Friday, August 5, 2011

Hope lies in hearts of those left behind

From today's Briefing:

Our nighttime routine usually includes all four creatures of the house — me, Cooper, Katie and Margie (the dog) — piled on the sofa for a chapter from a book.

In the past year we’ve worked our way through the first three Harry Potter novels, The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables.

We’ve also cried through every one.

Maybe everyone cries at some part during these books. But the theme of loss found in these stories hits our little family especially hard — because the pile on the sofa once included Steve, the patriarch of the house.

The kids and I have lived with Steve’s absence for almost two years. Death is not an abstract or fictional concept around here.

For a while after Steve’s death, I tried to shield our children, especially young and sensitive Katie, from death in books and movies. I didn’t want to needlessly add to our fresh grief.

But death isn’t easy to escape, as any fan of Disney movies or fairy tales or classic literature knows.

The Lion King? Simba watches his father die.

Cinderella? She lives with her awful stepmother and stepsisters because her mother died.

Charlotte’s Web? Readers grow to love Charlotte as much as Wilbur, and then she dies.

All for good reason. Death is more than just a convenient plot device. It’s more than the end of a life. Death is woven into our lives.

I quickly abandoned any hope of avoiding references to death.

Just before bedtime, I sit in the middle of the sofa, with Katie snuggled on my right and Cooper sprawled on my left and Margie wedged somewhere in between.

Together we’ve pushed through Harry Potter’s intense longing to know his parents. My voice broke the night I read aloud Albus Dumbledore’s words: “Your mother died to save you. … To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.”

Together we were horrified to learn that Mary Lennox’s parents die in a Cholera outbreak, leaving the sour girl orphaned and pushed out of India to England, where she eventually discovers a secret garden. (A garden that eventually saves a life or two.)

Together our hearts were shattered when reading the death of Matthew, gentle guardian to spirited Anne of Green Gables.

Tuesday night Cooper rested his head on my left side. I wrapped my right arm around Katie’s shoulders and held the book with my left hand.

I read with a soft, broken voice: “Anne looked at the still face and there beheld the seal of the Great Presence.”

Katie sobbed throughout the chapter. I would stop every few paragraphs to ask if she wanted to hear more. She would nod silently while mopping her cheeks with her hands.

Cooper implored, “Katie, it’s not real. It’s fiction.”

I added, “But it’s OK to cry. Matthew’s not real but our sadness is.”

That night we didn’t stop with the death chapter. We read two more, to the end of the book, because I was hopeful for a happy ending.

Author Lucy Maud Montgomery didn’t disappoint. She gives Anne the role of heroine, saving the family farm and her adoptive mother from ruin.

“Anne’s horizons had closed … but if the path set before her feet was to be narrow she knew that flowers of quiet happiness would bloom along it.”

Even with Matthew’s death, there is hope for those he left behind.

There’s hope for all of us.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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