At the beginning of this year, I lost my father. As tends to happen in these circumstances, various people in my life did various things as gestures of sympathy and support. My amazing bosses did something very unusual – they sent me a tree.
More accurately, they sent me a sort of tree “kit.” It had a little acorn sapling about an inch high, a pot, a bag of nutrient-rich soil, instructions, etc. I liked it significantly more than flowers; in fact, it might be the best of these kinds of gestures I’ve ever heard of. When you look at things that are linked in memory to a loved one you’ve lost, they’re often static – old pictures, objects they possessed, etc. But it’s hard to be sad while looking at a tree, and having a project to focus on is helpful. It was very good.
So I planted this little tree and put it next to a window. I watered it every day and told my kids about it. They loved watering the “Pop-Pop Tree” and they loved what it represented; a symbol that life springs eternal, and that we can leave the world better than when we entered it.
My bosses didn’t know this, but my father and I planted a tree together when I was about seven. It was a big fun project for us. In the yard of my parents’ house, that tree is still there. It’s enormous now. It outlived my father; it will probably outlive me. So this felt good, it felt right.
After a few weeks, the thing had grown well up out of the pot. A tall thin stem, a few leaves, etc. It seemed to have grown to the extent of what the limited space of the pot would allow, and the instructions included said that about this time it should be transferred outside. (Yes, I needed instructions for a tree. I do not have a green thumb, and this was the first time since I was seven that I had planted anything at all.)
My children and I made a whole ritual of it. We found a suitable spot in the yard and dug it up. We gathered stones to surround the spot, and churned up the soil, and transferred the mass of dirt and roots and the little sapling from the pot to the ground. We told stories about my father, their Pop-Pop. The sun set.
For the next month or two, we continued to water it, though the normal rains of the season lessened the need. It continued to grow, bit by bit. Until it didn’t. Until disaster.
One morning I went outside to find that the little sapling had broken. There was nothing left but a slight twig in the ground, and the little stem and its leaves lay next to it. A million things could have happened – sharp winds, a stray rabbit taking a bite, perhaps it even looked insufficiently like a tree yet to the lawncare company. Whatever happened, the tree was gone.
I didn’t expect to be as upset about it as I was, but I was pretty distraught. My children noticed immediately and consoled me, but I wanted it to be something they could learn from. I told them that these things happen – to trees and to people. But we can keep up hope, because even though this tree didn’t make it, there will always be another. There will always be another tree, and there will always be more people to love and who will love you. We can miss them very very much, but the world turns, and that is good.
I’m glad I said the words, and I’m glad my children heard them. But my heart was very sad. My children were kind; my son in particular said “I’m sorry about your tree” about a hundred times a day while hugging me. But just as when my father passed, the days will keep pushing into you whether you’re ready for them or not.
One morning I looked into the yard, and there was a new tree in the circle of stones. The stem had broken, but the seed was still there. The roots were intact; nothing had dug them up. So the plant still lived, and as living plants do, it grew. What truly amazed me was how different it looked now – a heartier base, thicker and shorter, with many more leaves than before. It was growing in the wild now, against the elements, not in a pot in my kitchen where it never knew wind or strife. It was stronger.
There truly was another tree. Life is not so easily beaten.
My father was like that. I remember when the doctors sat us down as a family and told us we had to prepare our goodbyes and get our affairs in order because Dad had at most six months to live. That was about twenty years before his death. Things knocked him down plenty of times, but he was a fighter. He was resilient. Like the tree.
I’ve put some chicken wire around it now – even the most resilient of us can use some help from family – but it’s already stronger and taller than the first version. I have no idea if it will make it through its first winter. I have no idea if, like that tree my father and I planted together more than three decades ago, it will one day be taller than I am and outlive the humans that once looked down upon it. I don’t need to know those things.
What I do know, is that there will always be another tree, and there will always be people to love, and who will love you.