Elegy to a Maple

Going home this summer, I found the fence torn down halfway along itself, the same fence that divided our yard from the neighboring plant nursery – that I climbed over on one particular night with a childhood friend, and we wandered through an acre of potted trees taller than us and startled wild rabbits and I distinctly remember looking up at the stars, and in the veiled night felt the air of magic that children feel before they become adults and enchantment becomes something entirely different. And this night is what inspired Girls in the Garden, which is about trespassing onto another’s property after hours but is also very certainly about more than that.

And so last summer, upon returning to my childhood home during the same month we signed over our family’s property of 30 years to a land developer, I walked through the opening in this newly fallen fence and further into my backyard than I had been in years, to an aged and giant maple that like the next door garden I once personified into a friend, and in my memory still do, but at the time of this writing I don’t believe the tree still stands.

On this day I approached my Giant Maple Tree with hesitation, and I believe this is why: sometimes we wait to touch something that is good, because the sooner something begins, the sooner it also ends.

But of course I did touch it, because that is why I went to see it: to say goodbye. I put my palms on its moss-grown bark in the way a daughter touches a parent who is soon to die. I did not want to take my hands away.

I put my forehead against its trunk, the way a tired woman leans her face into a man’s shoulder. Who comforts who in this moment I do not know, but would like to believe it can go both ways, whether you are a woman or a man or a tree. Regardless, I did not want to take my face away.

I asked that they wait until I leave – until I flew home – to cut it down. Who wants to watch death.

The boating ropes we’d tied to it more than twenty years earlier were still wrapped around the trunk the day I pulled out of the driveway and watched my childhood home and the Giant Maple Tree disappear as we drove up the hill to the airport. Those ropes, once upon a time, at one end held the seat of a swing where my younger self would sit and sing as loudly as I wanted on the back half-acre.

By now the ropes must be gone, and of course, the tree too. Now I hold in my memory the branch that, for the span of at least one childhood, supported a comfortable swing for a young and awkward girl who for many years believed in the magic of her yard.

And now I must turn my face from its shoulder. Now, I have taken my hands away.

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As the Dog Sleeps

There have been several dreams, most a form of wish fulfillment, even that in which I walked across the room to hold him and found a skeleton under his clothes. The physicality of this I still feel when awake. It is no unforgettable sensation, wrapping your arms around bones.

In waking life I have spent half a lifetime holding men who needed to be held, but I cannot save him now, nor could I ever.

Some years later the dreams arrive less frequently, but after their return last night I wonder how the sleeping brain can recall a person’s smallest mannerisms and micro expressions. To forget would be lovely.

Furthermore, until I woke this morning I did not know that I was still angry. At who? This is what I have sat upon all day.

This morning, in the still-dim dawn I found that the Aloneness I have worked so hard to keep at bay had returned. Early filtered light silhouetted the room, revealing all the possessions that we as humans collect to make our lives comfortable–to feel safe and significant–but even then I began my Sunday weeping, loudly, into my pillow. The dog slept in the corner and the sun continued to rise and time passed as time does.

Must we feel what needs to be felt for grief to work itself out of us? Reluctantly, yes. Not one of us differs in this way and if nothing else there is solace in that.

I write this the same day as the morning it happened and will feel silly for such melancholic contemplation once it is Monday and I am again reading the news and stirring my coffee.

Yes, to forget would be lovely – but while we are wishing that something never happened we can also stay actively hopeful, because this remains a constant: life unfolds and time passes and the dog sleeps and the sun rises and a sliver of the mind says there are new memories to be made.

(written Easter Sunday 2019 after a bad dream)

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Two Swans

The days shorten, the nights arrive sooner now. I find myself dreaming about what it might be like to see him again. I would walk into the room and from a distance we would lock eyes, approach each other, I might press my face into his neck as he did the same, two swans bowing into one another in recognition, in a ceremony of forgiveness of past transgressions. His and mine.

In my dream he is a picture of health, of athleticism – the way I remember him during our early days. In my dream he has been off drugs for several years now, has struggled to find his way back but has finally made a life for himself. A life I can return to and immerse myself in.

“Where have you been?” he asks, as if I am the one who left so many years ago, but the gentleness in his tone acknowledges he had been absent long before I pushed myself from the couch that last night.

“I’m here now.”

My limbs are around his shoulders, my fingers graze the hair at the nape of his neck.

“I’ve missed you.” It is all I can say.

In this thick, tangible closeness there is no kiss, there are no undertones as in so many other dreams, but there is the simple, loving bowing into one another. As I move to rest my forehead against his shoulder I remember that the warmth on my face is not another human, but a cotton pillowcase in a floral pattern of beige and white. It is my own breath, my own skin, against my own bedding. He is dead.

He has been dead now for three weeks.

***

I dreamed once more: of being horseback, of loping across uncut fields, deep green at the start of spring, grasses pushed in rhythmic waves by the wind. The horse rocks in even stride, the rider in perfect balance, the pleasure of movement that in waking life comes only rarely. Perhaps like coasting downhill on a bicycle as a child.

