A sharp intake of breath, then lungs full, but not a cry – yet.

“Oh no. My baby.”

A parent recognizes the cry of her child. The tired cry. The hungry cry. The frustrated, sister took my toy cry. The “Owie!” cry.

But this cry – different. Never before heard, but I knew.

I pulled the car over and asked Madeleine, then 8, “Baby, has it happened, are you at the end? Oh dear.”

Madeleine begged to read “Where the Red Fern Grows.”   “Well, are you sure?” I asked. “It’s SO good. Might be sad, though”

Unperturbed, she ordered the Wilson Rawls’ classic from the scholastic book order.

by Wilson Rawls

Voraciously she read the story of Billy, Old Dan and Little Ann – a boy and his two dogs. On the drive home from a visit with friends, it was dark. She wanted the dome light of the car on to finish. Seeing she was close to the end, I told her that the dome light disturbs the other drivers (I wanted to delay the inevitable). However, light is just a little thing to an eight-year-old.

Now at the curb on Mayberry drive – how prophetic – I hastened to her side of the car while six-year-old Marjorie asked what was it. “Is she OK?”

For this was the cry of heartbreak. The First heartbreak.

“Why mom? Dan AND Little Ann? Why?”

The truth. A book can break your heart. Oh, there’s the poorly written book, and the one with the stupid ending. The one with the evil villain – but that end is expected, it’s telegraphed throughout the narrative.

This is different. Be clear – a good book will break your heart with its unexpected beauty, the characters you’ve fallen in love with for 226 pages; these characters are good and solid and innocent. Oh. Hurt.

It can be that the story is so well written. It may also be that this heart wrencher is the mirror in which you see yourself.

A long time ago, “Laughing Boy,” a short 1930 Pulitzer Prize fiction winner by Oliver La Farge about a Native American couple in New Mexico was my Red Fern. I had no knowledge of this book, only that it was on the stack of a brother’s college books. The same thing – at the climax, I cracked open with a force of emotion. Utter meltdown.

That memory helped me sooth my girl.

What could I say? Just hold her. Let her cry.

After a while, I managed to say, “Let’s go home. We’ll read the last bits together.”

The heart can mend. Wild violets, rooster heads and mountain daisies still make us smile.

Madeleine’s fifteen now and growing in every way. Ever optimistic, she barrels into life, school, and friendships and some day it’ll be a relationship. She’s bound to have those Red Fern days; I just want to be there with her to find the wild violets, rooster heads and mountain daisies by and by.

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