As uncomfortable as this is to admit, I occasionally think about my kids dying. It’s something I hate to ponder; something I squeeze out of my cranium ASAP. But still, sometimes, it creeps in there. How would I respond? Could I go on? Would I have the will to live? Even now, as I type the words, it’s painful. My children are, truly, my everything. Without them, well, what do I have left? Four years ago, on an awful afternoon in May in North Branford, Connecticut, Lynn Riordan experienced every parent’s absolute worst nightmare. Her son, Matt Picciuto, was killed in a car accident not far from his Connecticut home. He was 18, and driving too fast, too recklessly along Totoket Road when he crashed into a tree. This is what his vehicle looked like in the immediate aftermath … Wanna learn about strength? About decency? Despite the pain and despite the heartbreak, Lynn Riordan wants young drivers to look at the above image. She wants them to stare and stare and stare some more, and imagine themselves driving too fast, losing control, spiraling out of control, ruining everything. She has decided to take her son’s death and discover a positive. That’s why she started Matt’s Mission, a charitable foundation with the purpose of promoting safe driving. That’s why she’s this week’s incredible, stronger-than-steel Quaz. Lynn Riordan, welcome … JEFF PEARLMAN: How do you continue? How do you go on? You seem to have this amazing strength and ability to take a parent’s worst nightmare and, in a sense, do something with it. Lynn, how? LYNN RIORDAN: Prior to Matthew’s death, I use to say to my kids when they left the house, “Please be careful. If anything ever happens to you, I will not survive.” It was just my way of wanting my kids to think so they would come home safe. As soon as I heard about Matthew’s accident, I called my mother and sister. I asked them to come to my house to be with my girls—Elise, then 16, Alexa, then 13, and Mea (MEA—M=Matt, E=Elise, A=Alexa), then 3. When I called the house to tell my mom and sister that Matt had died, I could hear my daughter Elise saying “Don’t leave him there, tell my mom she can’t leave him alone.” The she said, “My mother is not going to survive this. Nanny, you don’t understand, my mom is not going to survive.” I am able to continue and go on because I am a mother. I have three children who need me and a wonderful husband who deserves his wife. I have a lot of life left to live and I want to be happy and have a good life. J.P.: I’d love to know who Matt Picciuto was; what he was like. Was he a sports kid? A shy kid? Did he get in trouble? Was he an angel? Likes? Dislikes? In short, who was Matt? L.R.: Matt was a smart, handsome and loving person. He made himself available to his family and was always willing to help out a friend. At 18 he still enjoyed visiting his grandmother or playing games with his uncle. Family was very important to Matt. He was funny and a go-to guy if his friends were having a bad day. He was not a risk taker due to the fear of getting hurt. Although he wished that was not the case. Therefore, although he wished to be good at skiing, skate boarding or skim boarding, he was not proficient with any activities such as these. He played sports—baseball, soccer and hockey. He was very competitive and was happy like most boys with a ball of some sort in his hand. Matthew eventually quit playing sports as all of his classmates grew and he was no longer one of the better players due to his size. It became a decision he regretted since he had a huge physical growth spurt between his 17th and 18th years. He was 5-foot-11 at the end. Matt did not really get into trouble. He got caught smoking a few times, a habit I completely detest. He tried alcohol a few times and, well, let’s just say that did not work out to well. I am sure he lied a few times if he thought I would be upset with him. Let’s face it, who likes to disappoint their parents? Matt hated when I cried. Therefore it is safe to say Matt was not an angel but he certainly is now. Matt was loyal—a very good character trait. He could light up a room with his smile. He disliked being hungry. Talk about cranky! Matt’s wake was the largest in the history of Porto Funeral Home. That is due to the fact that he was friends with many different friend groups and with classmates of all ages. I can still hear him say “snitches get stitches”—he would never tell on a friend. He did well in school but could have done better—he was very smart, but at times lazy. Matt was my son. I love and miss him very much.J.P.: I know this is painful, but what can you tell us about that day? How did you find out? How did you process it? L.R.: Saturday, May 23, 2009 was a beautiful spring day. That morning Matt did a lot of chores for me. He showered and we had a nice talk about a variety of different things. During our conversation Matt asked how I would feel about him enlisting in the Air force considering his acceptance to Southern Connecticut State. The question gave me a lump in my throat and I began to cry. He asked me why I was crying. I said, “Because I can’t imagine you going away for a long period of time without being able to see you.” Matt said, “Don’t worry, Mom, I’m not going to enlist because I can’t imagine getting hurt and coming home maimed and broken to you.” Matt drove out of our driveway at 1:15. Regretfully I didn’t say I love you before he drove away. While gardening I heard sirens. It was 2 o’clock. Although Matt had only left the house 45 minutes before, I can’t explain it, but I knew something had happened to him. I called him, there was no answer. I sent him a text—“You okay?” There was no response and I knew. Very shortly after hearing the sirens Detective McNamara came to my house. He had the horrible job of delivering the news of the accident to me and my family. Unfortunately for him, it was not before he witnessed the devastation on Totoket Road himself. My husband started yelling, “Lynn, we have to