Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Life Renewed in a Thank-You Note

Elizabeth Jones with Dan Smith at the conference.^

Elizabeth Jones, who won the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference's scholarship for 2010, is, by all accounts, a remarkable woman who will be heard from in the future. The letter she has written to us as a "thank you" note to our conference, gives an indication that the word we got on her is right. Here's the letter:

Dear Dan [Smith, conference founder],

I feel such gratitude for the scholarship check I received from Hollins that was awarded by you and the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference in January. It was a wonderful conference, well thought-out, entertaining and informative.

I also feel as if I need to tell you why this check means so much to me.

Five years ago, my youngest brother, Steven Matthews, was murdered in Baltimore. He was an innocent bystander in a home invasion. The house that Steven lived in was a group home for young men who were striving to become clean and sober after years of addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Six months prior to his death, my brother challenged me to finish my education. His words went something lik this: "Liz, are you a drug addict? Are you a recovering alcoholic? Are you bi-polar? No? Well, I am. If I can finish college and even go on to get my MFA and teaching certificate, what is your excuse?

It was this memory that brought me to Hollins University. And, it is the many memories of Steven that have brought me into the non-fiction genre. Thanks to the support and encouragement of my peers and professors, I am well into a memoir that I believe may be marketable. I also hope it can help others who deal with the loss of a loved-one to violence. My experience is that the grieving process is as individual as where a person's freckles appear on [her] face; totally unique and personal. I don't believe in time limits or standards for grieving; however, all too often we are made to feel as if we need to "shape up" and "get on with life." Empathy and compassion can be too short lived and the person who is mourning is left alone before they have been able to fully process how their life has changed.

During the conversation we had that I refer to above, Steven and I also made promises to each other in the event of our deaths. Whoever was left behind had to take some of the other's ashes to the Grand Canyon (we were raised in Flagstaff, Arizona) and to Barbados, West Indies (where we lived a few times while my father was on sabbatical for research). Last year, I was able to take some of Steven's ashes to Arizona. This summer, I will finish fulfilling my promise to him by taking his remaining ashes to Barbados. I will be able to complete the final phase of my memoir after that experience.

I would not be able to complete this mission on my brother's behalf without your gift. You have truly helped me with my work and my promise.

On the day that Steven died, two other men died and one was seriously wounded. My understanding is that two others were at AA meetings, and one was doing lanudry in the basement with his headphones on. Steven had been cooking dinner for all of them when the gunmen kicked in the door. Four of them were found in the living room, sitting close enough to be holding hands. One had fainted and three were dead.

The positive news is that the medical examiner stated that all of the men living in that house were clean and sober. All were succeeding. It makes me think of the old quote, "A lone man together is just that, a man. Put him with others and he becomes part of an army." I don't know who wrote that, but the truth is that Steven had found his army after many years of personal disappointment. I feel as if I have a wonderful opportunity to honor his last request and the men he lived and died with by writing about them.

So, thank you. This may well be much more information than you need or want, but it helps me show my gratitude, of which I have so much right now.

Elizabeth Matthews Jones
Hollins Horizons '10


  1. Her gratitude, even in the midst of a personal loss, is expressed so eloquently. I look forward to reading her memoir.

  2. What an inspiring story to read on a rainy morning. Thank you for posting, Dan.