Mother returns son to the ocean he loved

Matthew Conway’s memorial is was placed offshore of Key Largo.
Matthew Conway’s memorial is was placed offshore of Key Largo.

It was a gorgeous day in Fiji.

The attractive blond woman found the perfect place on the beach framed by the blue water, palm trees and white sand to continue her tribute to the memory of her son.

She gently spread a small amount of his ashes into the water and then, using small bits of dried coral, carefully wrote the name Matthew in big block letters on the sand.

The woman, Pamela Stewart Conway of Islamorada, was continuing her quest to honor the memory and celebrate the life of her son, Matthew Martin Stewart Conway. Matthew, a student at the Marine Mechanic Institute in Orlando, and a life-long resident of Seminole County, passed away on Nov. 7 2015 when he was only 22 while visiting his mom and friends in Islamorada.

The quest to honor the memory of Matthew shared by his father, Tom Conway of Sanford, Fla., his sister Brieanne Conway of Islamorada, and numerous friends has led to Matthew’s ashes and memory being spread as far as the South Pacific, and bodies of water in Florida Arizona, California and even a lake in North Dakota.

Matthew loved being in and on the water. He would say, “I love anything to do with the ocean!”

Matt wanted to be a firefighter and originally went to Seminole State College but then decided to go to the Marine Mechanic Institute. “He had a great ability with his hands and wanted to work on boats,” said his mother Pam. “Sadly, he had just been at the institute a few months before he died.”

Matthew was an avid scuba diver, learning the sport at a very young age and holding advanced and nitrox certifications. He was talented at spear fishing and lobster hunting. He also was an accomplished surfer and enjoyed paddle and wake boarding.

Pam’s mother passed away in February of 2011. At the time, Pam researched companies that put human ashes into to structures designed be placed on the ocean floor and become artificial reefs that attract fish and other forms of sea life.

Matt was very enthusiastic about the idea and said that if something ever happened to him he would want his remains to be placed in a similar manner.

He loved turtles. I am sure he is pleased with his final resting place.

His ashes are in a beautiful memorial that rests in sheltered area surrounded by colorful sea fans and schools of fish in the clear water off the Florida Keys. The memorial, a swimming sea turtle next to a starfish, has a plaque that reads:” Matthew Conway, Aug. 7, 1993 to Nov.7, 2015. You are now one with the ocean that you love so much.”

The story behind the memorial is testament to how Key’s residents come together when a friend or neighbor is going through difficult times.

In addition to her son Matthew, Pam, a realtor, has lost three brothers and a mother and her father. Fortunately, she has loving friends and relatives that gave her emotional support and help when she lost Matthew.

A celebration of his life was held at the Marker 88 restaurant in Islamorada on Nov. 12, 2015. “The restaurant was filled,” said Pam. She spread Matthew’s ashes from the dock but, “saved some because there would be other places — places that Matt liked and the family had visited.”

Matthews ashes were also spread into the water during memorials held at the Flagler Avenue Ramp in New Smyrna Beach and at JB’s Fish Camp.

Matthew’s dad, Tom, continued the journey of spreading Matthew’s ashes in several locations in Arizona and California including: The Grand Canyon; Tesuque Creek, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Sedona, Arizona; Morro Bay, Santa Cruz, the Golden Gate Bridge, Pismo Beach, Stinson Beach, Monterey and Napa, California.

Matthew’s friend and local Keys resident, Hunter Slate, spread some of Matthew’s ashes in Spear Fish Lake in North Dakota.

Pam has purchased more than 30 necklaces with lockets in which to place small amounts of Matthew’s ashes. She plans to give them to give his friends. “His memory will live on and he will continue to travel the world,” she said.

According to Pam, the memorial placed off the Keys was purchased by her friend Annette Robertson at the Eco-Green Garden Center in Ramrod Key. “It's actually a base for a coffee table. We drilled a hole and put his ashes inside,” Pam said. “The bronze plaque was ordered online.”

Another short service, attended by Pam, Tom and several friends was held when Matthew’s memorial was lowered into the water off the Keys on Nov. 6, 2016.

That wasn’t the end of the story.

It turns out that Matthew’s ashes were blessed by monks of the Drepung Gomang monastery of Southern India who were in the Keys for a “Keys to Peace program” — a grassroots organization building an awareness and practice of peace through education and community activities.

“When the Tibetan Monks were here last year, they blessed Matthew's ashes and I was able to spread them with the mandala sand they released to the ocean,” said Pam. “It's a very sacred ceremony. It was late on a Sunday afternoon. The sun set just a few hours later.”

The group of monks had created the sand mandala (the Tibetan mandala is a drawing made of sand used for gaining wisdom and compassion and generally is depicted as a tightly balanced, geometric composition wherein deities reside) on the floor of the Parish Hall of St. James the Fisherman Episcopal Church.

The sand mandala is ritualistically dismantled once it has been completed and its accompanying ceremony and viewing symbolize the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.

“The mandala sand and some of Matthew’s ashes were released into the bay waters at Stone Ledge Motel in Key Largo,” said Pam

The monks conducted a “fire puja,” a Buddhist ritual to purify the environment, bestow blessings on the participants, and promote world peace and harmony at the Islander Resort.

Pam also loves the sea. She is originally from Brooksville, Florida and grew on Weeki Wachee River. Before moving here in 2011, she had been coming to the Keys, especially Islamorada, since the late ‘70s.

How did Pam end up in Fiji to spread Matthews ashes? Her Friend Annette Robertson invited her to join an organization called the Shark Angels who was making the trip. Pam found the ideal spot, spread the ashes, and gathered bits of bleached coral to write her son’s name in the sand.

Shark Angels in a non-profit organization that uses innovative education and advocacy programs to protect sharks. (http://sharkangels.org/who-we-are/about-shark-angels)

Anyone who has suffered the emotions of dealing with the loss of a child knows how painful the experience is. Pam has responded with dignity, grace and purpose.

As I sat marvelled by Pam’s story, I asked her how her efforts to honor the memory of her son Matthew have affected her.

“It has been very emotional but I am more at peace each time I spread the ashes,” She said.

Like many water sports enthusiasts I have thought about where I would like my final resting place to be. I think Matthew Conway made the right choice.

I am certain he looks down on his parents, sister and friends and thanks them for the extraordinary way his short but eventful life is being honoured.

Matthew certainly left an indelible impression on all those he encountered. He certainly will be remembered.

Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 30 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier five years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers. He can be reached at donrrhodes@gmail.com.