The Healing TreeArts
How many weeks had it been since I’d been outside? Ten? Twelve? Maggie had pushed my wheelchair to the new Healing Garden on the west lawn of the hospital. I was certain that this little journey would be part of her relentless one-woman campaign to get me to write therapy poems, but I went anyway. I had to keep my eyes closed against the light for the first several minutes, but this only served to heighten the impression of my other senses that somehow a Caribbean breeze had lost its way and ended up in the Memorial Hospital Healing Garden.
Maggie parked the wheelchair and sat on the bench next to me. Well, Maggie never really just sat anywhere; she sort of vibrated in one spot for a while. I’m sure that on its very best day the Garden of Eden was never this lovely. The Healing Garden was green as Ireland, all a-riot with flowers that seemed to have been stolen from a July 4 fireworks display. For one precarious second I was almost happy, almost at peace with the world and with myself. Then it all came back. I was the broken lady who had lost her husband and who could not take care of her son.
I wrapped my arms around my shoulders, wishing it was Mark I was hugging, that it was Robbie, wishing that the broken lady would give me back my legs, give me back my life, and let me walk through this garden in love instead of sitting forlorn in this wheelchair. Maggie sat cross-legged on the bench scribbling in her journal, oblivious to my distress. At last, she closed her book. I could feel her staring at me, but didn’t look back.
“Want to know the one word you most need right now?” From the corner of my eye I could see that Maggie was now perched on the edge of the bench, facing me. “The one word you must absolutely accept if you want to move on with your life? It’ll be easy, because you already know the word.”
“Sure,” I sniffed, still keeping my eyes glued to my useless feet, “what’s the word?”
“Was.” That’s all she said.
“Was?” I shot her a quick glance, then looked back at my feet. “Was? That’s it? Was is the one word that will let me move on with my life?”
“Yep. The day you replace ‘why me?’ with ‘was me,’ you start to move from self-pity to acceptance. You need to do that, Carrie Anne, so you can stop crying about yesterday and start dreaming about tomorrow.”
Any thoughts I might have had about being cried out were drowned in a fresh downpour. I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later, someone was going to give me a tough love talk like this, but never in a million years would I have suspected that somebody would be Maggie.
“Isn’t a funny paradox,” she continued, “that the quintessential word of the past – was – is the one word that can free you from the past. It was you, Carrie Anne, sitting in the passenger seat of that car. It was you who survived when Mark did not. Every time you ask yourself the unanswerable why – why me? – you’re poking your hand into the steel trap of the dead past.” Maggie leaned closer, so that her nose almost brushed against my cheek. “Do you know what a coyote does when she gets her paw caught in a trap?”
“Chews it off?” I sniffled.
“That’s right.” She put a hand on my shoulder and whispered, “she knows it’s better to be a three-legged coyote than a four-legged fur coat.”
I had this sudden mental picture of a three-legged cartoon coyote on crutches. You know the kind of mess you can make when you cry and laugh at the same time? God help me, I couldn’t help myself. The image of that poor old coyote, hobbling around on three legs and a crutch, had me doubled over in my wheelchair. I hadn’t laughed in months, and until now hadn’t realized how badly I needed to laugh.
Who knows how many people were chased out of the Healing Garden with our cackling and howling. I’m sure we sounded like a couple of coyote mommas howling coyote hymns under the desert moon. I didn’t care. Something was happening in that garden, something as ancient as giving birth, something as defining as being a woman. Laughing through our tears, letting go even as we hung on, the three-legged coyote and I celebrated a secret sacrament known by every woman since Eve, each in her own time and in her own way. Embracing the pain, accepting the loss, chewing off a paw and moving on – limping, but free.
Maggie put an arm across my shoulder and kissed my cheek. “You’re a lot stronger than you think you are, you know.”
I wiped my nose on my sleeve, thankful for being in hospital garb. “I know,” I replied in a most unconvincing manner.
“And it’s going to be easier than you think it will be, especially when you look back on it from the future.”
“I know.” Even less convincing.
“You can’t do any more than all you can do, Carrie Anne. Sometimes all you can do isn’t very much. But even then, it’s enough. You just need to swim far enough to reach the next island, not across the whole ocean. And you’re lucky. You’ve got a mermaid to swim alongside you.”
This time I just nodded, and imagined that after she’d chewed off her paw, the three-legged coyote must have spent many days slinking around in misery before she would again revel in her freedom.
“Want to hear my latest poem?” Maggie was back cross-legged on the bench, facing me, journal in her lap.
“Sure, Maggie, I’d love to hear it.” Anything to get my mind off these useless legs that I can’t chew off.
“Okay. Only I won’t be able to finish it.”
“No? So who’s going to finish it if you don’t?” Even as I heard the words coming out of my mouth, I knew I’d just set myself up.
“Me? I can’t finish your poem, Maggie. And even if I did, people would just laugh at my amateur writing.”
“They always laugh at poets. At least, they laugh until they’re famous. Then they stroke their chins and say ‘my, that’s brilliant,’ like they always knew you’d be famous. The bad news is that poets usually don’t get famous until after they’ve been dead for a while.”
“So what’s the title of your new poem?”
“The Meaning of Life.”
“The Meaning of Life? You want me to finish your poem about the meaning of life?”
“Yeah. Want to hear what I have so far?”
“Sure, Maggie, read it to me.”
“Okay. Here goes.” She adjusted herself on the bench, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. Then she read. “The Meaning of Life, by Mermaid Maggie.”
Today is the day
The mayflies, newborn, must die
And in the dying light
Mosquitoes land and bite
Maggie closed her pink journal and looked up expectantly, saying nothing. “That’s it?” I asked. “That’s your poem about the meaning of life?”
“Well, it’s not finished yet, but yeah, that’s it. If you understand those two questions, you’ll solve the riddles philosophers have struggled with for more than two thousand years.”
I thought about what she’d just read to me, then said, “Sorry, Maggie, two questions? Were there questions in your poem?”
“Well, yeah! Like, if you knew why God created mosquitoes, then you’d know why evil exists in the world. Mosquitoes are evil creatures with no redeeming value at all. And if you knew why those cute little mayflies have to die on the same day they’re born, then you’d know why bad things happen to good people. What else is to know? Not even Socrates could answer those two questions.”
“And you want me to – to finish this poem of yours about mayflies and mosquitoes and the meaning of life?”
Maggie laughed and held the pink journal against her chest. “Sure I do, Carrie Anne. It’s easier than you think it will be. And you’re stronger than you think you are.”
Maggie had to leave to read a poem for a new patient, but said she’d come back for me in an hour.
I pulled my hospital gown up over my thighs. In ancient cultures the sun was thought to have magical life-giving powers. I contemplated the scarred and shriveled stalks that had once carried me to mountaintops, and prayed that the sun would return life to them. A mosquito landed on a spot just above my knee, sniffed around for a moment, then flew away without taking a bite.
- The Healing Tree
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 11
- Chapter 12
- Chapter 13
- Chapter 14
- Chapter 15
- Chapter 16
- Chapter 17
- Chapter 18
- Chapter 19
- Chapter 20
- Chapter 21
- Chapter 22
- Chapter 23
- Chapter 24
- Chapter 25
- Chapter 26
- Chapter 27
- Chapter 28
- Questions for discussion
- About the Author