go! Matt’s been in an accident!” I ran to the front of the house, grabbed Detective McNamara by his shirt and asked him if my son was dead. He said, “Leave your girls at home and get to the hospital as quickly as you can.” Only a few miles from our home Matt was being extricated from his car by the fire department. He was not breathing and he did not have a pulse. A choice was made to revive my son and I will be grateful for that decision for the rest of my life. If Matt were declared dead in his car on Totoket Road, a tarp would have been thrown over him and he would have been left there, possibly waiting for hours for the medical examiner to arrive, only then to be taken to Farmington for an autopsy. I cannot begin to image that scenario. If that had happened I would not have been given what I call the gift of time—the last little bit of time that I had with my son at the hospital. Thanks to the North Branford Police Department, the North Branford Fire Department and Yale New Haven Hospital emergency room staff, I was given that gift. Due to their hard work and dedication, I know without a doubt that everything possible was done to try and save my son and that does bring me peace. Feeling helpless as we drove out of our driveway and down our street en route to the hospital; I knew our lives would be changed forever. I can still see Alexa and Elise, with Mea on her hip, standing at our front door with panic in their eyes. As my husband drove me to the hospital; I remember begging and pleading with God; praying that Matt would be OK. My child was in an accident and hurt. Believe me, it is your parents’ worst nightmare, too. I know it was and continues to be mine every time Elise and Alexa drive out of our driveway. At the hospital the emergency room staff took me to my son. CPR was being performed. There were so many people in the trauma room trying to save Matt. After looking at him I knew he would not survive. I announced to everyone in the room, “I know my son is dying but can you please work on him for a few more minutes?” Just as your parents would do, I ran to Matt’s side. I encouraged him to fight. I told him he could do it, that it was just a car and that everything was going to be all right. However, when I looked at Matthew, there was no life left in his eyes. I could not believe this was happening. Through my tears I remember telling Matt that I was not angry; that I knew it was an accident and that he did not intend for this to happen. I told him he was a great son and that I would love him forever. Everyone became very quiet and at 2:52 the time of my son’s death was called. I held Matt and told him how much I love him. I needed him to know what a wonderful person I thought he was. I cleaned him and gave him one more kiss before saying goodbye. I was forced to leave my son at the hospital knowing he would be all alone and going to the morgue. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but I had to get home to Elise, Alexa and Mea. While trying to make sense of the senseless, I have spent the last four years telling Matt’s story hoping to save lives—although unfortunately it is too late for him. Regardless of where I speak; at driving school, for MADD … I do my best to impact my audience so that they too will understand the consequences of impulsive, dangerous and potentially deadly decisions. In my attempt to understand the events of May 23, I took a ride to Totoket Road. I was very lucky to run into a gentleman who not only heard the crash but who was the first person who attempted to help my son. This man walked me through the accident at my request and only then did I get it. Between stories told to me by Matt’s friends and this man from Totoket Road, I finally understood the shocking details that lead to my son death. When I left Totoket Road, I felt sorry for this man because of what he was forced to witness. There is no way he will ever forget. I went home with a pit in my stomach, an ache in my heart and an overall overwhelming sadness. I could not believe what Matthew had done. I have learned a lot since the death of my son. I learned that Totoket Road is the place to go if you want to catch air. I know that kids actually travel from other towns for this need for speed and the thrill of this experience. Apparently kids have been taking joy rides down Totoket Road for years. I can’t count the times I have heard people say, “Matt was just the unlucky one”.
J.P.: The mission statement for your charity, Matt’s Mission, reads: “To raise funds to aide local students in need; to encourage everyone to slow down and to drive safe while raising awareness to the consequences of destructive driving decisions.” Lynn, why do you think—even after so many accidents through the years—young people continue to drive so recklessly? And is there really a way to stop the behavior? L.R.: No–there is no way to stop this behavior. I don’t understand it … lack of brain development? Kids think it is never going to happen to them. I don’t get it. I think if you are afraid to ski because you might get hurt—how are you not afraid to drive fast? J.P.: You have a 19, 17 and 7-year-old daughters. How does a parent change when she loses a child? L.R.: I am more afraid that something is going to happen to one of my children. When I hear sirens and my kids aren’t home, I have to check-in. I do my best not to be protective and for them to live their lives. When Elise and Alexa got their licenses, I was scared to death. Let’s put it this way—I sleep well when everyone is home. I try not to sweat the small stuff (messy rooms) knowing how fragile life can be but I believe I push my kids just as hard as I would have otherwise. I always did and will continue to tell my kids how much I love them. J.P.: What’s your life background? I know you live in Connecticut, I know you work as a radiation therapist at Shoreline Medical Center in Guilford. But how did you get here? What’s your life path? L.R.: On November 10,1963 I was