A Tree For My Friend

Dear Friend,

I bought you a tree today.

It’s a Zelkova Serrata, a tree known for strength and resistance to disease. As I ran my hand down the gray trunk, I thought of you and how hard it must have been to say goodbye, to let your father go. I thought of how quickly cancer consumed his strength.

There aren’t words to express how sorry I am for you. Every word feels meager in the pallid face of such staggering grief.

Thankfully when there aren’t words, there are trees.

The Zelkova Serrata can grow to be 100 feet tall with a crown that stretches wide to provide shady relief in the heat of Summer. In Spring it has pale yellowish green flowers.

The Zelkova Serrata is known by furniture makers for the beauty in its bold grain, but I think its real beauty comes in Fall when it covers the ground in a blush of red, yellow and purple leaves.

You’ve wanted this tree for some time and it’s fitting then that there was only one of these trees available in the whole city. One singular tree. Your tree. Tall and full of healthy buds ready to wake from dormancy.

I put the top down in my car and drove the tree to your house, my hair and the branches whipping in the wind. We were quite a sight, me and your tree sitting tall in my Mini Cooper. The man at the nursery tied a plastic red flag to one of the branches and as I drove to you I could see the red flag snapping in my rearview mirror like a lone prayer flag.

Sadness was etched in your face today, dear friend, and I felt silly as I stared at my shoes and explained that I’d brought you a tree.

The tree houses my wishes for you.

I wish that it provides cool shade and respite. I wish that months from now, when your grief has begun to ease, you’ll delight in the beauty of its colors. I wish that when you look out at the tree, you’ll remember the love between you and your dad, love that is strong, love that is impervious to disease and death. And each spring as new buds press out through the branches, I wish that you find renewed strength.

I bought you a tree today. And somehow in my cavernous lacking of the right words to comfort you, the silent branches of the tree said it all for me.

With love,
Your friend and a tree

Lessons From Dragonflies

It’s dragonfly season in my classroom.  Willow branches poke out of dank tanks atop our desks.  Tadpoles dart in the murky water to escape the voracious appetites of our dragonfly nymphs.

And us?  We wait, holding our collective breath until the day one of our nymphs makes the climb up a willow branch to molt a final time.

I’ve written about dragonflies before and I’ll surely write of them again because in their metamorphosis from nymph to dragonfly, I find pieces of myself.  Pieces of myself in times of grief.  Pieces of myself in times of triumph.

Dragonfly nymphs molt about 15 times.  The first molts take place in the water.  When a dragonfly nymph is ready, when it’s literally ready to burst out of its skin, in the cover of night the nymph climbs up a stick and using the hooks on its feet, the nymph holds on for dear life.  Then the nymph pushes from within and breaks out of its skin right between the wingpads, leaving a large hole in the old skin.  It’s an act so violently beautiful that when my students ask me if it hurts, I can only blink back tears and eek out the words, “I don’t know.”

I imagine it’s extremely painful.  Growth usually is.  This week as I watched a nymph transform into a dragonfly, I thought of my friend, Lynn.  She wrote about losing her mother, of being separated from someone who was entwined in every fiber of her life.  After such a loss, when you have a gaping hole, how’s it possible to return to life again when life as you know it doesn’t exist anymore?

Life as the nymph knows it ends as life as an adult dragonfly begins.  What you may not know about dragonflies is that after cracking open the back of their skin, they pull their head free and then their thorax, leaving their long flute of an abdomen still encased in the dead skin of the nymph.  At this point the dragonfly flops over backward and takes a rest, stuck halfway between its old life as a water creature and its new life in the skies.  The dragonfly rests like this for some time, like it simply cannot summon another ounce of strength to free itself from its old skin.  When my grandmother passed away, I was stuck in between my life with her and my life without her.  I couldn’t rewind time, but the thought of moving on without her was unfathomable.

After the nymph hangs upside down for a while, a marvelous thing happens.  In the ultimate display of mind over matter, the dragonfly flings its head up and grabs onto the stick again.  Sometimes it can only grab back onto its exoskeleton, taking hold of the old life one last time.  The dragonfly pulls its abdomen out of the cracked skin and waits.

