We lost a tree this week. I would have told you a few weeks ago that it was at least one hundred and twenty five years old. Its grey trunk was massive and hauntingly beautiful with twisted limbs and beautiful old knots. It was a walnut. My wife, Kara, hired a specialist to come in and try to save it. I was skeptical, telling her that it would be a waste of money; this thing was half dead, but Kara was insistent. We had to try, and somewhere inside I agreed and appreciated her unwillingness to compromise. At least we could say we tried everything we could for this old man. Unfortunately, I had been right on this one. The specialists came in and explained that this tree wasn’t really that old at all, thirty years or something. It wasn’t native to this area, and they reasoned that most of the walnuts around here were dying off because they couldn’t handle the frigid temperatures. This one would have to come down. If we didn’t do something about it then we were risking it being taken down by the high winds and it would more than likely hit our barn.
They took it down when I was at work the other day. I ran home from work. Thursday nights are my long run these days and so I get this in by changing clothes at work and running thirteen to fourteen miles back to our rural New York home. I knew it was coming down, but honestly had no idea how our yard would look without its wise old presence. I made it home, exhausted and hungry, and there it was, stretched out across the yard, defeated and sad. I actually didn’t expect my own reaction to it. I walked up to it and stretched my arms around his trunk, pressed the weight of my body against it. I wanted to hear whatever life happened to be left inside of it, the ants and roly-polies, centipedes, the microbes and wasps. I wanted to feel the years of cold winters and sweltering summers in my arms. This tired old man. And I wept for him. Kara came out of the house, across the yard, tears in her eyes too. We had done what had to be done; but what had we done?
And today, Sunday morning, I woke up early and went for a run with my dog and a friend. Trails. Out in the forests everything makes sense again. The trails were dry and a light breeze was blowing. It was perfect. My dog, Dela, had her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth happily. Jason and I fix the world’s problems, or we don’t when we run. Sometimes we talk about politics, or religion, or work. Sometimes we don’t talk much at all, but just work on getting up the next hill. Jason’s a good man. I mean, he’s one of those genuinely good people. He works hard at a job that he doesn’t love or hate, but it pays the bills, and he goes to father-daughter dances with his kid. He has no hate in him. He’s interested in the world around him. He has strong opinions, but he’s also willing to challenge himself and question whether or not his beliefs are correct at any given time. He’s a joy to run with. We’ve been running together for a couple of years now, and he’s still a pleasure to know. We had a great run this morning. I hug him, sweaty and thankful at the end, thankful of his friendship.
I told Kara I would do what I could to get the wood out of the yard in time for our daughter, Story’s, third birthday party. I told her that I would start when I got home from my run this morning.
I’ve been joking lately that toddler’s birthday parties are starting to feel like going on tour to follow the Grateful Dead. It’s the same ritual every time. We go to bounce houses, and we watch our frenzied children bounce until they are both maniacal and exhausted. Then we gather in a room for pizza, a vegetable tray, which is typically picked at, but mostly ignored, and then there is cake. We see the same faces, the parents of my daughter’s little friends, at almost every party. We hit three parties last weekend. Two the weekend before that. There was only one yesterday, Kara agreed to take the hit and go without me. I just didn’t have one more party in me. Not right now. We both agree, we are tired of pizza followed by birthday cake. We miss salad. Kara and I are rebelling together by breaking from the norm. No bounce houses for us. Story’s party will be outside in the yard. We hadn’t anticipated the death of our tree when this was being planned. We planned a field day, with races and, activities to whip the children into a frenzy before loading them up with sugar, but don’t worry, the sugar will almost certainly be organic.
But now there is a tree in the middle of our field day activities, and I have to move the wood, which has been cut up into logs and will be used this winter to warm our bodies. Some of the branches are too long and they will be tossed onto the bonfire pit in our yard.
I’ve enlisted Story’s help. Her mother is off buying more children’s shoes this morning, because Story burns through hers by either outgrowing them, or losing them, at about an equal pace.
So, out in the yard I have a wheelbarrow, and Story is proudly picking up logs that are too big for her and making me watch as she loads them into the wheelbarrow, which is just below eye level. She says that she wants her sweater because, “I’m a little chilly, daddy.” So, we walk back into the kitchen to put one on her. She asks for a cup of water, “without the lid, daddy.” She finishes this with, “I don’t really need the lid,” as much a statement made to herself as to me. And we stand in the kitchen together toasting our hard work and gulping down our drinks. It’s silent in the kitchen. I can hear the wind outside, and our breathing amplified through the cups as we greedily drink together standing next to each other in the kitchen. I pat her head and tell her that she is a really good worker. She agrees.
We head back outside, but I’m tired from the run I did this morning, and the wheelbarrows full of wood that I’ve already moved, so I’m taking a break, leaning against our picnic table, watching my beautiful daughter hunt for insects in the long trunk on the ground. She climbs it and yells, “Look, Daddy!” as she jumps proudly back to earth, and I applaud madly for her courage.
She’s so beautiful to me. I always wonder if she really is as stunning as I think she is. I remember an old psych class I took where I had to read research on parent’s attachments to their children; and recall that parents typically find their children attractive. Children look like their parents, so this helps.
The wind is whipping outside. A murder of crows swoops above our home chaotically. I can hear their voices cautioning each other loudly, as they dart across the farmland across the street from my house.
“Look, Story!” I yell and point excitedly.
She answers magically, “Crows, Daddy’s favorite bird,” with beautiful surprise, and we watch their mad sky-dance together.
It’s a quiet day, sitting out on top of the picnic table, watching my enchanting child touch the world around her, watching her weigh and discover; and I feel so in love with her.
And I feel like I’ve stepped into a poem that I never want to leave.
It surprises me how much I love being a father, a guide, “let me show you, Story, these are…[ snails, or roses, or drums, or this is how a ladder works]” She has given me a new world to see, or maybe the same world, but she gives me the ability to see it.
And I come inside my home.
Kara has returned from the store with new shoes.
And that’s when we learn.
Another mass shooting.
Another goddamned mass shooting!
Someone else’s child.
Other people’s children.
Their roly-poly discoveries, their bounce-house birthday parties, and jumping off of logs, and swing sets, and, and, new shoes…
Another mass shooting.
While I was playing in the forest this morning, while I was quietly reflecting over the magic of this love.
While I was mourning the loss of my tree.
And I’m filled with hurt, and rage, and my god, so much sadness.
My child, my world.
Stop killing my world! I hate you.
Stop killing my world!
Please, I beg you, stop killing my world.
- Robert Veeder