It is still early, the sun just up. As I come down the stairs for my first cup of coffee, I see the eastern sky is orange and smarmy like a sticky film covers the sun. There is a pall over everything. I felt it before I remembered as if my body had held onto the news all night when my brain relaxed its grip. I try to imagine this feeling for my dear friend. The new dawning every morning of her husband’s diagnosis, a bewildering sun and start of another day but nothing has changed. My friend. What can I do for her?Howcan I befor her?
“I am in unchartered territory,” one friend said to me on the phone last night. I sat in my pajamas on the edge of my bathtub. My magnifying mirror was angled toward me where I had last sat to pluck my eyebrows and frown at my deepening wrinkles, but that was the afternoon, hours ago, a lifetime ago before I received the text. My friend is saying that she does not know how to be a friend now. She is crying, and I realize I have never heard her cry. She is both the toughest person I know and the most tender. The friend who slips into your house to sneak a casserole into your fridge, who knows when there is radio silence that you have barricaded yourself inside your empty nest and comes to sit with you in the new quiet.
Yet another friend calls moments later. We talk in circles. What can we do? How can we help? How can we respect the privacy of two people who are working out new plans for life and death? Do we go to the hospital? Do we call? Not call? Send a text? Leave a meal at the front door? We feel helpless. She tries to say this is all new. Until now, we have expected the call from an elderly parent who has fallen, but now, newly 50, we are initiated into a new realm of our mortality; we are communally heading down this road. In the mirror, I see my stricken face. Only two days ago, I sat at my kitchen table with a colleague. She spoke of her 81-year old father’s foot infection which was not healing. He will probably lose his foot, she said almost casually. “He’s dying. Well,” she paused here. “We’re all dying.” And I understood she was far further along in meeting the death of parents. She had moved beyond diseased body parts and episodes of woe into a far more generous, brave perspective: what’s a foot compared with life? But now, here is my friend’s husband, our dear friend, 51 years old with a port in his chest. Until this news, we were notall dying.
I return an email to an older friend who is a veteran of Vietnam. He has written to say that he has a blood clot in his leg and a wound on his cheek that won’t heal where a dermatologist removed a cancerous patch. He wonders whether he is “paying” for living a tough life or just reaping the effects of not wearing sunblock in the jungle. I try to console him. Because of what he has gone through I am self-conscious about sharing that this morning I feel the urgency to spend my hours wisely, and yet I have no energy, no will to do a thing.
I consult Mary Oliver. My eyes run scatter shot over my favorite poems, looking for one line, just one I can text to my friends who are hurting, one line that might let them take a deep breath this morning and allow that maybe things might be okay. I think there might be something hopeful in the last line of Oliver’s poem, “Forty Years”:
and again this morning as always
I am stopped as the world comes back
wet and beautiful I am thinking
is not even a river
is not even a tree is not a green field
is not even a black ant traveling
from day to day from one
golden page to another.
I screen shot these stanzas to send and then promptly delete the photo. I do not see the “wet and beautiful” morning out there. And I can’t settle on a “golden page.” I do not know how to offer comfort.
The dog and I take a pilgrimage to the weeping birch on the other end of the little footbridge. I used to cross this bridge daily with small children, first in strollers, then tracking them on their big wheels, tricycles, three wheelers, two wheelers, scooters, always at a slow pace so that snacks and sippy cups were required to make this great crossing of 100 feet. I have not visited the tree in a long time. I used to pause or a few moments before turning my attention back to toddlers and the first dog we loved. In the fall, I would stand under the tree and gaze up through its voluptuous canopy of burnished leaves. In the winter, its bone white bark gathers armfuls of aimless snowflakes. I can make this field trip in my mind. Cold pockets of air crossing the bridge over the river, the heckling honk of geese veering in for a landing, the slow, aimless drift of ducks whose names I really should know after 19 years of living on this river. The flash of emerald, a jewel in drab feathers. The cold air circles in my nostrils, and I bury my face in the neck of my parka while my dog trots off to the river’s edge.
“Is it a mistake to look to the world to tell us the meaning of our plummeting lives?” Kathleen Dean Moore asks in Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature. I don’t know but this morning I need something from the tree. I am braced to find something, see something, feelsomething. I desire a consultation. I feel deserving of some direction, a way to go forward in this new world.
It is December and the limbs are stripped. Fine hairs of branches trail the barren ground. In some spots these branches tangle and I suddenly remember the battles over brushing my young daughter’s knotted hair, the cajoling, bribing, begging and finally, surrendering to the rat’s nest at the back of her head, proof of my failure. The larger limbs do what trees in children’s drawings do: grow straight out and up in perfect symmetry. This morning, their clear, unmitigated direction seems overly optimistic. I am more interested in the limbs that go astray. The limbs that seem to buckle, duck, and then rise up and swoop back down in a gnarly roller coaster. I wonder if these dips are years in the making. Where I see a foot’s length of branch is that actually ten years of responding to a changing environment? This indeterminate, bumbling path a response to the smallest change in light or a devastating disease that felled a cousin tree? One limb thins, squirrely, but still seeks out the light. How many years has it kept this up?
In Zimbabwe, this past fall, our tour stopped at a baobab tree that was 3,000 years old. I attempted the subtraction in my head. What year was it born? What history had it witnessed? In African tribal languages, the baobab is “the tree of life.” My eye went first to the vendors who hollered at us when we got out of the truck. They squatted behind touristy knickknacks of the baobab, wooden giraffes and elephants. “Buy this! You want this? Come look, come look!” I didn’t want to be rude, but I wanted to pay my respects to the tree. How to approach it? As a queen on her throne? As a shrine? The tree was not as tall as I would have guessed. It wasn’t pretty. It was relatively short and stumpy. Instead of growing taller, it had widened over the years, adapting this trait so that even when gouged by feeding elephants, destruction that kills most trees in the grasslands, the baobab builds thicker and thicker bark. I imagined that the heart of the tree was now buried deep, 3,000 years deep within, barricaded behind impenetrable walls.
Now, in the bark of the weeping birch, I see a new bleeding. A diamond shape driven down into the scarred bark. It is a snout. On either side, wide set eyes. I see the face of the kudu who stopped in front of our truck in the deep and ancient sands of the Kalahari. He stopped to look at us, to be marveled at, to challenge him to move. And now he has followed me home. The majesty of his face, the absurdity of the beautiful striping on his back, as if God held a paintbrush tentatively and gently, motherly swept four slight strokes across its back for no other reason than love of this new creation. I have found the kudu’s face along with the others, the blackened eyes of wounds marking the tree. I call them wounds, but they are never notbeautiful. The whole tree is pockmarked with wounds, markers, milestones, a limb hewn off, the start and stop of impossible growth, a death, and then, a moving forward.
“Earth lights these small signal fires-not forus, but amongus-and we can find them if we look,” Kathleen Dean Moore writes. “If we are not afraid, if we keep our balance, if we let our anxious selves dissolve into the beauties and mysteries of the night, we will find a way to peace and reassurance. Signal fires burn all over the land.”
I am still in my pajamas. On my desk, a candle burns the “golden” orange of Mary Oliver’s page. My phone flashes a new text from the closest friend of our friend. They have met. Needs for the day have been discussed. I am encouraged to reach out to them in the hospital. It is direction for this day. The smallest signal fire lighting the way.