Matthew Gerdisch May 19, 1999 - December 14, 2019
A Life “Well-Loved”
By Mary O’Malley
Matthew was a student in my Sixth and Eighth Grade Language Arts classes. He graced my front row with his effervescent personality, insatiable curious nature, and reassuring smile. He willingly shared his true unabridged self with his classmates and his teachers. His love of life and learning manifested itself during every aspect of his day. He never failed to genuinely chat with me before or after class because he truly cared about my day as well. I remember him politely explaining the difference between a cardiologist and a heart surgeon during one of our vocabulary lessons. He proceeded to talk so proudly of his father, Dr. Gerdisch, a heart surgeon, sharing with us not only his own knowledge of the field at such a young age but also his desire to study medicine and help others.
“Matthew always talked about a career in science and medicine. Each time he would visit my operating room, he would have the most insightful questions, posed to me with the predicate “Dad” followed by a new inquisition into my last or next move, as my chest nearly burst through my gown with pride. His path was cemented though when Matthew was introduced to arrhythmia surgery,” explained Dr. Gerdisch. “He already had a cursory knowledge of arrhythmia, as he suffered from inappropriate sinus tachycardia. Now, he was enamored of the crossroads of physics, physiology, and anatomy intrinsic in electrophysiology, and its merger with surgery, a discipline for which he knew himself to be well suited. Matthew found his path in life, to be a physician treating heart rhythm disease. He was a soulful person, offering his kindness and listening without limits. His loss echoes through the lives of so many people, whom he helped, guided, or cheered. His professors and teachers mourn him as deeply as his many friends.”
It was not only the front row in my classroom where Matthew prospered. His Northwestern Psychology professor wrote, “Though it was a very large class, I remember Matthew so clearly. He would sit in the front row nodding along, eyes bright with enthusiasm. What I remember most is how kind and positive he was.
Matthew loved all things Asian. He was the Asian Culture Club President at Brebeuf Jesuit High School. He held a taekwondo black-belt and was a junior instructor for Grandmaster Lee in Carmel as well as a member of the Tae Kwon Do Club in college.
He was at home deep in the ocean, scuba diving since he was a small boy. His love for the sea began with Sycamore’s Sixth Grade Sea Camp trip. He continued his adventures in Maui, Jamaica, and Eleuthera, diving 30 feet deep, courageously, and curiously, showing no fear. Last year he even speared a 4 pound lobster, which was immediately prepared and gobbled up! He went on to become PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certified. His father relays, “Matthew was confident at his practiced skills. It is why I never scuba dived without him. I trusted only Matthew to check my gear and be with me in the ocean.”
As a SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) member, Matthew acted on television, on-stage, and doing voice-overs. His first two jobs were as an infant for Greco, where he was a model on the cover of an infant carrier box and in a store ad for Sesame Street clothing. He also performed at The Goodman Theater and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where he once acted alongside actress Marsha Mason. Two of his latest jobs included a KFC television commercial for a Super Bowl pre-game advertisement and a voice-over radio spot for Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
When he was a child, his parents were “constantly emptying his pockets of miscellaneous items he had collected throughout the day that would make their way into figures and imagined machines he would concoct.” With his great hands he would repurpose them and make new inventions. (I believe) these collectibles symbolize the friendships he cultivated and maintained, none of them necessarily being like the other, but each one having a significant purpose. Even as a young adult, he enjoyed putting together LEGO constructions, leaving one half-finished on his desk the day before he passed.
To say he knew no strangers is an understatement. His mother, Lori Ann, said, “He saw the good in people; he loved others’ perspectives on things and wanted to help them especially emotionally. He was optimistic, good-natured, and very tolerant. There were no boundaries between him and other people. He had the wide eyes of a child and the acceptance of a child, although he was a mature young man with a heart of gold. He never left a friend behind, unequivocally understanding their differences and reveling in blind acceptance. He cultivated an unmatched diversity of friendships”
This past year while a junior at Northwestern University, majoring in physiology and minoring in Asian History, Matthew led a physics study group; he tutored classmates simply because he enjoyed teaching. His parents only found out about this after they received a note from a member of the group (a stranger to them) named Maxwell, who sent this note to the department dean in hopes it could be shared:
“I was always impressed with Mattʼs level of insight into whatever concept we were discussing; his questions always approached the subject material from an angle I had never considered before. He always went above and beyond the superficial, questioning the why when everyone else was concerned with the what. And he never just kept this insight to himself, he was always so willing to share and explain. These questions were answered with thought and empathy, never judgment, and showed that he cared about my understanding and learning, not simply just providing an answer. This is how Matt will be remembered, as someone whose ever-present selflessness and genuine kindness helped others through whatever problems they had. Matthew and I had plans to study together next quarter for physics again, and his kind smile and insightful mind will be missed.”
Furthermore, he maintained his friendships with several of his Sycamore classmates; this was never more evident than at his funeral where many members of the Class of 2013 came to support each other and the Gerdisch family. One, in particular, Nico Biogiani ‘13, who was Matthew’s best friend since Third Grade and his roommate during their three years together at Northwestern states, “For better or for worse, our names are linked.” When asked what else he wanted to say about his friend, Nico replied, “What don’t I want to say is the better question. It’s not possible to narrow it down to anything that fits into a one or two-page article; however, three things that stand out were his insatiable curiosity, his humanity, and his unfailing empathy. There’s a lot to be said about the way he carried himself. No matter who he was around he always acted the same way with confidence and compassion. Whether he was going to class or returning from a 15 hour day, he would stop to have a conversation with the person at the front desk of their apartment complex. His positivity allowed him to see the best in people and any situation.”
