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.