Matthew T. Cunningham

Matthew T. Cunningham

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Matthew T. Cunningham passed away peacefully in his home at the age of 34. He was born in San Francisco, California. He grew up in the Central Valley of both Oakdale and Modesto. He joined the U.S. Army at the age of 18 and served for 12 years until he was medically retired.

Although he had been battling brain cancer for nine years, Matthew enrolled full time in a Masters Degree program for counseling/psychology at Saint Martins University. Unfortunately, his tumor was too aggressive and after the third recurrence he had to drop out of the program just shy of two classes of receiving his Masters degree.

Matthew was a very funny, sarcastic and caring man who was always supportive of his family and friends. He enjoyed baseball, always rooting for the San Francisco Giants, riding his quad, going to shows and concerts, traveling (always up for an adventure!), and of course hanging with his best friend Dale Lillie, getting rowdy every Matturday.

The family wishes to thank all of Matthew’s friends, relatives and colleagues who have loved and supported him throughout the years. We would also like to acknowledge and say thank you to his physicians, health professionals and the hospice staff for the outstanding care that they provided.

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 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 on his second tour of duty. He told her to sit down, and explained that he had a brain tumor. He told her the Army was sending him first to Kuwait and next 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 only one request: He wanted to meet his boss, President George W. Bush.

Teri Cunningham went to see the colonel in charge of the hospital, hoping for, if nothing else, a note or letter of encouragement and support from the President. It was a Thursday. The following Monday,arriving at the hospital she noticed security could not have been tighter. She was searched. Bomb-sniffing dogs sniffed. A S.W.A.T. team was positioned outside.

The next morning, a visitor arrived and asked to see Matthew, who, with his head still bandaged from surgery, leaped to his feet and saluted. The man representing the President came to tell Matthew that President Bush would be dropping by shortly after 1 pm. At 1:09 pm that day, President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, accompanied by about 20 staff and Secret Service agents, came down the hall to Matthew’s room. President Bush gave Matthew a presidential challenge coin. They chatted briefly before the President went on to visit other soldier patients.

Matthew remained on active duty until 2011, when he was retired. 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, WA, which presented him his diploma shortly before he died, November 21, 2013.

In 2015 family members and longtime friend, Dale Lillie 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.

Matthew had 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.

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