Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mattie Stepanek

For a brief second on tv the other day, I caught a glimpse of Mattie Stepanek. I don't know if it was a preview of an upcoming program or what, but for the briefest of seconds he was there. And my eyes filled with tears before I was even able to absorb what I had seen. Mattie Stepanek, who died in 2004 at the age of fourteen after the proverbial 'brave battle' against a devastating disease. And he still has the power to make a sixty-one year old woman cry.

Who could forget this incredibly brave and talented boy and his short journey on this earth? He contributed more in his life than most people do in a normal span of years, and is still, five years later, remembered as a poet, a peace maker, and a philosopher. He wrote six bestselling books of poetry (Heartsongs), and one bestselling collection of peace essays. Mattie also had a rare form of muscular dystrophy that claimed the lives of his three siblings, and is shared by his mother, Jeni.

Ok, it could be said that he became a darling for the media, and his being cute as the dickens didn't hurt. But he had an awareness of the world that was well beyond his years and deserved to be spotlighted. His awareness of his own almost certain early death would knock most people flat, and yet he spent his years with a purpose, promoting peace and good will, and sharing his wit and wisdom on all human conditions with people of all ages. Oprah asked him in an interview when he was twelve: What do you know for sure, Mattie? And Mattie answered:

That our attitude is a choice. I believe we can decide to be miserable, to roll ourselves in the dirt and say, 'Hit me again.' But when we do that, we're missing out on so much! I know for sure that while it's great to have role models, we should never try to be anyone but ourselves. I know for sure that when we use words, not bombs, we all get peace. I know for sure that there's something bigger than the here and now—some people call it God, some call it Buddha, some call it Yahweh. I know for sure that we don't need to be afraid of death, because we'll be greeted by something better on the other side. And I know for sure that life is a gift to be treasured—and that we must always live it to the fullest.

How was a twelve year old boy able to say all this, how did he articulate it in exactly those words in a conversation before a national audience? Yes, he'd shown an innate talent from a very early age, recording poetry before he could even 'write'. But I think that you have to look to his mother. Having been dealt one of the cruelest hands in life, unknowingly passing the gene for this disease on to four children and not being diagnosed with the condition herself until adulthood, she had to have found a well of courage and peace within herself and passed it on to Mattie in her words and actions. Can you even begin to imagine? And yet she is has a doctorate degree in early childhood education, and is a noted and award winning motivational speaker on topics such as bereavement, spirituality, and living with a disability. Above all of this, she is a mother who has lost four children ... and who not only encouraged and enabled her son Mattie to have hope, but continues even today to live life to the fullest, and to honor the memory of her son by keeping his story and his message alive.

Let me say here that I have not read any of Mattie's books, though I've seen a poem here and there, and of course saw him on 'Oprah' and 'Good Morning, America', and probably read an article in People and many articles after his death. I'm also not in the least bit religious or spiritual. But Mattie touched my heart, and, as shown by my gut reaction when I saw his picture the other day, he is still in there.

So, during this season of peace and love, this season of memories of family and friends, I'd like to give a shout out to Mattie. Your messages touched so many people, Mattie, and continue to touch and inspire them today. I can only imagine what treasures you would have contributed had you lived.


lakeviewer said...

Wow! I had not heard or seen Mattie, or his story. Truly inspirational. You asked me about the memories I have, whether they are mine, or come from other sources. I believe they are combinations of all these things. My eldest brother wrote a memoir that mentions some things about me, his little sister, and those things are now part of my memories too.

I find that when my own children come together they bring out stuff from their childhood, things I said or did, that I don't remember at all.

We shape our memories in many ways.

Jeanie said...

Mattie was indeed an inspiration and a lesson in how attitude shapes us. Thanks for bringing his words back to my mind.

Bernie said...

Mattie was and remains an me he had a way about him that too this day I cannot describe....he was a very special little boy with a gift like no other I have seen before or since. I have read one of his book of poems and am still in awe.
His mother is quite ill right now but she too is lovely person though she doesn't have that special light as Mattie did, nobody does.
Have a great Sunday...:-) Hugs

Ron said...

Can't talk long, but just wanted to send you some love from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam! Hope you're well.

Wendy said...

OK, I totally missed learning about this kid, probably because I never watch daytime tv. We'll have to head to the library tomorrow and find some of his books. Seems like a good person for a homeschool biography.

I can't even imagine the groundedness that would require.

Jeni Stepanek said...

Thank you for writing about my son, and even me, in such a beautiful way. You mentioned that I proudly, though humbly, carry the torch of Mattie's life and legacy. Last month, a book I wrote about my son was released. It is titled "Messenger: The Legacy of Mattie J.T. Stepanek and Heartsongs." The stories and details of Mattie's life take readers on a journey through wit and wisdom, celebration and spirituality, blessings and burdens. I hope that readers choose to not only read the story, but to encourage others to read the book as well. Mattie was an ordinary human being, who made extraordinary choices during his brief life, and that serves as an example to each of us, inspiring us to do the same. Visit his website ( for more information.
In hope and peace,
Jeni Stepanek, Ph.D.
"Mattie's mom"

Lorna said...

How appropriate to help us remember Mattie this time of year, when we seek to feel peace and love and share it with others. How wonderful to hear from Mattie's Mom as well. Must check out the book. Peace!

Timoteo said...

Enjoyed this touching piece.

Ginger said...

I remember Mattie from Oprah's show. What a special boy he was.
I feel such sadness for his mom to have lost 4 kids. I noticed she commented on your post, do you know her, or did she just find you with your post on Mattie?
His words did touch a lot of people, and I agree with you, can you imagine what he could of done with the rest of his life, had he lived?

Anonymous said...

How wonderful that Mattie visited your blog. I'm sure it was as good for her as it was the rest of us.

ethelmaepotter! said...

I cannot believe I have never heard of this extraordinary child, or, indeed, of his family. What a treasure, and what a loss. But it seems, from the little that you've so graciously shown us, that the greater loss would have been for Mattie to never have been at all; for even though his life was far too short, he touched millions with his wisdom and innocence.

Oz Girl said...

I saw Mattie on Oprah... and I was in awe of his amazing insights on life. He was so blessed to be as articulate as he was at such a young age. And how wonderful that Mattie's mom commented on your post about Mattie too. :)