My son, Justin, had died three weeks earlier. It was Valentine’s Day, 2006, and I stood in his bedroom, gazing at his bookshelf, in early afternoon light. I selected a book, pulling it from a tight shelf, and another paperback simultaneously slid out, fell, landed on the floor. I put the original book back, reached to the floor and picked up the book. I’d never seen it, hadn’t purchased it for him. I guessed it was a school book worm club or book bucks purchase. Or perhaps it was in a collection from a set I’d given him as a gift. I tried to squeeze it back into its spot on the shelf. No luck, it wouldn’t fit. A little voice in my head whispered, “read it.” Whatever, I thought, setting it sideways on the shelf.
The book fell on the floor, again. I looked closer Belle Prater’s Boy by Ruth White, a Newberry Honor book. It didn’t sound interesting. The topic, a twelve year old boy, abandoned by his mother who mysteriously disappears, goes to town to live with his grandparents, and near his cousin, who is the same age. I set it down. Again, “read it…” whispers in me.
I walked out into the family room, passing my home office door, tossed the book onto the chair, and walked upstairs. The next day, again an inner nudging, “the book…” Finally I sat down with it. On page 14, my breath stopped. The world stopped. In a children’s book I read:
“The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.”
I knew this poem, these words, by heart. These lines were written hundreds of years ago by Jalal al-Din Rumi. Astonished, I could barely believe a children’s novel contained a Rumi quote. Let alone this one, as I grieved and longed for my son. Then there was bewildered wonderment that the book had almost refused to be tucked back on the shelf. In my fog of grief, I was experiencing an invitation: “Don’t go back to sleep.”
I finished the story, two days later, sobbing with the kind of tears and groans that rock your body when, at the end, the hidden secret of the young girl cousin in the story is revealed: her father had died by suicide. My son died by suicide.
What children’s book falls off the shelf on Valentine’s Day, contains a treasured poem, tackles head-on the difficult, entangled topic of suicide, and inspires me to think, “I want to write a young adult novel like this one.” Ruth White’s book makes my top 40 list for being brave, healing, unforgettable. And for being a messenger to teach me that we live in a world of mystery, where two worlds touch.
Ponder: Has a book ever arrived to you, unbidden, with a deeply personal message that is precisely what you need to hear … or that answers a question you may not even know you are asking?