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Saving the Tree

December 13, 2010

The doorbell rang early one morning. Standing at the door was a short, burly man with a beard wearing a bright yellow reflective vest. Behind him were several large municipal trucks; one had a cherry picker, I noted, forever trained by my 3-year-old to notice every type of vehicle on the road. “I’m here to take care of the tree,” the man told me.

My heart sank. “Is it coming down?”

“No,” he said gruffly. “Someone complained. The tree warden ordered us not to cut it down.” He was obviously unhappy with the decision. “It’s not up to me,” he shrugged, “but I think it should come down.”

“Wait a second,” I said. “You mean you’re going to save the tree?”

“Like I said, it isn’t up to me. I’m just following orders, and the tree warden told us only to take off dead branches.”

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked.

“It’s dying.” He looked at me over the top of his sunglasses and we held each other’s gaze in silence. He had delivered the diagnosis. I took a deep breath. “We’ll see what we can do,” he said with resignation. “You should probably move your car out of the way.”

I practically skipped to the car. David saved the tree! David saved the tree! I couldn’t wait to call my husband and tell him that his petition to the town had worked.

A few weeks ago, we came home to find the large old maple tree in the front of our house had been spray painted with an orange “x.” Our neighbor’s tree was similarly branded. It wasn’t a good sign. Since the trees are actually adjacent to the street, they technically belong to the town. And in the last two years our town has taken down at least four wonderful old trees on our street for what we gathered were poor or no reasons at all. So my dear, tree-loving husband wrote the town a beautiful email about how the tree provides our house with much-needed shade and lends character to the neighborhood. He asked the town to kindly consider cutting only the dead branches and saving the healthy part of the tree. And by some miracle, by some bit of grace, his request was heard.

The tree would not come down. The tree would just get a bit of pruning – okay, a significant amount of pruning – but stand it would.

I watched like a mother hen as the chainsaws bit their metal teeth into the wood. Sawdust flew. Limbs cracked and fell to the ground with heavy thuds. The men were quick, efficient, dispassionate about their work. There was also an air of hostility. It seemed they would have preferred felling the entire tree to taking the time to consider how best to save it. Why must our culture prefer the radical, violent, heavy-handed act over the more sensitive and moderate tact? To the Department of Public Works crew, the tree was just a tree, but to me this was a victory of life over death. Before they left, they painted the orange “x” with white paint: the terminal sentence had been removed.

Two years ago, during a period of four months, my small family tree experienced a tremendous blow when we lost my grandmother, uncle, and father. My grandmother Ethel’s passing at the age of 91 from Alzheimer’s disease was slow, drawn out, and expected. She had talked of wanting to die ever since she lost her daughter, my mother, in 2000. But my uncle’s death, Ethel’s son, was a shock, and still not entirely understood, though we suspect a heart attack. He lived alone and was discovered three days after his death when his bridge club arrived for their regular game and received no answer at the door. And then a month later we received the devastating news that my father’s kidney cancer had metastasized, and cancer was eating away at most of his organs, bones, nerves, everywhere.

My sisters and I gathered together at the hospital in the suburbs of Philadelphia. We were in shock and still bewildered at the speed of Dad’s decline. One evening we sat in the family area, in planning mode with our yellow legal pads of paper yet again. Dad couldn’t stay in the hospital much longer and we had to figure out where we could take him.

Fresh from two family funerals and feeling the effects of hospital-induced delirium, my sisters and I got a little punchy and quite a bit emotional. We took turns taking it all in, coming to terms with the fact that we would soon be parentless. We passed around the box of tissues. “We’ll have to plan family reunions more often,” one of my sisters said. And then we took a look at each other and realized we were having a family reunion. This was it. There would be no picnic, no slide show or t-shirts printed up for the 100 members of our extended family. That fall and winter, our small immediate family became bare bones: I have my sisters and that’s pretty much it. Sure there’s a distant cousin or two, a great aunt I talk to on occasion, but nobody else really.

