The Healing TreeArts
After Maggie’s chemotherapy was finished, someone from the cancer center took me back to my room so Robbie could wheel Maggie down to the cafeteria; banana milkshakes had been added to wintergreen Lifesavers on the list of things she could hold down after her treatments. I asked to be parked in front of the window by The Healing Tree, where I could enjoy the warmth of the summer sun and the birds singing in her branches (at least they were there in my imagination). What was before the beginning of time? God only knows. Before she wrote her last rhyme, I had choices to make. But first, there was a demon to defeat.
In my ninth grade English class, we’d been assigned to write a villanelle. I couldn’t do it. It was too overwhelming, trying to write a poem in which specific lines and rhymes had to be repeated in a prescribed structure. The thought of getting an F on the assignment was far less terrifying than the prospect of humiliating myself by reading childish claptrap in front of the class. The day before, I’d gone to Mr. Brightwood in tears, apologizing and asking to be excused from the homework. He told me not to worry, that I could still find a job as a clerk or a waitress without knowing anything about poetry.
Sitting in the warmth of the afternoon sun, I closed my eyes and watched old memories as they randomly popped up to demand my attention. I saw myself at the state swim meet, where I’d placed second in the distance freestyle event, and even now was not sure why I was crying when I received my medal. I saw myself on the lifeguard stand at the city swimming pool when Mark Murphy, one of the popular boys at school, did a cannonball right in front of me, provoking my wrath to get my attention. I recalled those two awful years when Mark was away at business school while I finished up my degree. The day he came home to stay. The day he proposed.
Then, a memory long frozen in the farthest reaches of mental Siberia crept out, an orphan child begging to finally be recognized. It was April of my senior year at the University, and I still didn’t have a clue what should come next. So I’d made an appointment with the career counselor. At the end of our session, she’d asked me what I would do if every job paid the same and had the same social status. “I’d be a poet,” I answered without thinking. She thought I was kidding. So did I.
And now, listening to the invisible birds chirping away in the branches of The Healing Tree, the question came back to me. Given that being a flight attendant or a water aerobics instructor weren’t options anymore, what would I do if the only thing that mattered was doing something I really wanted to do?
As a real estate agent, my greatest joy had never been making the sale; it was visiting the new owners a month after the close and seeing how happy they were in their new homes. What would I do if every job paid the same? Be a poet? No, there was something missing in that answer. Be a poetry therapist?
Outside my window the sun was putting on a dazzling display for the end of the day. Red sky at night, mermaid’s delight. In the aquamarine afterglow, I wheeled myself over to the bedside table and pulled out my pad and a pen. I knew I could never be a poet, or a poetry therapist, until I confronted the fears that had blocked me since the ninth grade. Until I put to rest the ghost of Mr. Brightwood. Until I composed my villanelle.
The nurse came by to give me my evening medications. I kept writing. My dinner sat untouched on the overbed table. I kept writing. The nurse’s aide came in to check my water pitcher and close the shades. I kept writing. As the drafts progressed from hideous to awful to merely mediocre, I kept writing. What had started as a brand new pad of paper had been whittled down to its last few leaves when I finally stopped writing. I read over the final draft one more time. Es freut mich. One of the few phrases I’d remembered from German class. It pleases me. Didn’t matter if it didn’t please anyone else. Rest in Peace, ghost of Mr. Brightwood. I pulled the last page off the pad and read my villanelle aloud to the empty room.
Dying dreams cry invisible tears.
To mourn the dauntless child that was you
who, now grown, has failed to act in the face of her fears.
You accepted the low bid from fate’s auctioneer,
only to find his account was past due,
while your dreams in their dying cried invisible tears.
Whatever happened to that brave pioneer,
the girl who dreamed of adventures in your oversized shoes,
in those days before you flinched in the face of your fear?
A once lovely future now stands in arrears –
but it’s never too late for old dreams to renew –
when you decide to stop crying those invisible tears.
The terror you feel is just sham veneer,
a Potemkin storefront with a fraudulent view,
meant to keep you from acting in the face of your fear.
When you stand firm, fear (that coward) disappears.
So look in God’s mirror, see the meant-to-be you.
Wipe from your cheeks those invisible tears
by choosing to act in the face of your fears.
When the evening nurses came in to move me from the wheelchair to my bed, I was crying. Crying real, visible, human tears. They were the tears of a dream that, having spent too many years sharing a tomb with Lazarus, was now ready for a rebirth of its own.
After the accident, some well-meaning people told me that everything happens for a reason, as if Mark’s death and my paralysis were just part of God’s master plan. I don’t believe that for one second. Such things do not happen for a reason, and certainly not because God has willed them to happen. The meaning and purpose (the reason, if you will) only emerge long after the fact, and then only after you’ve chosen to follow your dreams, even if it means acting in the face of your fears.
- 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