Celebrations and Reflections: My Father’s Tree — Ekphrastic Mama

A year ago today my father flew away, and I was left with a sheared off tree. The torn tree stands like a sculpture in my backyard, reminding me of my woodworking father, a carpenter, and the struggle between this life and the next.

Today is also my husband’s 60th birthday, and my oldest son’s 13th wedding anniversary. Celebrations often bring reflections.

A year ago, while we were away in Bend celebrating John’s birthday, and Lily and I were accepting awards for poetry and writing, as my father lay dying, a huge storm blew through the Columbia Gorge where we live, splitting and uprooting several trees along the banks.

When I arrived home from Bend I went to the kitchen to make a birthday dinner. I was cutting up potatoes when I noticed a squalid scene out my window. Several trees were down in the forest I call my backyard. It slopes sharply down to a creek, then rises again on the other side. Across the creek a large oak tree split in two at the base and fell toward our house, angled just enough to miss our deck. As it fell, it sheared off another tree about 20 feet up its tall trunk. The raw wood of the tree revealed a V-shape at the apex, one side splintering off into a thinly connected wing. Still damp, the exposed core reflected the sunlight as it careened down the trunk, twisting slightly to one side, then shearing off at a sharp angle. It appears abstractly as a diving bird, or descending dove, holy spirit style. Once you’ve seen it, you cannot unsee it. Red sap oozed around the fresh wound, outlining the design with a red-orange glow from the final rays of the dying day.

An arborist had just removed a tree we thought might threaten our house and deck; otherwise we would’ve come home to far more devastation. I gazed out on this scene, in awe of the mess — tree branches broken off with such force they stuck in the bank looking like sheared saplings; but this one, tall, ripped in half, appeared as a sculpture, a piece of freshly hewn wood, ethereal art proclaiming something, a message if I could just see it.

A great struggle, a greater victory.

How much faith is enough? I pondered this question, along with the strength and size of a mustard seed, on the day my father flew away.

He had gone to church for some of his life, many of my childhood years and certainly his early years as one of twelve children growing up in the backwoods of Maine. He had six sisters and five brothers. He was the last survivor. When I was nine, we’d driven from southern California to Maine in his work truck outfitted with a camper shell heading to a family reunion in honor of his parent’s 50th wedding anniversary.

My mother married him when I was four — I was their flower girl — and they were happy for awhile, but theirs was a tumultuous marriage, not pretty toward the end. They complained loudly about each other, treating each other poorly. He had a sense of humor, an occasional sparkle still frequenting his mischievous eyes, so my sympathies lay more with him most of the time. And he’d given me many reasons to love him, never any not to.

I had gone down to southern California to see him that week. His liver was failing, filled with cancer the doctors suspected, but he didn’t want a biopsy.

We talked about a lot of things, and he said he’d been hunting at the club the day before…

I said I thought he’d come to the hospital in an ambulance.

Oh, he said, looking a bit confused. He talked about Maine and how beautiful it was there this time of year.

I said I thought heaven would be a lot like Maine, only better.

He got that far away look in his eyes, like he was halfway there, already leaving us. I knew I was saying good-bye then, that we would not be together again in this life, that it was time to let go of my beloved Pa.

What do you want to do? I asked, as he lay in his hospital bed. Do you want to go home?

He set his jaw and shook his head. He did not want to go home to her, my mother and his wife for the past 50 plus years.

But the next day when I came back with her and asked again, he said, Yes, he would go home. So I arranged an ambulance to come for him.

I wish you could go with me, he said, looking me in the eye, but also looking half gone.

I had to go back to Portland, to my family, I said.

Those were his last words to me. I wish you could go with me.

He built so many things during my life, including my dream house, and he left me with a love of working with wood, a respect running clean through me.

And now I have this tree that I call my Father’s Tree.

In the months before his death I’d embarked on an all encompassing project- refinishing the maple cabinets in our new house. Sometimes I talked with my Pa about how to progress. He was a perfectionist with wood. It would take several sandings, and several coats of finish with sanding in between, to get the finish I’d be happy with, he’d say, sometimes by phone, and sometimes in my mind. When you know someone well you can have conversations with them even when they aren’t there. You ask and the answer comes, in their voice.

I still talk with him. I still ask my dad questions and then wait–the answer comes, as if we’re still talking, because I believe we are.

When I see his tree, I’m reminded of how he loved wood, and how our heavenly father cares for us, enough to give a sign when we least expect it, something undeniable.

A tree. A sculpture. A work of heavenly art… And I hear his voice.

Originally published at www.lorilyngreenstone.com on October 22, 2018.



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