Growing up, my parents had a huge tree in their backyard that was perfect for climbing. My siblings and I put it to good use. Both my brother and sister were more adventurous than myself and traveled pretty high on occasion, whereas I tended to stick closer to the earth. The lower limbs were about four feet off the ground, good for more than getting up into the tree. They were conveniently bent in such a way that one could sit and stay a while. Forever a bookworm, I recall sitting there and reading a time or two.
At one point the tree developed some sort of disease in one of its limbs. The limb was dead but remained in place so Dad had to cut it off. To prevent it from growing back he sealed the amputation with a coat of tan paint, the same color as our house. There was still plenty of healthy tree for us to enjoy and climb; we were thankful. Yet the scar remained, a reminder that something had happened there.
When I climbed trees I had to do it barefoot. Sure, it was a bit painful at times but I just couldn’t grip a tree with shoes on now could I? I needed the dexterity I had when I could feel the tree and use my toes. If I wasn’t in the tree I also enjoyed sitting below its shade letting ants crawl over my naked feet. I’d take a notebook outside and write little poems about things I observed in the yard: ants, violets, honeysuckle.
One year as Chris’ birthday approached, he discovered a brand of shoes that had individual places for each toe. They were not cheap however, at $80/pair and the toe socks were an additional $12/pair. Anyone who knew my husband knows this type of quirky thing was right up his alley. He quickly made a birthday list for the family and put these shoes and socks on them. Much to his delight, his 25th birthday brought him the pair of fancy Fivefinger shoes he’d asked for, as well as several pairs of socks.
We were at my parents’ house so the logical test for these new shoes was the climbing tree in the backyard. He ascended, higher and higher into the tree. Ever that annoying person, I took photos. The last one I took was zoomed out, capturing most of the tree and all of Chris. The shoes were a hit—they allowed a person to climb and move but also provided more protection than bare feet. (Plus, as a bonus, we later learned they were a good conversation piece in public. You want to make a splash in the grocery store? In church? Wear shoes with toes in them.) That was a fun night—all of us in the back yard in October watching my goofy hubby climb a tree.
At some point in recent years, our old climbing tree died. A dead tree is nothing to trifle with; not something you want to leave to fall by chance when least expected. Mom and Dad had to have it removed. The first time I exited my parent’s back door and saw a gaping void to the right of the swing set, it was so strange. I could hardly believe this tree was missing—it should just be there. After all, for more than 15 years that tree had been a constant in that spot.
I was at Mom’s house earlier this week and I went to the backyard. By this point I’m used to the emptiness where our tree once was; have been for some time. I can’t help but continue to notice its absence and miss its beauty though, even if I’ve accepted that it’s not here.
Grief is certainly like that. It can be, particularly the loss of a close family member, someone who shared in our home. It’s the way for months after Chris died I would wake up alone in bed and every time the first thought on my mind was “He’s dead.” My cognizant mind couldn’t form any other thought upon waking because each day I was met with a pillow his head wasn’t on and a dip in the mattress he wasn’t lying in. After eight years of sharing a bed, his absence was notable.
It’s also the way only a spouse or a parent could miss the messes that are no longer left for us to clean up. When Chris’ overnight bag was returned to me a week or two after his death, it contained the only dirty clothing of his I had left. I dumped it on the floor next to his side of the bed, giving myself a semblance of normalcy when nothing, oh nothing, in my life was normal. Hard as it was to believe, I longed to clean up his messes again because they were not simply messes—they were the evidence of life. For a few days I gave myself this guilty pleasure, this façade, before I washed and dried the clothes. Then they went with the others to Goodwill or to family.
Grief as lived by “noticing the absence” is in the way I still sometimes stop in the greeting card aisle, torturing myself as I read a few. Inevitably I see something I’d love to give my husband. It’s seeing the anniversary cards that strike a chord with our sense of humor, a Father’s Day I wish the girls could give him, or birthday cards that would make him laugh. I knew this man in the way that people only dream of knowing someone. I can see a movie or hear a song for the first time and tell you if he’d like it, even now. I knew him… as fully as one can truly know someone… with my mind, with my soul, with my body.
As I stood in Mom’s backyard, looking at the place where the tree once stood and picturing the man in it, smiling at me… I was at a loss. The tree was simply a tree. It had a history and carried great memories but in the end it was just a tree. The man had been my best friend. He was the one I ran to with my joys and with my heartaches. I will always love him and I will always, always, have moments when I notice his absence. Some of those moments are mild like a pinch and others are gut-wrenching, soul-crushing moments. But does this mean I cannot continue living a life that is beautiful, full of meaning, hope, joy, and even most of the time peace in my soul? No, it does not mean that at all.
The loss of a spouse is a deep and serious wound. I manage to live with it. Yet as with a wound, isn’t healing possible with the proper care? I also live with much healing. My God hears my cries and attends to them, with mercy and love. He stitches me up, bandages me, feeds me, and gives me the rest I need to heal.