Another Sycamore classmate, Sarah George ‘13, explained her relationship with Matthew by quoting the eighth book of the Nicomachean Ethics: ‘There are three kinds of friends: utility friends, pleasure friends, and goodness friends. The first two are accidental and, therefore, easily dissolved. The final is the kind that can last a lifetime.’ “Matthew was a goodness friend—not just to me—but to many.”
At age 14, Matthew was blessed to meet the love of his life, a girl with whom he shared the same birthday. They had a true bond for six years. The magical Samantha, “could see into his heart, and they lived within each other as only some can dream. They each propelled toward their individual futures, while inspiring the other. We shared our hearts and a life... and a life to come. His passion for us and for his life inspired me to work just as hard in my life. All we wanted to do was work hard for each other. It was out of the ordinary how our existences meshed together. There was a natural magnetism from the day we met.” It is fitting that they both came into existence on the same day of the same year.
No one, however, could capture his spirit as did his only brother Robert (Sycamore Class of 2011):
“Matthew and I are brothers. Born from the same cells, in the same month, raised in the same homes, shared clothes, meals, cars, bedrooms, video games, parents, friends, jokes, interests, fears, anticipations, secrets, joys, sorrows. We were experientially, biologically, and spiritually conjoined. We marched together, tethered at the leg, through the first 16 years of our lives. The distance that separated us through the last four did not weaken this connection, as Matthew’s insatiable appetite for love kept us in constant contact.
The big brother’s burden is to always go first, to pull the tether so my little brother’s steps can safely follow mine. I think there was mutual comfort in the handing down of advice as we tackled the opening stages of our lives together. We immunized each other with teasing and fortified each other by performing our secret handshake which physically represented the unbreakable bond we shared. I am crushed by my inability to give him advice or even understand his experience as he passes before me from the ephemeral to the ethereal. The tether has been broken, and with it I have lost my leg, slumping awkwardly to the side as I learn to walk on my own in his sudden wake.
Following Matthew’s passing we discovered in his notebooks many small notes that serve as tiny windows into Matthew’s privately held beliefs, like a mini Deuteronomy from the Torah and Bible or Hadiths from the Quran. One of his notes read “I don’t know, I think I idolize my dad.” We did. I do. Matthew and I grew together and in response to each other, but we were like two flowers growing in the same pot—twisting and turning, reaching towards the unconditional, unrelenting love of our father, and nourished by the infinitely fertile soil cultivated by our mother’s overwhelmingly powerful love. Matthew bloomed and bloomed and bloomed. His wilting leaves us with seeds that will germinate in our minds forever.
Matthew was given 20 years to live. Many are given 60, 80, 100. If we consider his biological clock was set upon conception, and we were given every possible resource to help him craft a life worth living, we can look back on his time here as an accomplishment, on par with celebrated lifetimes which lasted multiples of his. In 20 years, Matthew loved and was loved by his family, he made many loyal friends, enjoyed a successful career as an actor, mastered his hobby taekwondo, learned a few languages and explored the world, faced immense adversity, succeeded in spite of this adversity to be accepted to his dream school, and perhaps most importantly, he found and declared the love of his life, Samantha. These are the pillars of a well-lived life, and Matthew constructed each of them for himself. One of my first selfish thoughts following Matthew’s passing was that the meaningfulness of everything I accomplish has now been diminished since he will never see it and never be proud of me. He was not only the most important person in my life after my parents, but he also exhibited the extremely noble personality trait of being easily impressed. He did not see emotional honesty as a sign of weakness, and he was never concerned with establishing intellectual superiority-- I think because he saw beauty and faults in everyone, and loved them for both, ultimately finding people indistinguishable in value. He loved everyone and everything that could excite people because it was in that excitement that he could bond.
Matthew may not be here to provide us the unconditionally solid wall on which we have all learned at some point, but the energy that drove the chemistry of his earthly existence has been freed and rings with the particular wavelength that identifies him, perpetually echoing against the walls of the universe. He is with us always, unthinking, unfeeling, but aware and omnipresent. He is missed deeply, but he continues to exist in everything we see, hear, and feel.”
Matthew finished every conversation with every family member, extended family member, and Samantha with "I love you." It was one of his many lessons to us. He would wish the same joyful communication to be shared by everyone, known and unknown, to never miss the privilege to tell someone they are loved. His Grandpa Joe shared Matthew’s signature phrase: “I love you all to infinity and beyond.”
The consistency with which his life is chronicled is a testimony to the kind of person he was. It is no coincidence, nor is it surprising that Matthew was fascinated with the human heart, for his was as kind and loving as anyone’s heart could be. Matthew died before he could do the work swirling in his mind, before he could finish his LEGO construction, before he could spend the years he should have had loving his friends and family. Although his dream of a career in the study of the heart never came to *fruition, he certainly touched ours, all those who ever knew him. He lived and loved in 20 years more than most people do in a much longer life span. It’s as if his heart knew he had to experience the people, places, and adventures in the short time he had on this earth.
Thank you to Dr. and Mrs. Gerdisch for their help with this article.
Thank you to Robert for the beautiful eulogy and to Samantha, Nico, Maxwell, Sarah, and Grandpa Joe for their contributions.
Thank you to Matthew for teaching us how to love life to infinity and beyond.
Note: Having spent time with legendary heart surgeon, Professor James Cox MD. Matthew, his father, and colleagues were fashioning a physician training fellowship combining surgery and electrophysiology that will take form in his name.