I’ve been reading to my boys often this summer.
We’ve spent hours with chapter books, snuggled down on the couch, one boy cuddled up on each side of me, head on my shoulder. We read The Waterhorse. Right now we are reading The Story of Helen Keller. They loved her wild temper tantrum at the breakfast table. “She’s just like me!” one of my boys said. I admit I liked how teachers could slap a hand away in those days, or that Anne Sullivan was just 20 years old and had only finished up to a 6th grade education, yet look at the miracles she accomplished. I cling to any miracles I can get my hands on lately.
Truth be told, these hours of reading together bring us a respite. It’s been such a tough summer together. We are making it, these little guys and our family, but God help us, it’s only by His grace we survive some days. Our children require a very high level of careful supervision and special, specific parenting.
We are fragile. We piece it together, day by day. From our years as foster parents, when we mostly parented medically fragile babies, I knew this type of parenting existed out there in the world. We would attend foster parent support group meetings, and I would hear the foster parents — often much more wise and seasoned than me — who accepted placements of older children and teens talk about their experiences with police, door alarms, medications, running away, and aggression. I would think, “Wow, they are amazing,” and “Nope, I couldn’t do it,” and “Not for me!” Little did I know how God was preparing me.
We are waiting. For what, I’m not entirely sure. For the next blow up? For someone to come and fix this? For a miracle? All of the above, probably. We instinctively know this is held together by patches and pieced-together parts, and places on our hearts are so tender.
Today we are reading the book Shiloh. Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor is the story of a boy, Marty Preston, who falls in love with a dog, a thin, skittish beagle who he finds roaming in the hills beyond his West Virginia home.
The trouble is that Shiloh doesn’t belong to Marty. He belongs to Judd, a neighbor that Marty suspects is abusing the dog. The story takes us through Marty’s ethical dilemmas of how to do what is right, what courage means, and what we will do for someone we love — all through an 11 year old’s eyes.
On this day, my two boys and I cuddle into the couch in our typical ways. There are blue blankets and stuffed kitties. There are fights about who is sitting the closest to mom. There are pudgy knees jammed a bit too far into my left ribs, and the readjustment of bony thin elbows leaning hard above my right elbow.
We’ve come to a critical point in the plot line of the story. Marty has taken Shiloh and hidden him. Marty created a fenced area and has been hiding the dog up the hillside, away from his house. He’s kept this secret for days, sneaking food to the dog and trying to figure how he’ll buy the dog from Judd, or at least give him away to a family who will keep him safe.
Then one night a vicious neighbor dog leaps the fence and violently attacks Shiloh, who is trapped in the enclosure Marty had build. Shiloh is hurt to the point of barely surviving.
Now, I must stop here and tell you I’m not really much of an animal person. I tease my kids it’s enough for me to keep all our children alive.
As I sit on the couch and read to the boys, I come to this part in the story, where Marty is narrating:
‘I’m sorry, Shiloh,’ I whisper, over and over, both hands on him so’s he won’t try to get up. The bloods just pouring from a rip in his ear. ‘I’m so sorry! Jesus help me, I didn’t know Baker’s dog could leap that fence.’
When we get to the bottom of the lane, instead of going up the road toward Judd’s place, Dad turns left toward Friendly, and halfway around the first curve, he pulls in Doc Murphy’s driveway. Light’s still on in a window, but I think old doc was in bed, ’cause he come to the door in his pajamas.
‘I’m no vet,’ says Doc Murphy, but he’s already standing aside, holding the screen open with one hand so we can carry Shiloh in.
The doc’s a short man, round belly, don’t seem to practice what he preaches about eating right, but he’s got a kind heart, and he lays out some newspapers on his kitchen table.
I’m shaking so hard I can see my own hands tremble as I keep one on Shiloh’s head, the other on a front paw.
My voice shakes as a speak the last sentences. I pause and breathe in, then breathe out hard. Finally I stop reading altogether as the tears continue to run down my cheeks, making a wet spot on my shirt.
Zack looks at me. “Why you cry, Mommy? Is Shiloh dead?” I shake my head, no.
Paul looks over with concerned eyes. My sons are used to seeing me as the strong, assertive mom. He reaches up a hand to wipe away the tears from my cheek. “I think we should stop reading for now, Mom,” he says.
“No,” I answer emphatically. This story, these lessons, are too important. I breathe again, deep, and continue.
‘He’s sure bleeding good, I can tell you that,’ Doc Murphy says. He puts on his stethoscope and listens to Shiloh’s heart. Then he takes his flashlight and shines it in the dog’s eyes, holding each eye open with his finger and thumb. Finally he looks at the big, ugly wound on Shiloh’s hurt leg, torn open right to the bone, the bites around Shiloh’s neck, and the ripped ear. I turn my head away and sniffle some more.
‘I’ll do what I can,’ Doc says…’This your dog, son?’
I shake my head.
‘No?’ He looks at me, then at Dad. Dad still won’t say nothing, makes me do the talking.
‘It’s Judd Travers’s,’ I tell him. I got to start practicing the truth sometime.
‘Judd Travers’s? This the dog he’s missing? How come you brought it in?’
‘I had him,’ I say.
Doc Murphy sucks in his breath, then lets it out a little at a time — huh, huh, huh. ‘Whew!’ he says, and goes on about his work.
I put my face down hear Shiloh’s again, my mouth next to his ear. ‘Live, Shiloh, Live!‘ I whisper.
With the final words, my tears continue without stopping and my breathing comes in hiccups.
Paul’s concerned expression has turned to a stern worried brow. “We should stop reading now, Mom.” He reaches up again to wipe away my tears with concern and curiosity. “Are you sad about Shiloh?”
Oh my son. If only.
My tears are for the affects of abuse I see right in front of me every single day.
My tears are for our own difficult choices that have no easy answers.
My tears are for my own life, stretched in front of me with day after long day, as I selfishly grieve that it’s not going in ways I had planned.
My tears are for an eleven-year-old boy who has to make choices between right and wrong to save a life.
“Yes, sweetie, I’m sad about Shiloh, and other things, too,” I answer, taking a deep breath. “Our life is hard right now. This summer hasn’t gone as we had planned, has it?”
I watch as Paul jitters his leg and picks at a scab on his knee.
“You know what though, my sons?” I ask them gently.
“What, Mommy?” both my boys ask, words on top of each other’s sentences.
“We’ve spent more time reading together this summer than any other time I can remember. These are great memories. Maybe…in some ways, this will be our best summer ever.”
Book quotes taken from Shiloh, 2000. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, Inc.