Three Trees

Posted by on 07.12.08 | 7 Comments
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Three trees in one clump

flickr photo by Francis Storr
She had asked that in lieu of sending flowers, anyone who wanted to remember her please to plant a tree. I planted two. And one backup, so that’s three. She was worth at least three trees to me. The peach, purchased just this spring, saved from the parking lot of City Market, the only peach there, barely rooted, clinging to sodden clay in the heat of the concrete lot, the peach is doing well where I planted it, over the grave of the old dog and Michael’s second cat.
This lime, though, bought the winter after she died, mail order from a reputable company, I have just attempted to de-scale. I knew she was in trouble this spring, and took preliminary measures just before summer, rinsing and rubbing leaves and stems, drowning the soil, isolating. But I just couldn’t find time to get around to repotting and giving a thorough cleaning until today, mid-July. I’ve never seen such scale. Without reading glasses I’d been passing her by, watering, noting with interest the columns of ants going up and down, cultivating the scale. I saw there was an awful lot of scale, but I kept putting off dealing with it. Knowing that when I finally turned my attention to the problem it would be an hour’s intensive pruning, soaping, rinsing, brushing, rubbing, soaking, rinsing roots clean, repotting effort, and deciding, in the midst of all else every day demanded that I do, to wait, day after day, just one more day. That messy endeavor now accomplished, she stands stripped of all leaves in a wide, accommodating pot, fresh soil washed in around clean roots. Those blasted ants, growing that scale out of all proportion to anything I’ve seen before. I must look into that. I know some ants grow aphids for their honeydew. I wonder how exactly these ants benefit from cultivating scale.
So here I am cleaning this little lime tree, finally tending to it after months of avoidance, and I think of Darlene, and how I avoided her decline, too, into the infestation of cancer that took her down. How I could have insisted that she get her spine checked even before she could move to Denver, except that on her schedule she sold the house first, then moved to Denver, then dealt with what fresh hell the cancer had to give her. Unfortunately for both of us, the cancer had its own agenda, squeezing her spine with pain she chalked up to having fallen in that first seizure at the store, hitting her back on the counter. I bought that. It was feasible, and she wasn’t willing to hear it might be more cancer.
I stepped back from her when she snapped at me for interfering. We hadn’t yet grown close enough for me to put my foot down, though you’d have thought after 25 years I could have. I drove down for Christmas specifically to have a talk with her about “what if you die from this?” But we never got around to it. Like the scale. It grew and grew, the cancer squeezing her spine, the likelihood she’d die of it, while we drove out and got the dogs groomed, dined at restaurants, bought Bach flower remedies, met her friends for Ladies’ Night, shopped for movies. She made sure we made it downtown to Larry’s Hats so I could find what I was looking for, which turned out to be a red felt soft-brimmed hat with a dash of red feathers sweeping forward on one side. People never fail to comment when I wear it. “Where’d you get it?” I tell them I got it at Larry’s Hats, and leave it at that, because always I am transported back to that morning, passing the store first, then coming back hunting, finding a parking spot with a meter on the sidestreet, crossing with the light, she and I in the city, the narrow doorway, the shelves and racks of hats, all decorated, if not made, the clerk informed us, by Larry.
Darlene was sicker then than she let on. Tight in on herself yet still reaching out. We spent a lot of time that visit focusing on food, what she could eat that radiation didn’t make her sick of. Each afternoon we drove up the interstate for her radiation treatments. That didn’t leave a lot of time or energy for anything else. We watched a lot of TV, a marathon of The Dog Whisperer, which she loved and I’d never seen. It snowed the day before I was supposed to leave, and I ended up spending New Year’s Eve. It was a subdued celebration. By then we were both in denial. It seemed like there was plenty of time, according to her schedule: first she’d get the house sold, then move to Denver and get in with the Cancer Center there, and see some really good doctors. She thought she had plenty of time. She had to think she had time. She couldn’t face not having time, having stayed in Albuquerque, unhappy, for so long. And I remembered all the times I’d heard the workers in the field, nurses, counselors, tell me “Each person has to face illness and death in their own way. You can’t try to make it your way.”
I guess I realized that she was going to die no matter what. So why not let her get through it with denial? I jumped on board. It would not have been my way, I think, if I’d been in her shoes. But I too thought she had more time. That we would have more time. That maybe she wouldn’t die, so why be grim? She was working so hard on positive thinking, Lance Armstrong’s book at her bedside. If I’d had $3000 I’d have taken her to that place in California where Gretchen got so inspired. But I did have the money, I lacked the commitment — and she would never have accepted it from me anyway. We held each other ridiculously at arms’ length for the last of her life, from the time the second cancer came. She chose a course right then of solitary struggle.
