"Mattie," I joked with him, "you have at least until you're 17. We've had the signs." Mattie was born on the 17th day of the month, in the 17th minute of the 17th hour (5:17 p.m.), measuring 17 inches and weighing 2,017 grams, and I had always used that to calm his fears—not to mention hang on to it myself as if it were a prophecy. Mattie nearly died minutes after he was born. Seventeen years of age sounded pretty good.
He wouldn't let it go, though. "Maybe I wanted to have kids," he said, "because you want to leave behind lessons, leave behind everything that matters to you. That's how you touch the world. But I have to reconsider what it's like to leave a legacy. I think my life is the opposite of what it says on your coffee mug."
On my coffee mug it said, "I may have to grow old, but I don't have to grow up." Mattie said, "I think I may have to grow up without growing old." He went on: "I think we're going to have to define differently what I'm going to be. We're going to have to define my growing up differently.
"I want to be remembered as a poet, a peacemaker and a philosopher who played," he added after a pause. He had mentioned those things before in various contexts, and even at the pier in prior years. But that was the first time he had strung them together in a definitive way, underlined them, so to speak.
I didn't want to hear Mattie creating an epitaph. At the same time, I had to let him talk. His mortality was facing him, and I couldn't pretend otherwise. I had already shortchanged him earlier in the week.
Now I understood why he reacted so strongly a few days earlier when Nell had to go to the emergency room. He had been really worried, crying and praying for her, afraid that something was very wrong. I felt I understood at the time—Mattie's whole life was filled with loss, with visits to emergency rooms that ended with long stays in the hospital and life-altering compromises. But what I realized on the pier was that even while I was aware he was losing ground, he was sensing it in a way I wasn't able to see. As close as I could possibly be, I was an outsider looking in.