born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. At the age of seven, I moved to the United States with my parents, three sisters and brother. Living in Milford, Connecticut, I graduated from Milford High School in 1981. After that I went to school to become a radiologic technologist and then a radiation therapist at South Central Community College. I graduated in 1986. I lived in Orange for many years and moved to North Branford in 2004. Since then I have been working as a radiation therapist in Radiation Oncology at the Shoreline Medical Center in Guilford. Simple things—such as gardening, competing with my neighbors over whose grass is greener and hanging out by my pool—make me happy. My favorite time of year is anytime on vacation with my family and friends. Although I have exercised my entire life, 9Round kickboxing is a passionate favorite. My greatest accomplishment, hands down, is being a mother to Matt, Elise, Alexa and Mea. I am very proud of my children and grateful to be sharing this journey called life with them. I would not be who I am today without the love and support of my wonderful husband Mark, to whom I have been married to for almost nine years. It would not be right if I did not also mention another family member—my dog Penny. She is a Cavapoo and very much adored. There was a time I could say I had it all. There was nothing in my life I needed or wanted to change. I honestly felt my life was absolutely perfect. That all changed on Saturday May 23, 2009, when my son Matthew died in a car accident. After suffering with the devastating loss and having experienced the amazing love and support of an entire community, my family and friends, I was inspired to establish Matt’s Mission Fund, a nonprofit organization which gives back to so many living North Branford. My future plans are to keep doing just what I am doing for many, many years to come. I love working at the Shoreline Medical Center. There is no greater pleasure than watching my kids grow and hanging out with my family and friends. Matt’s Mission Fund has grown bigger than I ever imagined. Yes, my plan is to keep doing just what I am doing for many years since one of my goals is to live to be 100. J.P.: This might be sort of a random question, but when tragedies like Sandy Hook happen, do you view them differently than you might have before May 23, 2009? Do they impact you differently? L.R.: They do not impact me as much as they would have otherwise. I don’t engage as much. If I did I would feel the parents’ pain while having an understanding for what they are going through as only people who have lost a child can. I know they are hurting and I also know they will feel better if that is what they choose. J.P.: How much of starting a charity is strictly about doing righteous deeds, and how much of it is about keeping your son’s memory and legacy alive? L.R.: Before Matt’s death I thought of getting involved with a charitable organization. I like to do for other people. I would say it is more important to keep my son’s memory alive. I have created the best of both worlds—I do for others and if I have anything to do with it, people will not forget my son. J.P.: It’s been four years. What do you think Matt would be doing today? And what do you think his future held? L.R.: Matt would be graduating from college as all of his friends are doing right now. Matt wanted to be a teacher. J.P: What advice would you give to others who lose children? What has helped ease the pain? What steps have you taken, in your own life, to carry on? L.R.: Unfortunately, there is no advice I can give other people. Although five people live in my house, we have all dealt with the pain in our own way. We are all on our own. What works for me doesn’t work for someone else. There is no advice that works and no quick fix to heartache. The love of my family, friends and community has helped me. I realize that my story is bad—but it could always be worse. The boys with my son could have been injured or died. He could have killed people he passed on the road that day. I look at the silver lining and go with it. I roll out of bed every day—that is a start. I then do the best I can. That is all any of us can ever do. QUAZ EXPRESS WITH LYNN RIORDAN: • Five reasons for one to make North Branford his/her next vacation destination?: Vacation in North Branford? I would not advise it. Matt’s Mission 5K road race is one of two big events that take place in town. Ha—great place to live, but vacation? No. • Hardest part about running a charitable foundation?: Delegating responsibility I find to be difficult. Worrying about the forecast since our big fundraiser is outside. Otherwise, running a nonprofit is a lot easier than I thought. • Do you think the current driving laws are working as they should?: I think the new laws are saving lives between the ages of 16 and 17. Unfortunately the death rate has gone up for 18-to-20-year olds. Stiffer penalties are in order. The police department needs to do away with the warning. If you get pulled over, you get a ticket. Hitting people in their purse seems to make people pay attention. • Greatest place you’ve ever visited on vacation?: Tough one … I would say going back to PEI Canada. It was both beautiful and emotional. • Strangest thing you’ve ever seen as a radiation therapist?: If you said sad, that would be easy. Strange, hmm—I don’t have an answer. • Best joke you know?: I am the worst joke teller. Again, I am at a loss. Consider yourself lucky. Hahaha • Should the Yankees stick with Lyle Overbay at first?: I don’t follow baseball. I could ask my brother Stephen—he is a huge Yankee fan. • Five things always in your purse?: Wallet, ChapStick, calendar, pen, eye glass case. • You wake up at 6 o’clock every morning. Why?: I have become a morning person. Sometimes I get up earlier … For example, on Mother’s Day I was up and out at 5:45 gardening in the rain. I stayed in the backyard so my neighbors would not think I am nuts.