After a few turns around the bank of escalators that stood in the middle of the floor, he said he had the hang of it and was ready to "step" aside should anyone come toward him. I said okay, with misgivings, and the next thing I knew he was wheeling gleefully from the store into the mall exclaiming, "Mom, Mom, I did it! I backed out of someone's way!" At the same time, however, alarms were going off. It turns out that in backing up, he had hooked on to a lingerie cart and had left the store with a bevy of unpaid lady's undergarments in tow.

Because the pier was so long and because we had to go so slowly, it felt like we had been rolling hours out to the middle of the ocean by the time we reached the edge. In previous years, we'd make our way to the end of the pier holding hands and laughing, but not that day. In the dark that morning, Mattie started out quiet.

We began our talk the way we always did, with Mattie asking about his sister and brothers. "Tell me about Katie," he would implore. "Tell me about Stevie, about Jamie. Tell me about how Jamie took care of me, how I took care of him and became the big brother to him when he got sick." Mattie used to "read" to Jamie. Mattie couldn't speak when he was a toddler because the trach tube he had in his neck at the time limited the use of his vocal cords. But he got around it by communicating with American Sign Language. Jamie, for his part, couldn't see what Mattie was signing because two years before he died, he lost meaningful use of his vision. Yet Jamie would sit there and smile as Mattie signed for him the illustrated stories in children's books. They had found their own thin space between them.

These reminiscences were crucial to Mattie. When he was about 7 years old, he started crying hard, seemingly out of the blue, and when I asked him what was wrong, he told me he was beginning to lose his memories of Jamie. He remembered sitting in Jamie's bed and squeaking his little yellow caterpillar in his brother's ear after Jamie had lost use of his sight, Jamie smiling in response. And he remembered the two of them sitting in each other's chairs for fun and my reading to the two of them together, and Jamie's little white casket with the contents I put in that he would take with him to Heaven—but not much more, and it frightened him as well as saddened him to be losing touch with memories he held sacred.

He was saddened, too, about not having known Katie or Stevie, and would tell me on the pier that he missed not ever getting to hear them laugh, or to kiss or touch them. In 1993, when Stevie would have turned 6, Mattie told me he did not know whether to sing a nursery rhyme for the baby Stevie was when he died, or to talk about fishing and other life discoveries that would have interested the little boy Stevie would have become by then. Mattie was 3 at the time.

When Mattie finished talking about his siblings, he asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was part of our pier ritual, our way of moving by degrees from what was to what will be. And I always told him the same thing—that I wanted to be 83. He would laugh and respond by saying that you couldn’t be a number, and I'd answer, "Okay, then, I want to be a beach chair philosopher, thinking deeply by the ocean and sharing thought-provoking stories."
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.


Next Story