For the last three years, Grant and I kept a late-October tradition of packing our camping gear into the Jeep and heading to Jellystone Park in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Not only is there a bigger-than-life statue of Yogi Bear, but also an old-school Halloween atmosphere and delightful grandparent-like folks who run the camp store. We’d rent a tiny, drafty cabin with no heat and a wooden floor, knock the crunchy leaves off the porch, roll out our down-filled sleeping bags on the wooden bunk, then get a campfire blazing outside. We never had the same adventure twice.
The first year we went to Jellystone, we took the cat. Enough said. Cats aren’t good campers, especially ours. Allister moaned all the way there and when the car door opened in front of our assigned spot, he darted under the cabin which was propped up on cinder blocks.
This cat-under-the-cabin predicament is one of the first dilemmas Grant and I tackled as father and son. Our solution was a bit primitive and took control away from Allister. Nonetheless, it worked when our good faith efforts of coaxing him and talking the sweet talk Carolynne uses on him didn’t. From one side of the cabin, I yelled over to my boy on the other side, “Grant, I’ll spray Allister with the water hose and you grab him when comes out the other side. OK?” Three-year old Grant understood the plan, was eager for the challenge and skillfully snagged a surly, wet Allister when he appeared against his will from underneath the cabin. Grant was proud. I was relieved. The coyotes were disappointed. And, Allister was miffed. He slept under the bunk in the corner of the cabin until morning.
Having burned up daylight cajoling Allister and doing laps around the cabin, we had worked up an appetite. We tried to build a fire. We built, rearranged, built more, and rearranged more and then built again. Grant collected dry sticks and brittle leaves while I tried to collect patience with each failed attempt of starting a fire so my kid wouldn’t freeze to death. We could not get the green wood the Commonwealth of Massachusetts required us to buy to burn…..even using the secret blowtorch method my dad taught me didn’t work. (The State requires we buy their wood so tree-killing bugs don’t get a free ride into a camp on the wood we’d bring from home.) This is a good example of control isn’t it? If you are going to require me to buy wood, at least please sell me seasoned wood that will burn. So, the two now-cold, starving Browns abandoned any further attempts at a traditional campfire. We roasted hotdogs with the blowtorch instead and dined on top of our red Coleman cooler inside our chilly cabin. We had full bellies for bedtime. And our sleeping bags were toasty. Allister hadn’t moved an inch, but he at least was starting to dry out.
As Carolynne and I have lived life hour by hour these past weeks and rummaged through our hearts for memories of Grant, I actually thought of a parallel between Allister on that first camping trip and myself. If you know me well, you know I probably meet the criteria of being a creature of habit. I like routine. Change is OK—as long as we come back to routine. At the core of routine, though, I must admit is control. In our culture, people tend to toss around phrases like “so and so has control issues” or “my friend is a control freak” when describing others. However, control is actually something we should all possess to some degree. We control our diets, our exercise, our decisions, our spending, and how fast we drive. The list goes on. That night, we took control away from Allister when he was under the cabin and he didn’t like it. Like Allister being forced from under the cabin with water, we had no control when we were hit with an emotional tsunami when we lost Grant. Allister was probably mad at his owner and his owner’s three-year old assistant, but to date, I’ve not been mad at my Owner—my God—for how our lives are right now. Maybe that will come later, maybe not. Regardless, God will be there to work it through with me if it does.
In times of life disruption, I’ve often thought of Psalms 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” This short verse actually requires two different responses---quiet motionlessness and knowledge. Although I’ve got quite a way to go when it comes to mastering being physically still, it helps me spiritually to be still in a world which never stops buzzing. I believe that verse in Psalms is instructive and takes aim at helping me push everything else aside so I can focus on the second piece of the verse—knowledge of God, actually knowing that God is God, knowing that He exists. I know God is God like I know my own name. This verse isn’t written to teach people for the first time that God is who He is, but it’s a reminder for those who know him to remember when buzzing around us gets too loud or all control is lost, God is still God.
As my birthday rolled by in October, I had a growing desire to go to Jellystone with Grant like last year. But, control about that tradition had been taken away. The campout tradition, snuggling in our warm sleeping bags, staying up past bedtime, eating a little junk food, is now over for us. Just another line item on an extra-long punch list of losses dealt to Carolynne and me last July.
My longing for our camping trip pushed my thinking outside of the box and prompted me to email my new friend Jim at Mt. Auburn Cemetery who sold us our plot on Wistaria Path. I asked Jim if that day was a good day to ask him an eccentric question. Of course, I’ve learned that Jim’s always thoughtful and game---so I asked.
Jim got back to me the next day with the official word that yes, indeed, in keeping with tradition; I could camp out at Mt. Auburn on Friday night. Before you jump to any conclusions about my psychological health, a plan to camp out at a cemetery can actually make sense when it’s your child that’s there. A pleasant security guard sipping coffee in his truck let me past the locked gates. In the dark, I set up a one-man tent on top of Grant’s grave, rolled out one of our down-filled sleeping bags and snacked on a yellow apple. I tossed the core into the bushes close by because we’ve learned the rabbits there really like them. Before going to bed, I even read aloud a couple of short books that were mine when I was a kid that Grant and I just hadn’t gotten to yet.
Not one thing about it was scary, morbid, or creepy. In fact, as I sat on the grassy slope under the stars, I was able to deepen my understanding of the stillness Psalms speaks of. I lay there quietly in my narrow green tent, listening to faint city sounds in the distance, the occasional rustle of four-legged critters in the nearby woods, and a couple of rain showers pitter-pattering on the tent during the night. I lay there, camping, just above Grant’s little earthly body, holding physically still, pondering that God is God, and praying until I fell asleep that He would be in control of all that doesn’t make sense. I slept well.
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