Wife's LIE death leaves new dad with bittersweet task
The last time Matt Polashek saw his wife, she looked asleep in the crumpled passenger seat of their vehicle.
Or maybe she was knocked out by the sickening crash into the disabled, empty pickup truck on the side of the Long Island Expressway.
All Matt knew, he said, before he wrenched his injured body out of the wreck, was that Stacie looked peaceful.
It was only later, after he woke from his first surgery to see her father and brother by his bed, that Matt got the news: Stacie, 33, the mother of their 3-month-old son, had been killed in the crash.
Matt had fallen asleep at the wheel.
Five months later, Matt, 39, and the baby are back in the family's Queens apartment, where Matt searches for ways to keep Stacie's memory alive for his son as he deals with his own sense of guilt.
"What it comes down to is, I wasn't doing my job," he said. "Stacie was asleep, she trusted me with her life, and I let her down."
'Pieces of the same puzzle'
Matt Polashek and Stacie Wolf got married on Feb. 12, 2011, about a year after the two teachers met online -- so perfectly matched that Stacie's brother called them "two pieces of the same puzzle."
And then there was a third piece. Gerald Leeland Polashek -- nicknamed "PoBoy," for "Polashek Boy" -- was born on March 27, 2013.
A picture of the new family in the delivery room shows Matt in a surgical mask, holding a swaddled Gerald next to Stacie, beatific as she gazes at the baby from the operating table.
It is Matt's only picture of the three together.
No apology necessary
"I'm so sorry."
It was the first thing Matt said to his wife's mother from his hospital bed through his tears.
"I told him, 'Matt, I don't think you woke up that day and said, what could I do -- let me crash the car and kill my wife?' " said Daryl Boroff Wolf. "That's what the word 'accident' was invented for. I don't want you apologizing to me."
No criminal charges were filed in the July 7 crash. Stacie and Matt had been headed home from a late night in Greenport, where Matt, a musician, was working as a sound engineer for a pop band.
But about an hour into the drive, as they pushed into Holtsville, Matt dozed off, only jolting to awareness as his tires rolled over the rumble strips on the side of the LIE.
It was just in time for him to see a red pickup truck parked directly in his path.
"I jammed the wheel over as hard as I could, and hit the brakes, but it wasn't enough," Matt said. "I hit that thing. And I hit it hard."
The impact crushed the front end of their SUV, while the pickup was launched toward the woods.
The dashboard pushed Matt's right femur through his pelvis, breaking it along with four ribs. Something hit his right eye, fracturing the socket, tearing the retina and leaving his pupil permanently dilated.
Stacie, who was trapped on the passenger side, suffered severe blunt force trauma. She never regained consciousness and died at the scene.
A constant reminder
Matt sees Stacie in the curve of Gerald's face and his soft curls and the way he holds his hands. And in his easy smile that pushes dimples into his cheeks and exposes his tiny teeth. Stacie was always smiling, too.
Gerald looks like Stacie, but how will the boy ever know the woman who couldn't look at a cat without wanting to adopt it, who searched for deer tracks as she gazed out the window on road trips, and who penned a note two days before her death in which she marveled at the intensity of her love for her infant son?
"That's a good question -- how do you tell him, show him?" Matt said, adding that he put up pictures of Stacie around the house, including in Gerald's nursery. "But that's not the whole story, you know? It's tough. He's going to grow up not knowing his mom."
Matt set up an email address for Gerald, where he sends memories about Stacie, and he writes notes in a book he intends to give to Gerald when he's older.
But a month ago, he suddenly realized he would also have to tell Gerald about how his mother died. Would the boy one day blame Matt, just as Matt blames himself?
"It weighs heavily on me," Matt said. "I'll have to figure out a way just to tell him."
Halloween was horrific, and Matt's afraid Christmas might be worse -- although he hopes the sting might be lessened by family. Although Stacie was Jewish, she loved the trappings of Christmas, and she wanted Gerald to grow up with both Jewish and Christian traditions.
"She was teaching me to sing the Hanukkah stuff, which I don't know yet," said Matt, who was raised Catholic. "It'll be tough. It'll be tough."
Secure on stage
Matt feels closest to Stacie when he's performing -- especially on the soprano saxophone, her favorite instrument.
Almost two months after the crash, when he still couldn't walk, he was wheeled onto the stage at The Cutting Room in Manhattan, where fellow musicians held a benefit for him and PoBoy.
A blue light shone on him -- his damaged eye couldn't handle the usual white spotlight.
He picked up the sax and began to play.
"As soon as I started playing, it was something else -- it was transportive," he said. "I could feel Stacie's presence."
On stage, he said, "I get to feel normal for a little bit."