When you are small, some things are forever. At my junior school, the Wednesday walks in the Arboretum were forever. At my senior school, the trees on the Quad were forever. At my Nana’s house I played under an avenue of Oak trees, gathered acorns, mulched leaves, gathered knobbly twigs to feed autumnal bonfires and clear the ground for spring daffodils, columns of daffodils that I looked forward to each year. Fat buds of promise, the song of spring that can only mean life. In my family home, the damson trees that were saplings in an overgrown paddock were never cut down: there they were, growing, ready to be part of my family history. Forever.
When I was really small, the route to my Nana’s house was lined with stumps of Elm trees, victims of Dutch Elm disease. These days, the route I ride my bike on his peppered with browning chestnut trees, victims of a new silent killer of trees. Trees are not forever. Protect them, plant them, honour them, nurture them. But they are not forever.
The Oak tree house was sold after death came calling. I left one school behind reluctantly, fought to break out of another. The beauty of a place does not make it sacred, either to keep or indeed to make it joyful. We left behind the stripped avenues of Elm graves and cursed the sticky residue of Lime trees in another street. The family that grew shorter than the Damsons is now ripped up and tattered, spread across the globe and shattered by death, foolishness and grief.
When my son died, people brought me Magnolia trees, co-incidentally the tree that has reminded me of a lost son since I was 18 years old.
Daffodils mean nothing but death to me. It is an act of will to turn them into something which means life, a twist of universal irony to make the memory of my son’s life symbolised by the plant and the tree I had already feared for nearly 20 years. I choose to do it. I choose to embrace the love of the friends who sent me the tree and find joy in them. I choose to look forward to daffodils as the flower that will herald “one year since”, the right to throw off the mourning weeds and embrace what else there is in life.
4 years ago I planted a rose bush to say goodbye to a different baby, never guessing that worse was to come. The rose died. It doesn’t matter. The rose is not a baby. The ritual was in the planting, not in the keeping. I hope Freddie’s rose survives though; I hope it because it was bought for me, because it symbolises love and life and remembrance and hope and the gift of a future; buds that will continue to flower.
Trees don’t care. Not really. Not at all. They just grow. Planted by great men in great parks, planted by accident in crowded woods. Planted to make money, planted for wood, used to shelter, used for war, grown to make boats to explore the world, burned for warmth, hacked away for profit. But they grow. The wars happen, the people live, babies are born and they die. The wind blows and the world turns and there, in it all, spiritual, necessary, endlessly diverse and all the same, the trees are there.
Freddie has two trees, or I have two trees instead of Freddie. I daren’t nurture them in case they die and I’m bereft all over again. I peer at them, I go and speak to their leaves, I stroke the confused buds on the ends of their branches and I think of them growing, while he does not. Trees out in the air, made of wood, Freddie contained in wood, tucked into the grain of a once tree in a cupboard I bought, never knowing that one day it would hold my son. All that remains of my son. And because I hear and feel him in the wind and the movement of the grass and the leaves, I think of him all the time, everywhere I go. Sometimes I long for a scorched earth – no grass, no leaves, no wind moving.
Once I wrote that I had a secret, one I didn’t keep safe. I’ll never know if I didn’t keep Freddie safe. I tried my best, which is at least one up on the previous one, where I tried not at all. The trees remind me of the spaces, of the emptiness and of the simple truth that the world has turned. On the day I had Freddie, it was not even Spring. Now it is Autumn and I have two trees and no son.
Where’s the sense in that? There isn’t any. So instead, I look at those trees and I remember, if I can, that we have people who love us. People who will, I hope, think fleetingly of my little boy when they hear his name some other place. People who will see Oak trees and think of me, or Magnolia trees and think of him. For a while. Until the world turns some more.
If I’m still floored by anything, it is the horrific truth that nothing is forever. Not trees. Not associations. Not even children.
Written for StillLife 365.