The last couple of months, after she’d sold the house and moved, either she chose not to answer my calls or her sister deflected them, and I let them. I walked on by that lime tree looking with interest at the columns of ants, I called and left messages and waited for her to be ready to reply. Deep in my own denial. First she was at home, then in the hospital, then Hospice. Even knowing the average Hospice patient stays only 21 days between admission and dying, I kept walking by, as though by my denying she would last longer. Finally, despite her sister’s insistence I not come visit, I called the Hospice and talked with a nurse, who said she’d ask Darlene if I could come. She called me back a few hours later. “I asked if she’d like to see her friend Rita, and she blinked her eyes. It’s the only way she can communicate,” she said, “…if you want to see her you’d better come now.”
I was off in a matter of hours, after making arrangements for the young dogs to get taken to the kennel, and taking the old dying dog with me, I blasted across the March night interstate, over the dark icy mountains, into the big clanging city. I parked, trembling from the drive. I entered the quiet Hospice building, and they led me to her bed. She turned her head toward me. I stood beside her, said “I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner. Your sister told me not to come –” She turned away. I wish I’d kissed her then. Full on the lips. Kissed her goodbye, kissed her one last time for all the promise there had been between us. She was so frail. Her right hand lay at her neck. “I want to touch you,” I said. “May I touch you?” She flung her hand away to the side, looked back at me for one searing second, one tear, then turned her eyes from mine.
That last look floored me. I have never seen such darkness in someone’s eyes. All the rage, all the sorrow — was it aimed at me? Had I so let her down? Or, bitterness and profound loss, was it simply the agony of dying young?
Later, deep in the night, I talked to her. Told her she’d been robbed, told her we had both been robbed, of our friendship, our future. Told her she was the only girl I’d ever loved; that of all the people I knew she was the most fun to do things with, projects, household repairs, shopping, whatever. Remembered when we met, when we sat by the sinkhole for three days watching that alligator hold onto a heron. We were so sure the heron would die, any minute, give up, give in, go under. But it would not. The alligator tried to shift his grip every now and then, and we kept thinking, this is it; but it was not. And finally, one last time that alligator let go for a split second to shift again and the heron flapped free. After three days. It was a small alligator, it’s true, and a small heron, but a mighty struggle nonetheless. That heron hung around for weeks as its leg festered and swelled, and just about the time Darlene and I were ready to give up, call for help and try to catch the bird, it started getting better. Before long it was gone.
I called up those early days in the swamp when I’d sometimes sleep over in their kingsize bed between her and Tina, like a child between parents, a straight girl between lovers, and in the morning we’d have homemade eggamuffins. How she and I vied for best kisser with our neighbor Rob as judge, one night in the balcony at the Bancroft Theater where he was playing keyboard in the band. Tina was away that summer, and I slept over, and we continued in bed trying to prove who was the better kisser, a straight girl or a lover of women, and we called it a tie. How ever since then and after all my too many men, she was the only girl for me. As soon as I started to speak her breathing slowed, grew deeper. As I told her all the things I needed her to know from our life together, lived and unlived, her long easy breaths accompanied me. “I’m here now until the end,” I said. “The only thing left I can do is witness. You will not die alone.”
I stopped speaking. After a few more inhalations the cadence of her breathing changed again, back to the ragged intermittent sips she’d been breathing before I spoke. A few hours later I moved to the recliner at the foot of her bed. Every now and then I’d tell her “I’m still here. I love you.” Between nurses’ visits to check on her complexion, add morphine, shift her head, I drifted into sleep. I dreamed we were speaking together. I was telling her all the things I had just told her awake, and she responded. She told me things I needed to hear, too. We talked easily of love, and the end. I awoke startled when the nurse came back in, but I woke with a smile, and I felt that dream was a gift, a communication from Darlene, what her spirit was saying to mine.
Later that day family came in and out. The morning nurse said “I don’t think she’ll make it to night.” She died at five p.m., took her last breath surrounded by two sisters, a brother-in-law, and a niece. And me. I’d left about four when they had all arrived, and lay down in the room next door to nap. I heard them murmur, then laugh, murmur then laugh. She would have wanted that. I felt out of place. They called me in for her last few minutes. Her sister said “Is she gone?” just like my brother had asked about our mother. Her niece said “Yes,” just as I had. Her sister burst into tears, just as my brother had. A scene rerun at every bedside death no doubt, with varying players. Then the first of the tears came to me, suddenly jumping out, collapsing.
She’s still gone. More than a year later, I still think of her every day, and of what might have been had she lived. Sometimes I cry again. I water the trees I planted in her name, the two little limes in pots that I walked by all winter, spring, summer, denying; and the peach just taking root in the ground. The limes, neglected, did not die but grew feeble. If I had intervened in March, or February, they’d have been free of scale by now and thriving. If I had reached past her denial, not given up like that heron, believed in death enough to take action, proclaim my love in the moment, not waited, could I have persuaded her to move faster, more radically against the cancer? How many lessons will it take for me to pay attention, to be wholly present in the face of death?

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