T.S. Eliot wrote that April is the cruelest month; author Heather Lende would not give him an argument. In April of 2005, she was riding her bike near her home in Haines, Alaska when she was run over by a pickup truck and severely injured. In April 2006, her mother passed away after a long bout with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
“Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs: A True Story of Bad Breaks and Small Miracles” recounts those stories and how those incidents affected her faith in God. It also gives a glimpse into the lives of the residents of Haines, and the unique lifestyle that Alaskans lead.
Lende’s pelvis was shattered in the accident. She was able to survive and make a relatively fast recovery because of her strength and good health.
She recounts her struggle to regain her lifestyle and health, although she ended up rehabilitating in a nursing home in Seattle instead of the chi-chi fancy ski lodge/spa she believed she would be in. Her time there will be familiar to anyone who has a relative in a nursing home.
Each chapter of the book starts with a short verse, many from the Book of Common Prayer, a book that Lende often turns to for comfort and guidance. Her experiences with her accident and her mother gave her the opportunity to reexamine the role that faith plays in her life.
Lende also writes the obituaries for the local newspaper, and she shares the stories of several residents in Haines. Everybody has a story, so the saying goes, and Lende does a marvelous job bringing her neighbors’ interesting lives to the forefront.
Wilma Henderson was a “formidable farmwife” who believed in the proverb “pray with your feet” by putting her faith in practice. She organized the town spelling bee, planted flowers in town parks and volunteered in the library.
When Lende worked as a hospice volunteer, her first client was a 57-year-old remarkable woman named Marian. Marian had everything organized for her death — her will, insurance papers, her sister’s phone number. She paid all her bills, packed all of her belongings so that no one else had to do it, and even wrote her own obituary.
Lende contrasts Marian’s outlook on death with her own mother’s. Lende’s mother had leukemia for almost 20 years, but she never discussed her own death with her husband or children. She fought death right up to the end, undergoing many rounds of painful chemotherapy. Towards the end, Lende wanted to talk to her mother about hospice care, but she knew her mother would have no part of it.
Her father asked her mother if there was anything she wanted to say to him or her children before she passed, but she did not; death was not something she could talk about. The only words she shared were “take good care of the garden and the dogs.”
After her mother died, Lende held onto a crumpled piece of paper she found in her mother’s coat pocket. It had on it four different grocery lists, and from this Lende took her mother’s wisdom about how to live life: “eat dessert, be sure there’s coffee in the morning, write things down so you don’t forget them, and don’t waste paper.”
The Tlinglit American Indian tribe lives in Haines, and Lende shares their lifestyle with the reader. Her description of a huge Tlinglit adoption ceremony, with its endless food, gifts and songs, is fascinating, as is the town gathering together to raise a huge, intricately carved totem pole.
Life in Alaska is very different, yet in many ways so familiar to small-town residents. Lende and her family eat bear tenderloin, skin and gut goats, and they grow much of what they eat right on their own property.
They keep hens for eggs, and grow what limited vegetables they can. (It is expensive to bring food up to Alaska from other places.) Alcoholism is a big problem in Alaska, and some of her friends sadly suffer from it.
Yet much of her story is familiar: Neighbors depend on each other for help, and look out for each other and their children. Many residents volunteer to better their community, and her sad tale of a young man killed in a drunk driving accident by his friend (who went to jail) is all too familiar in many of our own communities.
Lende’s book reminds me of one of my favorites, Anne Lamott’s “Grace, Eventually: Thoughts on Faith.” She works on living her faith every day, through the good times and difficult times.
I like that she prays every night, and even though she has her faults, as we all do, she tries to be a better person.
Her goal in writing this book is to “give readers a window into a specific time and place and, by being so local and personal, tap into emotions they may have too.”
Lende succeeds in this beautifully, and this is a lovely book.
I give “Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs” four stars.