I was always a kid who believed in the truth of the books I read. My copy of David and the Phoenix was hidden from my older sister, lest she find out about the Phoenix, and tell the grown-ups, who would then ruin everything. I was also certain that the only reason I couldn’t fly when I jumped off my bed was because Peter Pan wasn’t there to scatter Tinkerbelle’s fairy dust on me.
When I read in Lisa Cron’s Story Genius that stories teach us how to navigate life, it made me look back at some of those books that most influenced me. They are imprinted on my mind and heart as are few things in life – I can even remember my first library card number – J694 from the old Perry-Highland Library.
That’s where I discovered the books of Albert Payson Terhune. They were in the adult section, but they were dog stories, so I read them. And if I didn’t completely understand everything he wrote, I understood enough to learn the important things.
My first Terhune book was Further Adventures of Lad. It was the second of his three books about Lad, his first and greatest collie, and it remains my favorite to this day. It was one of my earliest encounters with death; the book begins with Lad’s arrival at The Place, and ends with his death on the veranda some sixteen years later.
Of course I’d encountered death in Black Beauty – a couple of humans died, but more important, the mare Ginger, Black Beauty’s friend and sometime companion, died. However, while Ginger’s death was sad, Black Beauty lived on and had a happy ending.
Lad was different. I met Lad as a young puppy in the early pages of the book, and watched him grow up in this strange new world. He found a mate, had a son, and experienced heartbreak when his mate was killed by a reckless driver. By the time I’d reached the end of the book, Lad was family. In the final chapter he is old. In his old age he becomes friends with the child of a laborer on The Place, and he protects her from her brutal father. Thanks to the exertion, his weary heart gives out and he dies.
I still cry when I read it. Lad died almost a hundred years ago, Terhune wrote about it 94 years ago, and I’m still reading it, still crying over it, still learning from it. What did I learn and how did it help me to navigate my life?
I learned that death is a natural part of life. There will be grief and loss, and we continue. We hold the loved ones in our hearts and keep living our lives; we are forever changed because of having known them. It’s not a fearful thing. Lad fell asleep and didn’t wake up. Even through my childish tears, I felt the rightness of his ultimate rest.
I learned that the body may be old and frail, yet the spirit and courage enable us to do what seems impossible. Steve Haskin once quoted a 10th century Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon in writing about the great racehorse, Tiznow, at the end of his racing career - “Our spirits shall be the stouter, our hearts more fierce, our courage the greater, though our might lessens…”
Terhune wrote his first dog book, Lad: A Dog in 1919. That was his most famous and well-loved book, and it’s had over 80 printings. The pictures on this page come from a website dedicated to Terhune, his dogs, and Sunnybank (known in his books as The Place): http://www.sunnybankcollies.us/ One of the amazing things on the website is the reprint from the New York Times of an obituary of another of Terhune’s dogs, Wolf, who died saving the life of a homeless stray. While exploring that website and some other online info, I discovered home movies taken of Terhune, his wife, and some of the collies: http://mirc.sc.edu/islandora/object/usc%3A17256
It was incredibly moving to see them alive, to see Terhune’s eyes looking into the camera, and to watch his interaction with the dogs. It was interesting, too, because based on his writing, he was a bit of a misogynist. One line occurred in almost every book I read of his: “All dogs die too soon; most humans don’t die soon enough.” He wrote in the early 1900’s, and his writing is laced with phrases and statements that are racist and full of class snobbery. Seems ironic, given that he was the son of a clergyman, but he reflected the common view of men of his background at that time. Seeing him on film, I began to see him as a real human being, though in a world almost as foreign to me as another country.
The rest of the week we were in and out of New York for the theatre, but no matter what else I did, I tried to get over to Sunnybank for a least an hour or so every day. Toward the end of the week, there was one day it had snowed during the night and I was disoriented by the snow covering the grass and the rocks. I couldn’t find Lad’s grave at first, and it didn’t matter that I’d seen it the previous three or four days. I needed to find it again, to pay homage to Lad one last time before we left.
What matters is that Terhune shared stories about Lad, stories that thrilled and moved me, and subtly taught me many of the ideals I still try to live by. The phrase “gay courage” is not a description of a gritting the teeth and getting through it kind of courage. It’s more akin to the panache of Cyrano, or the bravado of Butch and Sundance. It combines an internal toughness with joie de vivre into one indomitable spirit.
As I write those last few sentences, I can’t say I feel I’ve been able to live up to Lad’s teaching. Yet if I’ve learned one thing from Lad, it’s that whether or not I succeed isn’t what matters. What matters is how I live as I try.
That’s why I write. To in some way, share my stories with the rest of the world, and hope that there will come from my work a Lad or a d’Artagnan to inspire the readers navigating the course of their own lives.
Look for my guest post on Writer Unboxed on Sunday, September 11th: http://writerunboxed.com/
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