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4:52 on Christmas Morning

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Sarah, Grace, and Lily Badger in 2010.  

We are sitting on a ledge across from a sushi shop near the Fulton Street subway station. He is chewing Nicorette gum and smoking at the same time. He opens up his MacBook Pro. His cigarette ash flies like dusty snow, landing on his computer screen, where 5 million pixels come together to form what is left of them. Here is Lily. Here is Gracie. Here is Sarah. Here he is in India with Abby two months ago. His friend Kevin had orchestrated a meeting with the Dalai Lama, and here is the Dalai Lama putting his hands around Matt’s head, pressing his head against his. Matt is crying in the photo, he is crying now. Here is where they spread some of the girls’ ashes, a craggy, foggy hill, where, Matt says—and he knows how it will sound—afterward three white dogs came suddenly to sit with them, beautiful, not mangy. Here is Gracie, here is Sarah, here is Lily. Here is all that is left of his family, this past summer in the Rockies, the moon rising over the Columbia River, which flows all the way to the Pacific and into which they’d released more ashes, mingling them with his older brother’s, who fell dead of a heart attack fifteen years ago. He closes his computer, and we walk down the stairs into the station. He says he does not think there will be any more spreading of the ashes that remain.

We are on the train. Across, an old woman is reading Patricia Cornwell. He is looking down. Last weekend was very bad. The grief comes without warning, suddenly, overtaking his body. It is like sucking in seawater. The foundation, he says, is his daughters. If it fails, and now he is practically whispering, quietly crying, sitting in a crowded subway car heading uptown around lunchtime, looking down, fondling a business card, the image of the three of them laughing on one side, the color pink and the lettering of the LilySarahGrace Fund on the other, his hands shaking—

We are heading to an appointment with one of two therapists who are coordinating his treatment. He is sorry, but it was already scheduled, and he is not inclined to cancel it. It will only be 45 minutes. On the sidewalk, a large woman is pushing a stroller with a baby gumming on his fist. We turn another corner, and there are more children playing. We go through the revolving doors into the building, and he says he’ll be back soon. He does not come down from the psychiatrist for more than two hours.

On the day of the funeral, the police closed three lanes of Fifth Avenue. Nearly 1,000 mourners packed St. Thomas Episcopal Church, from celebrities Madonna and Matt had worked with—Calvin Klein, Vera Wang, Philip Seymour Hoffman—to people like Keith Edwards, a 54-year-old from Flatbush who knew the family only via coverage of its destruction and who, the Times reported, reached out to touch Matt as he made his way into the church, telling him, “Brother, I love you.” The story of what happened at 2267 Shippan Avenue—five family members of a prominent New York businesswoman taken all at once in a monstrous fire at a picturesque waterfront Victorian in the early morning hours of Christmas Day—seemed both an immense tragedy and a grotesque allegory: What would you do? How could you go on? What could explain it?

Wreaths and Christmas trees still decorated the soaring French Gothic sanctuary of the church. From eight stories up, small candles hung near the end of each pew. And this was what the Reverend William Shillady wanted them all to know, the girls’ three mahogany caskets before him, each, in the words of the Post, “only slightly larger than the storage boxes we used to put away our holiday decorations”: that God was only good. “Too often, we fall back on simplistic phrases, like ‘It’s God’s will,’ ” Shillady said. “God’s heart was the first to break on Christmas morning.” Madonna and Matt sat next to each other in a front-row pew, flanked on either side by their partners, the scene a fun-house reflection of the time almost a decade ago, after they’d first had Lily, when, overwhelmed, they’d felt compelled to visit and sit in churches at random throughout the city.

Matt has come to see inexorability in everything that has happened to him. So that, as he realized in a group-therapy session several years prior, it was his father’s death of a heart attack when he was 4 that propelled the rest of his life. His mother, devastated, moved Matt and his two older brothers from Concord, Massachusetts, to London, to earn her Ph.D. in childhood psychology. He struggled in middle-class Highgate Village, his dyslexia interpreted as stupidity, his expulsion from boarding school thus foretold. He and his mother moved back to Boston together when he was 16. He graduated from high school in 1982, played in a ska band called Mission Impossible, enrolled in night school at UMass-Boston, became a housepainter, acted out sexually, abused drugs and alcohol, and arrived one night at the hospital with his heart stopped from a heroin overdose. So that he got sober at 25, after following a girlfriend to New York, and began film classes at the New School. So that he ended up being introduced to a woman named Madonna Johnson.


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