His disappearance threw his mother, a retired Baltimore school principal, into her own vortex, one that involved State Department officials, middle-of-the-night overseas phone calls and a trip to Turkey to press for answers from representatives of Gaddafi’s government.
As winter turned to spring, there was no sign of Matthew. He had disappeared on a day of violence near the front line in eastern Libya, when rockets were exploding and those hit were left to die in the desert.
“There were people who said, ‘She doesn’t want to believe the truth, she doesn’t want to admit it,’ that he could have been shot,” said Sherry, 64.
But she and her blue-eyed, sandy-haired son shared a deep connection, and she said she could feel that he was still alive in the world.
On Wednesday, her belief was confirmed when Matthew, 32, walked out of a Tripoli prison and borrowed a cellphone to call home. He had been in solitary confinement for months, despite efforts by the U.S. government, international diplomats and human rights organizations to find him.
“I’m so relieved,” she said just after they’d spoken for the first time in nearly half a year and her vigil was finally over.
When Matthew returned in the coming days, she would show him the binders she had filled with clippings and e-mails about his disappearance and tell him of the hours she’d spent publicizing his plight. When Matthew returned, he was going to see just how hard his mother had worked to bring him home.
Tangle of contradictions
What was Matthew VanDyke doing in Libya?
His mother says he went there “to witness history in the making” and document it for a film and memoir he was working on. But it was more complicated than that.
He had earned a master’s degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 2004. Yet instead of pursuing a career in foreign policy or nongovernmental organization work, he decided to ride a motorcycle from Morocco to Afghanistan.
The journey would stretch over five years, paid for mostly by his trust fund and supplemented by his mother. Aside from some freelance writing, overseas stints teaching English and a tire sealant deal he had once helped to broker in Kurdistan, he had never held a job.
He was, by his own assessment, raised as a spoiled brat: His mother continued to do his grocery shopping and laundry even as he lived in a Dupont Circle concierge apartment that she paid for while he attended Georgetown. Her protectiveness may have stemmed from Matthew’s difficulties with obsessive-compulsive disorder. His condition manifested itself in a variety of ways, most recently as a fear of sugar and trash so severe that he would sometimes refuse to go outside for days. Yet it didn’t stop him from traveling to some of the world’s most dangerous places.