By: Barbara Rady Kazdan
“They say the tree will die,” I told my son Jake when he visited.
I’d planted that flowering plum tree in memory of my husband David, a few months after he died. The tree stands outside the wide picture window just behind his easy chair and the breakfast room. I’d always loved this harbinger of Spring. I thought its pale pink blossoms and bronzed purple leaves would be a striking standout against the greenery behind it. Like a first bike with training wheels, the sapling was staked to hold it upright until it could stand on its own. Before it could find firm footing, a mean-spirited storm swept through leaving it leaning halfway to the ground, hanging on for dear life. Death had taken my husband of 42 years too soon. How could Mother Nature take this living memorial to him as well?
“The tree expert told me it’s hanging on by part of one root. It can’t survive.”
“Let’s give it a chance,” he said. He did what he could to straighten it out and secure its moorings. He did the same for me.
I was wobbly. Starting a new life. Wanting to cultivate a consulting practice but constrained by the perverse, insidious inertia of grief. I’d start to read a novel but give up in frustration; my mind would wander, come back, wander again. Trying to work was pointless – my head, usually overflowing with ideas, could have worn a vacancy sign.
My children tried to prop me up. “Let’s get you a reliable car before I go back to California,” Jake said. He sold my well-used Mitsubishi, found a like-new Prius for me and negotiated a purse-friendly purchase price. A huge help, since I was not fluent in “car talk.” Six years later, he still backs me up.
“Stand by, I’m taking the car in Tuesday afternoon,” I text. When I get the service report, like a stumped quiz show contestant, I phone a friend. Armed with Jake’s advice, I know whether to stay or leave. Jake’s my financial planning partner, too. “At the Merrill Lynch meeting, let’s ask if you’re over-weighted in stocks,” he’ll say. I don’t want to, don’t have to think about money; he’s on the case.
My daughters help, too. Jenny was my partner before, during and after I had elective surgery. She’s great at digging into details. She texted: “Here’s a link to a meditation tape. Add a headset to the list of what you’re bringing to the hospital.” And emailed: “This YouTube video shows how to install a grab bar.” She flew from Phoenix to Silver Spring to be with me before, during and after the operation.
Always thoughtful, her sister Sandra wrote, “How about meeting us in New York for your birthday? I’d like to treat you to a Broadway Show.” Before I could worry about “celebrating” alone, I could look forward to sharing that day with family. From her North Carolina home, she offers tips: “Walk around the perimeter of the house now and then to check things out; no one else is.”
I didn’t have to walk around the house to find trouble. Basement floods and major systems failures required crash courses on plumbing, heating and more. Over time I went from not being able to answer, “Where’s your water cutoff?” to feeling reasonably in control of household management. I got up the gumption to cancel the lawn service David had used and hire a top-rated firm that costs less and does a much better job. You’d think I’d just landed a prized client; I was so pleased with myself.
“Guess what, Jake?” I called to say. “The plum tree’s blooming! No wonder it’s called an ornamental tree; it’s so beautiful. The flowers fill the yard with a strong, sweet scent. The trunk is leaning a bit, but it’s standing.”
The little tree was not just surviving, but flourishing. From its slender trunk the branches, covered with wine-colored, sunlight-frosted foliage, form a full, round shape. Scarlet leaves dot the branch-tips with youthful exuberance.
I was standing, too, but not flourishing. On too many mornings my email chided: “You have no events scheduled today.” So I kept pouring over newsletters and searching online, looking for volunteer roles, classes and meet-ups where I might encounter kindred spirits. Over and over again I walked into rooms filled with name-tagged strangers. Did it take steely resolve to drag myself to these gatherings? Yes. But slowly, my calendar filled; my social circle expanded. And the plum tree stood its ground.
After every thunderstorm I’d check the basement and what we’ve come to call “Daddy’s tree.” No water in house. Tree unharmed. Whew.
Me? Nourished by friends and new pursuits, my calendar filled during the week. But a casual, “Have a great weekend,” would make me shudder. For me, most weekends were empty spaces bracketing weekdays. The missing ingredient? A friend to hang out with, unfettered by family and longstanding social ties.
Meanwhile I was adding notches to my home management belt. On a phone call with Jake I announced, “I replaced the toilet seat all by myself,” aware I sounded like a 5-year old who’d laced her shoes without help.
“Did you tell Jenny and Sandra?” he asked, knowing that for me, this was no small feat.
“It took two trips to Home Depot,” I said.
“Every job takes two trips to Home Depot,” he assured me.
At a book club meeting, I mentioned, “I need to replace my bedroom carpet.” Everyone weighed in on the pros and cons of carpet, wood and more.
“You enjoy writing so much,” a friend commented, “Why don’t you take some classes at the Writer’s Center? People rave about it.” Worth a try, I thought. Summer workshops there morphed into a weekly memoir club where “everybody knows my name,” and a whole lot more, as we share raw reflections about our lives. Writing challenges me and offers a “ticket to ride” with creative, supportive, fascinating people. Now when the calendar’s empty, I’m glad: more time to write! The practice invites introspection about the sweet and sour times of a life that flew by unexamined.
About that missing ingredient: the plum tree flowered while a friendship was germinating with a retired, suddenly single yoga classmate. After years of false starts, I found someone to laugh, travel and even write with – how about that? She emails: “Feel like going to a movie Saturday?” A text appears: “Check out this program on women’s history. Interested?” We show up, sign up or just hang out together, especially on weekends.
Today that scrappy sapling I planted towers over the rooftop; its foliage fills the picture window. Each time Jake visits, as we sit at the breakfast table – the mahogany pedestal table David and I bought as newlyweds – Jake notes with pleasure how “Daddy’s tree” has grown and thrived. So have I.