I was unpacking my books again last weekend. Due to many factors, this was my fifth move in a year. My books are always the first thing I pack up. Books are steady, foundational things. We all carry a book, or two, or five on an excursion. But where your library lives—that’s home.
Ignoring all five open boxes of necessities, I meticulously stacked my books. I realized all my favorite children’s books are about death.
It’s not like I was a macabre child. On the contrary, squeezing my eyes shut, I’d scurry past Halloween decoration displays. My parents used to watch the documentary series Secrets of the Dead on PBS with my younger siblings, but I had to leave the room because the slightly ominous music caused me so much discomfort, I felt sick.
“It’s okay to be sensitive,” my dad told me as he came to sit with me. “It’s one of my favorite things about you.” He’d wait with me until the show was over so I wouldn’t have to sit by myself. It was nice not to be alone.
I started At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald because C.S.Lewis looked up to him. But the book was boring and Victorian in the worst way. So to the bottom of the stack next to my bed it went.
But the nice thing about books is they don’t demand your attention or rush you, captive, to the next scene. At the beginning of each chapter they let you choose, and they wait until you are ready.
And when the strain of my Nana’s slow, painful surrender to cancer and the confusion and grief that she had never sought closeness with me became too much, I clung to the story of Diamond, the ordinary cabby’s son and his adventures with the strange and beautiful woman, North Wind. She was terrible, unapologetic, and her mercy was fierce. And at the end of a long journey, full of hardship he doesn’t understand, Diamond knows who North Wind is, and he feels love, not fear.
I needed so desperately to know the long journey was good, and not cruel. That I could be carried for a little of it. That Nana could, too.
And a year or two later I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which so consumed my senses and consciousness with its vivid narration that I do not remember anything else about my life at that time. But I must have needed that book. Sometimes we need a book that lets us walk away and get some perspective, or, honestly, or just not think at all.
And again, there was Death. Somehow kind in his relentless consistency. ”Please believe me when I tell you,” he says, “that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born…I watched their love visions and freed them from their fear.’’
Someone’s got to be able to hold great loveliness and horrendous suffering. Else where would we put the humans?
When my grandma died, which was a process that really began when my grandfather died long before I was born, she entered a place the rest of us couldn’t follow. We have always known death to be a realm apart, I think. I became fascinated by a kind Death, because, probably, my understanding of God was too mushy, too emotionally pale, to picture him sitting in that pain-soaked room, ordaining death and yet holding the hand of the dying.
I think my graveyard books may have slowly deepened by understanding of God. I learned to let God hold death. It was one of those things that I had to come at sideways, in my peripheral understanding.
And then I read Terry Pratchett one long winter. And in the intense darkness of an insurmountable seasonal depression, Death was a stiff, sober Englishman. And the more I read, the more I believed, without even realizing it, that shadows can be outrun because they are mostly rather ambivalent to catching up.
My life is not controlled by fear. It just helps to have someone else go first into any uncertain, difficult situation. And I get the sense books don’t mind. I realized books are my Grim.
Have you heard of a Grim? It is one of those keeningly lovely bits of British folklore.
The Grim, a graveyard guardian, is the first person buried in a graveyard and tasked with the heavy responsibility of guiding and protecting all souls who come there to rest for the rest of slow-trucking time. The Grim fends off demonic assaults and various other mischief. But forever is a very long time, particularly to go on not living. So it was the priests who came up with the idea of burying an animal, so no human soul would be impeded on their way to heaven. Many Grims were dogs.
And there is something quite nice about the idea of sitting on a nice smooth stone, watching the fireflies come out, feet dangling over the edge like they did your first time at the grown-up table. And there is the heavy warmth of a soft head on your knee. You stroke the ears attached to the head and tell him he is a good boy. You both wonder what exactly they will send for you. Some kind of bus maybe? Boats are more traditional, of course. The dog knows. But you will have to find out for yourself, and he is happy to wait with you.
That’s the important bit, I think. Just having somebody who will wait with you until everything turns out all right.
Emily Stroble is a writer of bits and pieces and is distractedly pursuing lots of novel ideas and nonfiction projects as inspiration strikes. As an editorial assistant at Zondervan, she helps put the pieces of children’s books and Bibles together. A lover of the ridiculous, inexplicable, and wondrous as well as stories of all kinds, Emily enjoys getting lost in museums, movies old and new, making art, the mountains of Colorado, and the unsalted oceans near Grand Rapids. Her movie reviews also appear in the Mixed Media section of The Banner and her strange little stories of the fantastic are on the Calvin alumni fiction blog Presticogitation. Her big dream is to dig her hands deep into the soil of making children’s books as an editor…and to finally finish her children’s novel.