When I awoke I wanted to be a child again.

(Summer 2016)

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The Burial

One year after his death, palpably
and more quietly that when it first began
I continued to grieve in many ways.

One way: sharing a note I wrote for him.
Later, having lunch in a restaurant booth
a friend brought this up, and to my surprise

chose “emo” to describe what I’d put online,
and to tell me who I was. Who she was not.
She smiled. She almost laughed.

What do we do in the moments when
it does not seem possible to be less understood.
What do we say to mockery’s cruel face?

Ha, yeah.

Of all the conceivable responses: Ha, yeah.
Maybe he had died one year ago, but on that day
I buried him and somehow also buried myself.

(October 28, 2018)

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Into the Night

Who knows the time?
I need no numbers to tell me
here is another sunset:
the back side of God
turning to watch the waking,
an orange glow evoking
the warmth one feels when
the sun says, you are chosen.

Once, in the light of day
I had driven along the lake
and thought to myself,
isn’t life perfect.

Keepsakes and cards
letter and notes, but
who can read in the dark?
My agnostic soul is praying
for a candle, a flame
a nightlight, anything
to bring back his light.

(first written in 2009)

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Harriett’s Nest

The backyard hummingbirds have been fighting lately and I’ve been sitting under the honeysuckle listening to their mating wars rage on. It’s surprising how maddened animals become as they follow the drive to reproduce.

Among the hummingbirds are an assortment of others who inhabit the nearby trees and sky. In the summer the mockingbird keeps everyone up at inopportune hours of the night, and a flock of out-of-place parakeets circles around the house once or twice a year (perhaps more often, but I do not constantly stand on the front stoop watching for their green wings to come into view). A hawk hunts in the canyon two blocks away; I have seen him resting on the lower railings of the wooden bridge, have been startled as he swooped in front of me mid-day and have photographed him in the branches of the eucalyptus tree.

Doves and pigeons, the common and dull kind but I feel a liking for them anyway, line up on telephone wires year-round. They look most striking with their silhouettes outlined against morning fog, which from my front door that looks out to the bay I can see approaching as early as the night before it rolls in (it is the foggy mornings and sunless marine layer days that most facilitate my writing; at these times I feel closest to myself).

There is an owl that silently haunts the night, who I have seen only twice in three years and who is so without sound, so fleeting, I could have just as easily imagined him. Yesterday a gull drifted above our roof.

There are, finally, many small birds who live here and, in looking enough like each other, are often disregarded given many people’s preference for hawks and herons and greater birds. Often, perching birds (as naturalists call them) are grouped together in our minds as the uncelebrated “birds in the yard” because truly what difference does it make if they are a finch or a nuthatch or a wren? To most of us, like air they are simply there and like breathing they simply happen.

But not Harriett, a small bird of what species I do not know, but in one season of her life (and mine) managed to add to my melancholy and then, after she was gone she unknowingly (because of course, she is a bird) lent me hope.

I will begin by saying that at some point Harriett died, or so I assume because one day she stopped coming back. She had spent several days collecting twigs for her nest which I know because I walked out onto my stoop last year and caught her in the process of it all. I had told this news of a new nesting bird to my family (it was my sister who named her Harriett) and friends who don’t mind such trivial life updates, and for a while we waited for babies.

But Harriett disappeared and babies never came, and at the end of her nesting season I had only that…a nest. An empty house of sticks in the corner of the beams above my door. And not too long after, when the summer garden ended and the lettuce had bolted and become no good and the tomatoes turned brown and barren there suddenly wasn’t much life at all outside my door, and the fall and winter were no better.

Spring came late and quietly this year and I put off gardening and considered skipping it altogether, for what reason I can’t quite say because I certainly had the time, but I recall wondering what is the point as we do to ourselves here and there when melancholy, while beautiful in small doses, grows too big and becomes too heavy to carry. It is hard to move under such weight.

At such points we can actively seek help, or we can let time do what it does: pass and heal. Through that winter I had chosen to lie submissive and dormant while the days moved by me. During those months of long nights, time roughly stitched me back together in places that had come apart. It was not a perfect fix, and by spring it was not enough to inspire a garden, but it was enough to keep going. Sometimes this is all we can ask for. To want to wake up: this alone is worth our quiet gratitude.

Then, hope: I stood at the door this past week and looked up to see tail-feathers sticking out over the edge of the beams. When I moved closer she flew to a nearby tree and watched and waited for me to go so she could return to her adopted nest – the one Harriett left behind, still unused. So it seems that, despite an unusually long and numb winter, we have been given another chance at eggs becoming baby birds and seeds becoming gardens and life beginning again.

(first written April 25, 2018; revised for ColetteKay.com)

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Nurse Logs

The forest knows about rebirth.
New life grows on fallen trees
one story deteriorating as
another sees first light, reborn
from what has been left behind

I waited once to be a nurse log
and imagine others have, too,
to take what can no longer be
useful, and from our remains
spring up anew and live again

How long does it take?
How quickly can this grow?
Hurry, forest, hurry.
We long to see you
with young eyes.

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