Mattie didn't have the strength to climb Jockey's Ridge, either, a massive sand dune in the middle of the Outer Banks that offers stunning views of the barrier island chain from the top. Park rangers drove us up in a jeep that year. He was still his charismatic self, chatting up the rangers and people who had hiked up to fly kites. But instead of turning cartwheels at the top, as he had done the year before, he sat on a lawn chair.

We treated all of Mattie's limitations as challenges to be gotten around rather than game changers. Of course anybody could see that they were. But my aim was to help Mattie live on a day-to-day basis as though the assaults on his body could always be taken in stride, that any new weakening or new machinery were just part of life rather than shifts that called life into question. I even managed to convince myself much of the time that no symptom of illness was something a combination of medical help, ingenuity and prayer couldn't overcome.

Mattie was ahead of me, though. Even on the first day of that vacation, he let me know. For fun, he went around asking everyone why they had come to the beach house that summer, either videotaping their responses or writing them down. It was all note-taking for the Unsavable Graces book. Everyone gave silly answers. Sandy said she came to learn Braille for a course she was taking and not get sick; the summer before, she had come down with an awful case of bronchitis and was laid up most of the time. Nell said she had been planning on thinking three deep thoughts but had already done that in the car so was at a loss as to what she was going to do the rest of the week. Chris said he was a plumber and had come to fix the sink, code for being on the hunt for pretty girls.

Then I turned the tables and asked Mattie what he was there for, figuring he'd give as ridiculous an answer as everyone else. But he just looked at me and said, "I really need to consider the meaning of life this summer, because life is changing."

Caught off guard and wanting to keep away from that subject, and not wanting to spoil the others’ fun, I chided him. "Mattie, we're all clowning around, and you're being serious and philosophical." Immediately, I saw the hurt in his eyes—and have regretted to this day the words that fell out of my mouth at that moment. He was headed someplace else, even on Day 1.

Mattie remained ahead of me, however. After that exchange, he kept what he needed to say bottled up throughout the week, making sure his words mirrored the general festive mood. He jumped into as much physical activity as he could handle. He participated in the practical jokes.

He played board games with the rest of us. Even when he had to take breaks more frequently than he used to, he would beg off joining in some group fun as casually as possible and go to his room to read or write poetry (and then end up falling asleep, even in the middle of the day—his fatigue was that overpowering). Not that he didn't truly enjoy himself to the hilt. He did. But it wasn't until our sunrise on the pier that he spoke his heart.
Excerpted from MESSENGER by JENI STEPANEK. Published by arrangement with New American Library (NAL), a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright©Jeni Stepanek, 2009.


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