the tree that held up the sky is dead

How I lost a tree and gained a hole where a tree used to be

When Papa Gino’s suddenly closed like a hundred locations a month or two ago – with no notice to employees, I should mention – I kept it together, but only barely. The company was planning to restructure and about half the locations would remain open, but they were closing all of the ones that were significant in my formative years, along with all of the ones near my office or along my commute home. Barring a resurgence at some future date, this effectively would mark the end of my lifelong relationship with the iconic New England pizza chain.

My wife knew what it meant right away – she’s got me pegged. “Oh boy…you’re gonna be upset about this for…months, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “The period of mourning starts now.”

The next dramatic change I would face during the fall of 2018, however, was much, much worse. A few weeks ago, I had texted my lifelong best friend as soon as I had heard the news. (I had also texted him not long before, as soon as I’d heard about Papa Gino’s. There’s an established procedure for this sort of thing at this point.)

“Dude remember the tallest tree in my parents’ yard – the birch in the front?”

“Ya man. Is it down?”

“They cut it down.”

“Ahhh! I remember when my parents did that to me!”

I’m still not over it. It could be a while.

Obviously I get upset about funny – dare I say irrational? – things. I can know that in my head and still be upset about them in my soul, just as I can know damn well that everything is change and nothing lasts and nothing is lost and still want everything to stay the same all the time.

I miss that god damn tree. To anyone cruising by the house, absolutely nothing would appear amiss. (See the image provided – that’s the missing tree.) To me, all I see is a gaping hole where a legend used to be, where it lived its life – and where I lived a huge chunk of mine.


All I see is a gaping hole where a legend used to be, where it lived its life – and where I lived a huge chunk of mine.

Actually, to be completely honest, the whole truth is that I still actually see the tree when I look in that spot – or at least its phantom presence. I can’t easily seem to unsee the tree.

Its not my parents’ fault; there was nothing gratuitous or vindictive about their decision to destroy the majestic creature. It had nothing to do with appearances – the tree, objectively, may have been unremarkable but was far from an eyesore. But the fact is, the majestic creature had arrived at a point at which it was mostly dead. I was skeptical about this – there were still plentiful leaves high at the top! – but the mercenary tree assassin they’d hired agreed with their suspicions and, once the tree was down, confirmed it by demonstrating how much of the thing had become basically hollow.

It did yet live, but its size and its position in the yard made it an acute threat to the house itself. As my mom said to me, “I know you hate change, but just think if it falls on the roof and demolishes your [childhood] bedroom. Think about the change you’d be dealing with then!” She’s right, and I don’t hold it against them, even if I’m not over it and don’t plan to stop harassing them about it for several months. As I understand it, homeowners’ insurance policies often get canceled after paying out a substantial claim, no matter how legitimate. My parents have had an empty nest for years now, but they’ve kept the house to this point in large part because of the militant (not an exaggeration) insistence on the part of myself and my brother and sister, and I want them to hang onto it, and I understand that the last thing they need as they near retirement is for their home of 30 years to be held together by wire hangers and uninsurable.

But my ability to understand their plight with the maturity demanded of my nearly-middle-age does not preclude the requisite and lengthy period of mourning. With maturity, after all, one also learns the importance of respect and doing honor to that which is departed. We all know that we all will die, and yet we still mourn every death, do we not?

Yeah, I know – it’s a tree and not an aunt. But this tree deserves it.

*

The insatiable drive of every forest to reclaim its stolen territory being what it is, the yard has more trees in it now than it did a couple decades ago, but it still doesn’t have many and had even fewer back then. On its borders, however, it is surrounded on three sides – save for the front facing the little dead-end street – by quite formidable trees, nearly all of them big white pines. In the back, facing south, is a hill beyond which rests an expanse of state forest. The pines stand ever as sentinels atop the hill – when I was little I used to think they looked a bit like the goblins in the animated Hobbit film – continuing on down the hill in a gentle, curved boundary eventually completing the western edge.

They’re there on the east side, too, closest to the house in a small block-shaped grove separating the yard from the one next door. This grove, when I was small, seemed a wide and wild little land for espionage, battle, and wondrous play, the boughs, then much lower, seemed to form an enclosed canopy that made the little land a thing unto itself. The canopy now seems to never have been there and the “grove” now seems a thin strip marking a property line. Hard to say how much of that can be chalked up to actual change, including the fact that the neighbor has undoubtedly done some cutting of his own, and how much of what I remember was merely the product of a child’s brain to begin with.