It waits for its body to harden.  It waits for its wings to be ready.  This is when the dragonfly is in its most vulnerable state.  After all that work to emerge, dragonflies are powerless against hungry birds and frogs.  If the dragonfly crawls back into the water, it will drown because its abdomen now breathes air.  It cannot fly away because its wings are too crumpled to take to the sky.  In the sacred shield of night, the dragonfly is completely unguarded.

The dragonfly cannot move forward into this new life and cannot return to the old life either.  It begins to shiver, but not out of cold.  As the dragonfly shivers, blood pumps into the veins of the wings.  Slowly, life flows through the wings and they begin to take shape.  The dragonfly quivers and shakes until suddenly its wings snap open.

It’s a clumsy flier at first, unsure how to move on the wind.  Soon the dragonfly learns to slice through the air, taking in the beauty of the sky with its enormous eyes.  The dragonfly leaves the stick, leaves the shell of its old life and lifts into the air.  One of my students asked me if dragonflies remember what it’s like to be a nymph swimming in the water or climbing up a stick.  Again I could only offer a paltry,  “I don’t know.”

I’d like to think that dragonflies do remember.  I’d like to think they remember all the growth that had to take place in order to soar.  I’d like to think they recall the night when the old self died to make room for a new life.  And surely they recall the strength it took to heave their thorax up onto the stick and pull free from their old shell.

Night closes her eyes on me and in the warmth of my home, I wonder if any of our nymphs are making that brave climb tonight in our classroom.  I think of my friends who are summoning measures of bravery I can’t begin to fathom.  I think of Lynn, who is choosing to breathe in and out each day without her mother.  I think of my own mother and our loss.

I keep coming back to the vulnerability of the dragonflies as they’re moving from one phase in life to the next.  Sometimes that vulnerability, that willingness to be fragile, to grieve what is lost, is the very thing that births the strength to move on.

As Mother’s Day stands tiptoe on my doorstep, I think of all my friends who have lost their mothers.  My dear, dear friends, my Mother’s Day wish for you is that you find strength in your time of need, that your memories of your mothers will give you strength to continue and that when the long night finally gives way to brighter days that you will find yourself soaring in the sky.

Black & White

A long time ago in a space that seems fuzzy and far away, before I owned a road bike or called myself a cyclist, my step-dad, Chris, used to take me mountain biking.  I use that term loosely because it’s not like I was hopping up boulders or screaming downhill, whipping through singletrack or anything.  I was riding mostly flat dirt trails on my mountain bike.

Often Chris would bring along his dog, Jack.  Jack was the blackest dog I’ve ever seen.  His coat was a glossy obsidian color and as he ran alongside us, his pink tongue would hang out.  His tongue had one black spot right in the middle.  In his more nimble days, Jack would get so excited about riding bikes that he would bite at our tires.  I would nudge him away with my foot, half smiling at his mischievous side.  Not that I could relate or anything.

As I tootled along the dusty trails, I tried, with varying amounts of success, not to get lost and not to crash.  Quite often I got separated from Chris and he’d send Jack to find me.  I was never afraid of being lost when I rode with Chris because I knew Jack would always come back for me.  As I stood befuddled as to which way to turn on a trail, Jack would lope up to me, his polka dot tongue waggling at me.  I would say “Hi, Jack.  Thanks for coming to get me.  Take me to Chris.”  And sure enough, Jack led me to Chris every time.  He was my own personal rescue dog.

Today Jack died.  And I am sad.  I know he was old and no longer spry enough to run rescue missions on the trails.  And I know he wasn’t even my dog.  But I am sad.  Sad that he will never nip at my tires or grin at me with his silly polka dot tongue.

I rode my bike to school today and in the late morning Terry dropped by my classroom with a bouquet of stark white roses.  When it came time to go home, I jimmied the bouquet into my backpack and strapped on my helmet.  The roses bumped against the back of my helmet as I pedaled up the hill home.  Every little bump seemed to release a new wave of fragrance into the air.  It was lovely.

As I inhaled the scent of the white roses, I thought of black Jack.  I thought of how grief is anything but black and white.  It is shades of gray, birthed from black sorrow and white joy stacked one upon the other, like crying and laughing in the same breath.

