You might say Matthew Cunningham planned his funeral right down to the orcas.
With years to prepare, he chose the spectacular scenery of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, north of Seattle. It is a stretch of earth where the water is deep blue and cold, and where mountains and forests rise to provide a natural backdrop. The perfect place, he decided, to someday spread his ashes.
“Majestic,” his mom, Teri Cunningham, called it.
That “someday” finally came this summer, and on Flag Day, June 14.
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First, the backstory. Matthew Cunningham spent most of his youth in Oakdale and Modesto, graduating from Davis High in 1997. His mom came home one day to find an Army recruiter in her front room, congratulating her for being the proud mother of the newest enlistee of the United States Army.
“I was going through a divorce,” Teri Cunningham said. “He said, ‘I just signed up for the Army.’ He said he didn’t want me to have the expense of paying for his college. He was (enlisting) for me. I was totally surprised. But I was very proud of him. He loved every moment of the Army. He planned on staying in and retiring from there.”
Seven years later, in November 2004, he called her from Iraq, where he was in his second tour of duty. He told her to sit down, explaining he had a brain tumor. He told her the Army would send him first to Kuwait and then on to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center stateside, where doctors planned to operate. Teri and her ex-husband, Thomas Cunningham, flew to Washington, D.C., to be at his side. When Matthew emerged from surgery, he had but one request, and not a simple one: He wanted to meet his boss, meaning President George W. Bush.
Teri Cunningham went to visit the colonel who ran the hospital, hoping for, if nothing else, a note or letter of encouragement and support from the president. That was on a Thursday. The following Monday, they arrived at the hospital. Security could not have been tighter. They were searched. Bomb-sniffing dogs sniffed. A SWAT team was outside.
The next morning, a visitor arrived. He asked to see Matthew, who, with his head still bandaged from surgery, leaped to his feet and saluted. The man represented the president and came to say that Bush would be dropping in shortly after 1 p.m. At 1:09 p.m. that day, Bush and wife Laura, accompanied by about 20 staff and Secret Service agents, came down the hall to his room. Bush gave Matthew a presidential coin and they chatted briefly before the president went on to visit other soldiers and patients.
Matthew remained active in the Army until 2011, when they retired him as he continued to battle the cancer. He lived his final years in Washington and fell in love with the water, the mountains and all the Pacific Northwest entailed. He earned a psychology degree from Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Wash., which presented him his diploma shortly before he died, Nov. 21, 2013.
Nearly two years passed before his final wishes were met. Family members and a longtime friend, Dale Lillie, were among those who made the trip in June. They chartered two boats at Friday Harbor and headed northwest around the tip of San Juan Island to a point on the map where Canada and the United States meet.
He’d left explicit instructions with his sister, Lisa, to scatter his ashes in a place where a pod of orcas is known to frolic. As the boats followed the shoreline, the group saw an eagle in her nest tending to young. They marveled at the beauty of the moment, knowing Matthew had in essence planned it all this way. Teri Cunningham went to the stern for a closer look.
“When we threw out the ashes, the orcas came from everywhere,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The tour guides see these orcas so often, they’ve named them, she said. When a mother and young calf swam together near the boat, she took it as a message.
“A mother and son – that’s what my son was showing me,” she said, her voice choking.
Indeed, Matthew planned his funeral right down to the orcas.