A representative of Dutton Publishers graciously sent me a review copy of their new book entitled, Messenger: The Legacy of Mattie J.T. Stepanek and Heartsongs. I got the immediate impression that there would be something special about the book as soon as I looked at it, because tears inexplicably came to my eyes. I knew just a little of what it would be about, and the cover photo is touching, but that still doesn’t explain it.
The book is the remarkable story of Mattie Stepanek, whom you probably have heard of (but I hadn’t), the boy who became a messenger for world peace and a living testimony to the power of faith and the human spirit in overcoming enormous obstacles to living a full and productive life. Mattie was the fourth of four children who all suffered and died from a rare disease called Dysautonomic Mitochondrial Myopathy. He lived the longest, almost to 14, but his siblings died as infants or toddlers. His mother Jeni, the author of the book, has the adult onset form of the same disease.
Mattie possessed extraordinary intelligence and depth of spirit, and he was writing and selling books of poetry even as a child (I think all of them made it to the New York Times best-seller list), and he became a sought-after public speaker and TV talk-show personality, both for his message of peace and his advocacy for the needs of the severely handicapped. Yet despite his fame and remarkable accomplishments he remained an ordinary kid who liked his toys and who was a practical joker. His own self-description, and how he wanted to be remembered, was as “a poet, a peacemaker, and a philosopher who played.” Yet he also knew what it meant to suffer deeply and to struggle just to stay alive.
There’s a kind of sub-theme in the book, which became for me the main theme, and this is where the tears came from—because love makes me cry. This theme is the love between Mattie and his mother. It seems that the main intention of the book is to give the world a greater insight into the life and thought and struggles of this exceptional boy, and to show how his extraordinary life has left a lasting legacy through his message of peace and his Heartsong poetry (one’s “heartsong,” according to Mattie, was one’s reason of being, that which is the inner source of one’s peace, happiness, and hope). “When I take God’s message and combine it with my own… that’s my reason for being—my Heartsong.” His mother is Catholic and raised him in the faith, and that was the foundation of his life, the inspiration for his message, and his hope for eternal happiness.
For me, despite all the extraordinary things you will read about in the book, the most moving thing is the love of mother and son. Without complaint, his mother made immense sacrifices for him (you have to keep reminding yourself as you read that she is in a wheelchair just as Mattie is, but without all the complicated life-support equipment he needed at every moment). They were inseparable friends as well as mother and son, and they shared all the joys and sufferings, anxieties and hopes of life together. We are granted entrance into the sanctuary of their relationship, the way they planned and spent their days, they way they dealt with poverty and then fame, with the fragility of a life that could disappear with barely a moment’s notice. There were many times when Mattie’s situation became critical and his life hung in the balance, and Jeni endured many sleepless nights at his side. It is difficult even to write about; there’s so much there. You have to read the whole story (which is well-written and includes many photos) to get to know them both. And when you do, you will not be able to restrain the tears when you read: “At 1:35 PM on June 22, 2004, I felt the last beat from my son’s heart.”
The story is a kind of pilgrimage through suffering to joy, through uncertainty to hope. It is a triumph of a noble spirit housed in a diminutive child’s disabled body, a life that wouldn’t give up until God decreed the moment of his departure to the place of eternal peace.
I heartily recommend the book, but in conscience I do have to point out two things that are not in harmony with the Catholic faith. The first is a rather blithe dismissal of the teaching of the Bible concerning homosexuality (Mattie knew some “gay” people who, unbeknown to him, stuck a gay pride emblem on the back of his wheelchair; this was the occasion for bringing it up). This takes up about a page and is never referred to again, and should not have survived the editing process. The second is Jeni’s sterilization after Mattie’s birth. Even though this act is one of the moral absolutes that cannot be made good by any circumstance, we can at least understand the anguish of her decision. All her children were born with the fatal disease and died young from it, and all future children would, too. She made the decision right after giving birth, in a state of anxiety and fear, so I’m sure she could easily be forgiven, and I trust that she is reconciled with God and the Church. But a question must be asked: What if she had decided to be sterilized after her third child instead of the fourth? Then Mattie would never have been born and the world would never have known his unique gifts and contributions to humanity.
I want to conclude this review, however, on a more joyful note. The story is beyond merely “heartwarming,” though it is not calculated to be a tear-jerker in any melodramatic sense. It’s just a powerful, true story, told by one who lived it and who loved heroically, beyond the ordinary call of maternal duty and care. But if love makes you cry, you will cry. You will love Mattie and his mom (who doesn’t hesitate to admit her own shortcomings) and will be inspired by what a child, hanging by a thread to life, could do, could give, could endure, could enjoy—and how he loved life, people, and God so much.
I’d like to finish with a few lines from a poem Mattie had written to his mother for Mother’s Day, which she never saw till after he died, but which expresses something of his heartsong in relation to her, his gratitude for her love which helped make him the little miracle he was.For thirteen years, you’ve gently taught me, You’ve celebrated life with me and brought me Each strength and joy that a child could know, All guided with love—a maternal rainbow. It was God who made me to be who I am— A messenger with Heartsongs to offer His lambs, But then it was you who said ‘Yes’ to our Lord, And chose my first gift—the chance to be born… You shaped my being from God’s humble clay— You led me, inspired me, with wisdom each day… We’ve played and prayed through the storms and the good, Together we’ve grown just as God knew we would. And I am who I am, now, because of your touch— And for that I am grateful, and I love you so much…
Let love make you cry. Read about Mattie and his mom and the message. It will enrich your humanity and perhaps even open your heart a little more to God, who stands ready to write a song upon it.