When I got home today, I plunged the roses into a vase of water.  A lone petal fell onto the counter.  I fingered its pale skin, grateful today for the juxtaposition of loss and love.  I stood in the kitchen and gave thanks that in my life there is more laughing than crying, more love than loss, more white than black.

Letter #7: Your Voice

Dear Gramma,

Today I woke up in the small morning hours and wandered out to the living room.  The house was cool and dark and I tapped away on my computer, writing in the stillness.  All the windows were open and the croaking frogs were the perfect metronome to my words.  When I was done, I crept back into bed as Terry was getting ready for work.  I drifted off to sleep for one last precious hour.

In that snippet of morning sleep, I dreamed that our family was having a party.  It was a backyard party with crisp white tablecloths snapping in the breeze.  Aunt Nancy poured some sort of exotic soup into bright white ramekins.  She filled one too full, and soup dribbled over the edge, seeping into the tablecloth like a tea stain.

My mom and I set the tables and I stopped for just a moment to watch Terry.  He sat near the grass and looked so handsome.  He didn’t see me sneak a peek.  You always told me he just gets better and better looking with age and I couldn’t agree more.

You arrived at the party and came up from behind me, putting your arm around my waist.  I put my arm around your shoulder and kissed your cheek.  It was so soft, like the cheek of a baby.  You said “Hi, honey.”  Your voice was so clear.  In my waking hours I have trouble recalling the particular lilt of your voice, the rhythm of Texas buried under years of California.  But in my dream your voice was so familiar, so filled with love.

In my dream you had cancer, but it appeared you were undergoing treatment.  I asked you “How are you feeling?”  You squeezed my waist and said “Much better.  How are you feeling?”  I laughed and said “I’m feeling fine, Gramma, just fine.”  You said “That’s good.” and patted my bottom twice, like you always did.  I have no idea why you always patted my bottom like that.  Was it because I’m so tall and you were so small?  Is that all you could reach?

There was music in the background and Uncle Jon and Aunt Jill danced close together on the patio.  Hayley was mortified until Katie pulled her on the dance floor.  Katie wore a gorgeous, dark pink dress that made her rosy cheeks even more striking.  Katie and Hayley danced and laughed.  Everyone laughed with them.  You and I stood there, your arm still around my waist, my arm draped around your shoulder.  You leaned into me, just the slightest little bit until your hair was touching my chest.  We watched them dance and we were so happy.

You turned to me and asked “Is everyone here?”  Before I could answer, I woke with a start back in my own bed.  I gasped for air like I was breaking through the water’s surface after swimming down deep.

My dream hung around me like gauzy sheets and as I sat up in bed, I realized my alarm hadn’t gone off.  I swung my legs over the edge and for a second my mind convinced me that my dream was real, that your cancer was responding to treatments.  That you were indeed feeling better.  That you were still here.  My feet touched the carpet and I realized it was not real, that it was just a dream.  A cruel dream that left tear drops on my shirt as I got dressed.  The dream looped in my mind, always stopping when you asked “Is everyone here?”.

In the unforgiving light of day, I answered your question.  Everyone is not here.  And today that thought has seeped into me, leaving me stained with sadness.

I love you, Gramma.  Come talk to me in my dreams again soon.



The Same

It’s been almost three years since my dad died.  We were estranged, a choice that was mine.  And yet, grief still sneaks up on me.

Today I was baking peanut butter cookies, a holiday favorite, and my mind snapped back to the Christmas morning my parents gave me a Bianchi my dad had picked out for me.  Moments like that were few and far between and cause a twinge of sorrow.

There are other times when I do expect to feel grief and it’s not any easier.  My best friend and his wife moved into a beautiful house just beyond the cemetery where my dad is buried.  On the way to their house Terry and I were cruising in the Mini with the top down, enjoying a perfect evening.  When we passed by the cemetery, I could barely keep from vomiting.  I sucked in gulps of cool air, blinked back hot tears, and tried in vain to listen to what Terry was saying.

I’m not really sure how to handle grief when it sneaks up on me.  I’m entirely unsure how to handle it even when I know it’s coming.  The truth is, sneaky or not so sneaky, it all hurts the same.