October 19, 2007

Faithful Lines / Shirley Vogler Meister

Remember children in your prayers

Shirley Vogler MeisterBefore Mattie J.T. Stepanek died a month short of his 14th birthday in 2004, I wrote a column about him.

Somewhere I have the sweet note that he wrote after he received a copy of the column, but—like so many treasured things—I can’t find it.

Recently, when I came across Journey through Heartsongs at Half Price Books in Indianapolis, I was pleased to find it. Six other books written by Mattie were also bestsellers, two of them published posthumously.

Mattie’s funeral was held at St. Catherine Laboure Parish in Wheaton, Md.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who acknowledged Mattie as a peacemaker, said in the eulogy: “We have known kings and queens and we’ve known presidents and prime ministers, but the most extraordinary person I have ever known … is Mattie Stepanek. His life philosophy was ‘Remember to play after every storm’ and his motto was ‘Think gently. Speak gently. Live gently.’ ”

One of Mattie’s poems especially struck me in the book that I recently purchased. “The Holding-On Family” is printed here in prose style to conserve space:

“I’ll never let you go, Mommy and you never let me go either. We’ll hold on to each other forever. We’ll never let go. We’ll hold on and we’ll pray for each other together. Our family already got enough smaller without Jamie and Katie and Stevie. We need to never let go again. We’ll be a whole family, staying together, you and me. We’ll be a holy family, praying together. We’ll be a holding-on family forever.”

The poem is more understandable if you know that his siblings—Jamie, Katie and Stevie—preceded him in death because of the same disease that cost Mattie his life: a form of muscular dystrophy called dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy.

Mattie’s mother, Jeni, has a similar adult-onset form of the condition. Publishers of VSP Books regard Mattie and his mother as “the two most extra­ordinary people” they have ever met.

His appearances on TV were many, including “Good Morning, America” and “Oprah.” Once, when interviewed by Larry King and asked about his father, he said, “We’re divorced from my father because he did some mean and scary things to us.”

Despite the traumas that he suffered emotionally and physically, Mattie’s poetry is full of faith, hope, love, wisdom and peace. He was wise beyond his years as can be seen in his poem “Eternal Echoes” printed here in prose form:

“Our life is an echo of our spirit today, of our essence as it is, caught between our yesterday and our tomorrow. It is the resounding reality of who we are as a result of where we have been and where we will be in eternity.”

Whenever I pray for children, I think of Mattie, in life and death a saintly Catholic.

(Shirley Vogler Meister, a member of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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