by Barbara Kazdan
“They say the tree will die,” I told my son Jake when he visited.
I’d planted that flowering plum tree in my husband David’s memory, soon after he died. 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 green background foliage. Like a bike with training wheels, the fragile seedling was staked to hold it upright until it could stand on its own. But before it found firm footing a storm swept through, leaving it leaning halfway to the ground, hanging on for life.
I’d just lost my husband of 42 years. How could Mother Nature take his living memorial?
“The tree expert told me it’s hanging on by a single root,” I told my son when he visited. “It can’t survive.”
He did what he could to secure its moorings. He did the same for me. “Let’s give it a chance,” he said.
I was wobbly. Starting a new life in a place we’d moved across the country to, for an all-consuming job I’d left just months before. Wanting to cultivate my fledgling consulting practice, I’d stop before starting, constrained by the perverse, insidious inertia of grief. My mind, usually overflowing with ideas, could have worn a vacancy sign. No one stopped by; I’d been so immersed in work I barely knew my neighbors and hadn’t begun to make friends.
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 and negotiated a purse-friendly price. A huge help, since I wasn’t fluent in “car talk.” Years later, he still backs me up.
“Stand by, I’m taking the car in Tuesday,” I tell him. When I get the service report, like a stumped quiz show contestant, I phone a friend. Armed with Jake’s advice, I know what to say and do. He’s my financial planning partner, too, stepping up to fill his CPA-father’s shoes.
When the refrigerator conked out, I called my daughter Jenny in Arizona. We each hit the web, then compared notes. When we’d picked a winner, she sent a link: “Here’s a store with the best price. They deliver to your area.”
Always thoughtful, her sister Sandra wrote, “Let’s meet in New York for your birthday. I’d like to treat you to a Broadway show.” Before I could worry about “celebrating” alone, the plan was set. From her North Carolina home, she offers tips: “Walk around the perimeter of the house sometimes to check things out; no one else is.”
I didn’t have to walk around the house to find trouble. Basement floods and 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 handily changing the lawn service my husband had used and hiring a top-rated firm that cost less and did a better job.
“Guess what, Jake?” I called to say. “The plum tree’s blooming! No wonder it’s called an ornamental; it’s so beautiful. 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, formed a full, round shape. Scarlet leaves dotted 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 poring over newsletters and searching online, looking for kindred spirits in classes and meet-ups. I walked into rooms filled with name-tagged strangers. Did I have to drag myself to these gatherings? Yes. Slowly, my calendar filled; my circle of friends expanded. And the plum tree stood its ground.
After every thunderstorm I’d check the basement and the sapling. 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. 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 added more notches to my home management belt. On a call with Jake I announced, “I replaced the toilet seat all by myself,” aware I sounded like a 5-year-old who’d just laced her shoes for the first time alone.
“Did you tell Jenny and Sandra?” he asked, knowing 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’m replacing my bedroom carpet.” Everyone weighed in on the merits of carpet, wood, and more.
“You enjoy writing so much,” a friend said. “Why don’t you take some classes at the Writer’s Center?” Summer workshops morphed into a weekly memoir club where “everybody knows my name” and a whole lot more, as we share raw reflections about our lives. Now when the calendar’s empty, I’m glad: more time to write and space for introspection.
About that missing ingredient: the plum tree flowered before my friendship with Ilene began germinating; now it’s in full bloom. She emails: “How about a movie Saturday?” or “Check out this women’s history program.” We sign up, show up, or just hang out, especially on weekends.
Today that scrappy sapling towers over the rooftop, its foliage filling the picture window.
About the photographer: Pat Tompkins is an editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her essays and poems have appeared in The Bark, Thema, Modern Haiku, and other publications.