My hometown library is less than a mile from my childhood home near the ball field in the center of town. The architecture is a reflection what was considered grand and fancy when it was built in 1842. This means that the building is made entirely out of thick marble, stone and brick with an impressive arched entryway flanked by columns.
When I was a girl, climbing the library steps meant entering another world. Inside, it smelled like stone dust and books and when I tilted my head back, I still couldn’t see the tops of the high shelves. In the children’s corner there were multicolored storybooks and I sat on a rainbow hooked rug and listened during story hour, craning my neck to see the pages as they were held up.
My favorite stories were the ones where the main character set out on an adventure to seek something or complete an important task. In my memory, every story ended in success with a triumphant, happy ending. After story hour I left with my weekly book choices tucked under my arm and stepped out into the bright sunlight to a world that seemed different. The willow tree out front had the new potential to hide magic empires beneath its branches and the ball field was a place where every game ended in a ninth-inning-bases-loaded heroic win.
As I got older, my reading became more sophisticated and I learned that stories don’t always have a happy ending and the challenges that characters faced were more complex than just slaying dragons or finding buried treasure. But the lessons were just as valuable. I learned how other people, both fictional and real, faced adversity and found meaning in a confusing world. I learned that I could explore any subject simply by checking out a book.
About the time I was working my way through the young adult section at my library my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died in the summer of 1988, well before the inception of Comfort Zone Camp or the Internet with its online support groups and resources. After he died, I did what I always did and turned to books for solace. I didn’t know of any other children who were dealing with loss. When I found examples of them in books, I didn’t feel quite so alone.
Eight years later the unthinkable happened and my mother was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that took her life shortly before my 19th birthday. I was in college and I started the long journey of navigating grief and becoming an adult. At the time, the Internet was still in its infancy and I struggled with the feeling of isolation from my grief.
I was very lucky to have a wide community of friends and family that supported my brothers and me through that difficult time. I’m eternally grateful for the help they provided. I also had a therapist who introduced me to journaling. I didn’t know it then, but it was my early initiation to the practice of writing. I discovered how writing my thoughts and feelings granted me new perspectives and awareness about myself and the world around me. Writing helped me grow up.
In addition to writing, books continued to have a central role in my life. I added books about psychology, grief and loss to my shelves that were overflowing with fiction and non-fiction. In a way, I was still turning to books as a way to understand the world. And I kept writing. Within a decade I had stacks of journals, one unpublished novel, and pages and pages of poetry, essays and short stories. Looking over my efforts I decided I was finally ready to write the one story that mattered the most – my own.
When the book was ready to be published, I decided that I wanted Comfort Zone Camp to receive a portion of the book’s sales. Years earlier, I had driven to New Jersey for my first try at being a Big Buddy. Moments after arriving I felt something very special happening and that feeling was confirmed over and over again throughout the weekend. I witnessed children integrate loss into their lives in healthy, generative ways. And nobody was alone. Even as an adult, it was a healing moment for me to know that every child there had experienced a significant loss. I was surrounded for the first time in my life by people who “got it.”
Grief can be a very lonely and scary place. Camp is magic because it creates a community where grief is welcome and nobody has be alone. I know that if I had a Comfort Zone Camp experience as a child it would have changed my life.
Which leads me back to the book. Nine months ago a package arrived from my publisher with the first bound copy of Beyond Words. I opened it and ran my hands over its cover thinking about how it would look on the tall shelves of a library with marble floors. I imagined my younger self searching on those same shelves for understanding and solace. This book is my gift to her.
In the spirit of gratitude 10 percent of the proceeds from this book are being donated to Comfort Zone Camp. Visit the Gayle Huntress’ website www.gaylehuntress.com for more information and book purchase links. Contact the author for discounts on bulk purchases or to receive signed copies.