Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
The Books of Your Life
I am presently on a lengthy road trip with my son. Our itinerary is ambitious – by the time we return home in sixteen days, we’ll have driven over 4000 miles. I’ve always loved being on the road. So much to see and experience. I feel like I’ve really challenged myself with this one. I’ve had one knee replacement surgery but the other one is ahead of me so hiking is a bit of a stretch. But I don’t want to squander my general good health at this age, and most certainly, not my mental fortitude which fires me to keep ticking items off my to do list. During this trip, we’re covering history and nature. My son has committed himself to making good memories with me which is a perfectly understandable plan after going through the unexpected loss of his dad two years ago. The two of us are well-suited to traveling together as we share similar musical taste and are both eager to learn as we roll along. In our typically dorky fashion, we’re listening to some Great Courses he selected, one on the greatest geological sites in the world and the other on mythology. We’re self-actualizing together. It’s pretty entertaining.
Yet on Day 4, we diverged from new shared experiences to one that I most especially planned into this trip. It all began with a book. When I was growing up, if I wasn’t outside playing and exploring, I almost always had a book in my hands. I was an indiscriminate reader – there was virtually nothing I wouldn’t read from long tomes to cereal boxes. At home, the big joke was that I read all the books on our one measly book shelf and when I was finished, I went back to the top shelf and started over. I had a tendency to pick a topic and read everything about it. I read about the presidents. I read biographies about athletes. I would find an author I liked and then read every book that person wrote. I started reading about the Civil War when I was about eleven and haven’t stopped since. When my son and I drove within the proverbial stone’s throw from Gettysburg, I found it hard to pass by. I’ve been there before. Whatever a religious experience is supposed to be, I think I had one on that battlefield. Images that I inferred from reading dozens of books about those days in July of 1863 seemed as real to me as if I’d been there at the time. That visit evoked some of the most powerful emotions I think you can get from just being in a place. I
When I was about 11, I came upon a book by Albert Payson Terhune called Lad: A Dog. We’d had a collie mix when I was a few years younger but we gave him up when we moved from Iowa to Chicago and an apartment. No dogs allowed. So reading about Lad’s life and adventures struck a chord in me. Terhune wrote other books about Bruce and Treve and Gray Dawn, but Lad and his extended family always were my favorite. I must have read that book a hundred times. I still have a copy on the shelf by my bed. One day, maybe a dozen years ago I was at work, tired of my current task and in need of a break. Lad’s imaginary home was called Sunnybank and I just decided to type the name into my computer to see what came up. I was totally floored to discover that the Lad and other collie books were not fiction. Terhune was a collie breeder who lived on a big swath of land in Wayne, New Jersey. A graduate of Columbia University, he was also a journalist and novelist. He started writing during the late 1800’s and continued for decades.
As I scrolled incredulously through the website, I found myself looking at photos of Lad and the other collies, their home, their lake, their special places. And the dogs were buried on the grounds of Terhune’s property. I was dumbfounded at first but that quickly turned into obsession. I needed to be at that place. I just couldn’t figure out a trip to New Jersey at that point in my life when I had so many responsibilities and so many other places to knock off my list. This trip was the right time for finally realizing my dream. Today, on the way to Cape May, my dream came true.
Terhune Memorial Park is a beautiful, serene place located on Lake Pompton in Wayne, New Jersey. The grounds are well-tended and the mature trees are alive with birds, chipmunks and squirrels. The house succumbed to fire some years ago but there is a museum in town which has artifacts from it and the dogs’ careers. I was interested in the graves. As we entered the park, my kid, a biologist and bird specialist pointed out several lifers, first time bird spotting for me. I quickly selected a favorite tree, a purple European beech with beautiful leaves and a gorgeous trunk.
While he pointed his binoculars at the sky, I walked from grave to grave, from stone bench to stone bench, recalling all the stories of the dogs’ lives, especially Lad’s. I surprised myself by dissolving in tears as I found myself racing back almost 60 years in time to those days when I began gobbling up those books. As I then reversed direction, moving back to the present, I realized how the books shaped the choices in my life. The majority of my dogs were collie mixes, most of whom looked exactly like pure collies.
My beloved Flash, my dog who I suspect was the dog of my life, looked just like Lad. My current dog Violet is a rescued purebred, my first one with papers and championships which mean nothing to me as I think she was abused. In the two years that I’ve had her she’s turned from a vacant alienated creature to a real dog. You can actually teach old ones new tricks. I think of Michael constantly teasing me about my “intellectual, psychological dogs,” who were always looking me in the eyes and trying to figure out what I needed. He was right. I wanted my dogs to be just like Lad whose gravestone reads: A Thoroughbred in Body and Soul. I wove those books into the fabric of me where they remained an influence in my life’s choices. I hope books can still do that for children, letting them build life visions from the inside out. Today was another religious experience for me. I’m glad that what came from reading can still stir such powerful feelings. And that a park by a lake can fill your soul, at least for awhile. I’m grateful to be that person.