Just outside this grove, right in the front yard, was a strange sunken patch of ground in which a couple baby trees and a stump could be found – at the foot of the birch tree in question. The stump itself now seems a tasty bit of foreshadowing; I can’t remember if the tree that once belonged to it was cut down shortly before we moved in or if similar fears of destruction led my parents to part with it soon after we moved in. The stump itself, which fortunately still exists, if in a somewhat battered state, was significant all on its own, quickly becoming my platform, my pulpit, my perch from which to command the yard. Now it has a new stump to keep it company, if stumps care about such things.

It was not I, in truth, who oversaw and commanded the yard, however. It was the birch tree. In girth, even to the eyes of a child, even for a birch, it was always modest, but it rose high above the house, towering over all the white pines in the grove. The tallest tree around. The only reason the pines to the south rose higher was due to the advantage of the hill. The birch was dominant – not to mention unique for being a birch to begin with, and perhaps the only full-sized deciduous tree in the yard.

It had been legitimately majestic, too. Part of the reason I was skeptical about the fact that it was dead was that it had never had branches and leaves save for at its very top. The white papery bark, peppered with scribbles and zig-zags of black and gray, rose up the long trunk, erupting into boughs and little shimmering fluttering green leaves that formed a spectacular crown at the very top. As you might imagine, the treetop positively preened each fall with spectacular explosions of yellow and fire-orange and deep, bottomless red.

Looking up at it – and I can’t possibly tell you how many times I gazed up at it, how many cumulative hours my gaze lingered over all those decades – it seemed as if it were designated a pavilion pole holding up the dome of the sky. It seemed a fitting home for someone like The Lord of the Eagles or some sort of local angel, even if I don’t remember anything but maybe robins nesting in it.

Come to think of it, I think it served, solid and unmoving, as a sort of guardian angel to me, even if I didn’t realize it. Maybe that’s part of why this is so hard – maybe also why I can still feel its presence there even though my eyes can’t see it.

I don’t know its history and I don’t know its age. Truth be told, I haven’t attempted to seek out the stump that almost certainly lies beneath the early season snow in order to count its rings. I presume at least some of the wood was decent since the tree hit man apparently took it all with him, while leaving the remains of a couple white pines that also had to die.

If, at the end of its life, it remained the floral ruler of that one sacred acre of land (and I suspect it did), it would only have been out of deferential assent from its potential rivals, for it no longer dominated on the basis of size or even uniqueness. While it has, as far as I can tell, remained more or less the same height as it was a quarter century ago, the white pines next to it in the grove – including, fatefully, the one or two with whom it shared the gallows a few weeks ago – had continued to grow taller, eclipsing it. As far as I know, it remained until the end the sole birch in the yard, but the reclaiming efforts of the forest that I alluded to earlier have led to a burgeoning movement of young upstart deciduous trees, mainly on the west side of the driveway but also including the once baby, now young adult trees that rested at its foot along with the old stump.

I never wanted to accept that it was half-dead and dying, but if I’m being honest, you could tell in its final years that it was giving way to much the same sort of frailty you see in many aging humans. Surely the trunk hadn’t actually grown thinner – I’m not sure that’s possible – but it just had a certain sense of gauntness, like it was tired, as though it lacked the full measure of bold fire it once held at its core and exuded as part of its rule.


I raise a glass to you, my friend the tree. Thank you for blessing my yard and my life with your presence and power and protection. I’m sorry you had to go. 

Though we all hope to avoid meeting our own ends from an actual chainsaw, some version of this fate awaits any of us who dare to grow old. Along the way, we will encounter many mini-deaths, like the disappearance of important pillars of our younger days – be they ordinary extraordinary trees or regional pizza chains. As we might one day hope to do, the tree remained proud and dignified, even as it lost its strength (although, whatever its ultimate fate, I’m not sure we can say the same about Papa Gino’s).

I raise a glass to you, my friend the tree. Thank you for blessing my yard and my life with your presence and power and protection. I’m sorry you had to go. If I’d had my way, I probably would have allowed you to stick around and take out my old bedroom. I would have cursed you then…but I would not have been able to stop loving you. I will continue to mourn you and harass my parents about you for the next several months, and until my dying day (or until, heaven forbid, new owners prevent me from standing vigil in their yard) I will never fail to see you there, in that eternal form that belongs to all things, even us, especially after they have gone.

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