I was supposed to call his family that day. I was supposed to share his story.
But I didn’t.
I never called Matthew’s family, but I never stopped feeling responsible for his story. I wrote this, fourteen years later, thinking it would help me sort through my feelings. I wasn’t expecting what happened next.
First I heard from former colleagues, some of whom still work with the newspaper. Every one of them said they, too, think of Matthew every year on September 11. My former editor Scott Blanchard told me that he and photojournalist Jason Plotkin created a peer-support program to help young journalists deal with and minimize trauma both for themselves and their sources. Would I still be carrying the pain of that day, would I still see Matthew’s face every September, if I had been part of such a program?
Later on the day I posted about Matthew, my sister called me, her voice shaking. A friend had shared the post with the Potter family. That evening, Matthew’s sister, Natalie, sent me a message with her phone number. For a moment, I was that new journalist again, about to enter the small room in the back without a script. I took a deep breath. I didn’t need a script. I just needed to listen. I called her.
For about a half-hour we talked, sometimes both of us crying. I learned more about Matthew, about how kind he was, how he and his siblings were so close they felt like triplets. She told me that some days, all she sees when she closes her eyes is the moment that ride stopped. The moment Matthew fell backward, his head on her lap, how he looked up at her and she knew he was gone. She told me about the teddy bear waiting for her on her birthday, how Matthew had picked it out for her weeks earlier and somehow kept it a secret. She told me about Matthew’s Town at Leg Up Farm, the library at Leaders Heights Elementary and the collection of Magic Treehouse books donated in Matthew’s honor. She told me that her parents focus on the bright, focus on the good and carried them through their grief. She told me not to feel guilty. She thanked me for remembering her brother.
She thanked me.
I can’t even process that.
Later that evening, Matthew’s mom, Janet, emailed me. She also thanked me for remembering her son. Again, I have no words.
A few weeks later, I came back to my hometown to celebrate my book release. I was getting ready to read the first chapter of the book when I looked up and saw Janet and Natalie. I’m not sure how I knew it was them, but I did, immediately. “Don’t cry,” Janet said to me. “Go, do your thing. We’ll be here.”
As soon as the reading was over, I sat down with Janet and Natalie. Displaying astonishing kindness, they had brought me flowers and a butterfly ornament. I gave them my books, too overwhelmed to register what I was writing inside them. We talked about Matthew, about his last moments and his first. I shared how I had dreaded calling them that day yet still feel guilty that I hadn’t. “We wouldn’t have spoken to you had you called then,” Janet assured me. And just like that, the guilt evaporated.
I asked her the question that has haunted me for fourteen years. “Did you feel like the entire world was crumbling when the towers fell?” Janet smiled. “No. It all sort of made sense then, why Matthew was needed elsewhere.” I can’t wrap my mind around the strength that faith requires.
I know the family worked through their grief. I know Natalie still aches, that none of their pain has ever fully gone away. But I see that focus on the good, on the brightness of the world, too.
I still think of Matthew every day. But now when I do, I see a kind, loving boy just starting to become independent. I see a leader, a protector, a shepherd.
I think about the young reporter I was when Matthew died. I think about the guilt I carried for not being braver. For not going into that little room before the towers were hit. For not picking up the phone. For not sharing Matthew’s story.
And I forgive her.
It took me fourteen years to hear Matthew’s true story.