The spring after Dad died, Sara and I took a morning stroll through conservation land that was just waking up in wildflowers and sticky with mud. As we walked and talked, I came to realize that the upper branches of my family tree had been cut down. It’s funny that the image should have taken me by such surprise but as I said those words I felt the weight of their truth and the grief welled up in me. The elders had moved on. Now my sisters and I occupied the upper branches of our tree. I felt too young for the role. Too inexperienced. I had too many questions and besides I longed for that unconditional love of the older generations. Even if my father and I didn’t always see eye to eye, I could always count on him to be there for me.

In the summer I visited with an African shaman. I was six weeks pregnant with Leo, queasy, and still carrying around so much sadness from the recent losses. I told Mandaza about the deaths. I wondered why it had happened. “Many people are scared of death,” he said, “but no one can avoid it. No one can fly to the ancestors in this body. From the moment we are born we are all dying. Death and birth are twins,” he paused to sniff tobacco from his leather pouch. Then he continued: “Where this house stands there were beautiful trees and flowers. They are on a journey. In order for there to be ancestors, someone must die. That’s how we get angels. In winter, something dies to give us new flowers. So we thank your ancestors who are now on the other side. They see better and know better than when they were in this world.”

And then Mandaza prescribed a ritual, which is what African shamans are fond of doing. He said we needed to welcome the baby, and he instructed the other women in the room to gather around me for we were all the mothers.

“There is a story about this baby,” Mandaza sprinkled water on my face. “The reason why we are creating a healing circle around the world is not for this generation but for the new generation. It was done for us, by Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus, and so on. They did it for us, but now it is time for us to do it for the next generation. This child is our prime minister, our new president, our spiritual leader. For this child there must be peace and love and laughter in your home. No disappointment. Much happiness.” He pressed flowers into my hands and the women embraced me as tears of grief mixed with tears of joy.

When Ilana and Sara first brought up their desire to hold a fundraiser for my family, my dear and very astute friend Ilana pointed out that things would be different if my parents were alive. Oh how those words hit home. All I could do was nod mutely in agreement. I’m 39 years old, and sometimes I just want my mother or father to show me love and sympathy, to be available to babysit their grandchildren, to hold my hand through the scary world of hospitals and diagnoses and disease. To tell me that every little thing is going to be all right.

But here I am, one of the few living branches of the Shaiman family tree. And so that’s why when the men with their chainsaws and chipping machine spared the healthy limbs and saved our maple tree I felt the strength of all the ancestors that came before me. Their blood is in mine, mingling with every wonderful, healthy cell in my body. Though I can’t put my head in my grandmother’s lap or cry to my father on the phone, I feel the ancestors guiding me every step of the way. There has been too much grace for it to be otherwise: uncanny little things, like thinking of someone and getting an email or call from them, or wanting to contact a particular healer and then meeting them by chance at a holiday fair. Again and again, serendipity has been blessing my life and I am listening, following the clues, tracking one angelic nod after the next.

I look forward to the day that I am old and wise enough, my hair long and gray and plaited in braids, to earn the true place of elder on my family’s tree. I will gather all the young ones in the sturdiness of my limbs, Toby and Leo and their children, and God willing their children’s children, and our tree will flower and leaf and fruit. Our tree will flourish.

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3 comments

  1. Hey there-

    Great to read your post and observations. Many of us reading this are realizing that we are indeed becoming the top-most branches in our family. It hit home – on a number of levels.

    will write you privately.

    Hugs to you all,
    R


  2. Thank you for the reminder of the beauty and privilege involved in the presence of elders. May we all learn to tend to our elders with as much committed love and respect as your David.

    The way you weave story gets me every time. Every time. More. More. More.

    Love you.
    Staci


  3. You write beautifully and eloquently about a road that is not anyone’s first choice. I know this from firsthand experience, unfortunately, as I often say “colorectal” rather than rectal, drink my Chinese teas (like I am right now), have discussions with doctors about how to change their words and attitudes to support mine, deal with my bag, and wonder in so many ways about my two little boys. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, feelings, and wonderfully positive energy. Weird as it is, I feel lucky to find a like soul on this path.



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