It wasn't as if once he brought up living a truncated life, we abandoned all that was ritual in our visit to the pier. We still spoke, as we did every year, about choice—about how you can't choose whether you're going to have a disability, or your mother is going to be in a wheelchair, or your parents are going to be divorced or you're going to be so without means at times that you have to stand in line for handouts at a church food pantry. Mattie lived a life in which these and so many other things happened that would never have been anyone's choice that we made it a point to list the things you could choose: whether to talk about someone behind his back, whether to be your best self and do your best work, whether to focus on what you do have instead of what you don't, whether to go forward despite challenges or sink into despair.
We also assessed our week as we always did, reviewing all the practical jokes and shenanigans with everyone. We talked, too, about Mattie's poetry, which was so important to him.
But there was a new urgency about it, about the poetry and about the future. He said he needed to get his books of poems published. He had written several volumes of Heartsongs poetry by that point, "Heartsong" being a word he coined for himself to get at a person's essence—the longings and hopes and feelings that both describe and stir each of us. It is our charge, Mattie said, to take what we wish for in our Heartsong, package it in the best way we can and offer it to others. In giving the gift you want most, he felt, you get it back. Mattie's package was his poetry; his Heartsong, a passion for hope and peace that grows from happiness, in a life that medicine kept dictating held no promise of hope.
Mattie also said he needed to talk to his role model, Jimmy Carter, to find out "if I'm doing peace right," and that he needed to get his message of hope and peace on Oprah so that it could be spread.
He had been talking about these things for a while, but previously they had seemed like the kind of yearnings all kids feed off of sometimes. Now they sounded like goals for an adult who needed to figure out how to make them happen.
"Mom," he said, "I need to live everything that matters to me quickly. I need to do everything I want without growing old. If I can get my poetry published, it'll be like I'm having children." Mattie and I had talked in previous years about a person's creating something that lasts beyond his life span—his echo, his silhouette. That day, he was addressing it more as a plan than a philosophical musing.
Then he said, "I don't think I'm ever going to be back here. March 30 is a dark day for me."
I felt a kind of nauseating ache start to rise. My daughter, Katie, was only 20 months old when she died, but the day before, she put away all her toys and refused to play with them. "Bye-bye," she said. "All through."
"What are you talking about, Mattie?" I said. "You've always been on machines. There are tons of things that can still be done."
"No, Mom," he answered. "I don't see next July. I don't see this pier in my future." The pier marked time for us. It was a kind of punctuation mark to our lives, a breather to go over where we were at that point and how we were going to move forward, how we were going to celebrate. It was where we planned our "what nexts."
The pit in my stomach rose higher. "You've got summer camp next year," I told him, although it was more like pleading. "You've got holidays." After a moment, I added, "Do you think you're going to die on March 30? Because we'll watch. We'll take extra care to watch you around that time." I had debated whether to say it out loud, considering that if the thought remained unspoken, I might be able to hide it, keep it from having a chance to become reality.