We’ve been ever so fortunate to own a home inside the Catskill State Park in upstate New York. The land surrounding our home is and will be by legislative decree, “Forever Wild”. One time when our son, William, was little, we began our trip back to New York City and William called out from his car seat, “Goodbye trees.” William loved the house. He grew up there hiking, sledding, skating, biking, exploring, building snow forts and rafts, doing the things that make a boy happy. Certainly his time there with us gave no indication that William would say a final goodbye to trees and all else when heroin grabbed hold and took him from the world over two years ago.
At the end of May last year our family planted a tree in memory of William. A young weeping willow now stands at the bottom of the meadow below our house. His mother Margot and I, his sister, Elizabeth Hope, his then almost four-month old niece Josephine Hope, and her father, Johnny Anderes, all joined in the planting to remember and celebrate William. I was able to give young Josephine her first ride on my garden tractor, cradling a bonneted baby in one hand, as I drove ever so carefully downhill to the planting site. That trip made Josephine the fourth generation in our family to ride that tractor. William rode it as a baby and as a child, and learned how to operate it as a teenager. It’s old, it’s worn, and it’s a memory machine.
We’ll always be able to look down the hill and see “Will’s Willow.” At least that is our intention. Saplings, like children, need care and protection. We provided plenty of rich soil and mulch when we put it in the ground. We wrapped the young trunk to protect it from insects and small gnawing creatures. We put up fencing to protect it from deer and any other large gnawing creatures. Despite our best intentions, we can’t control everything. Although we planted the tree where it would ordinarily get all the water it needs to meet its thirsty demands, an unusually dry summer caused us to worry. The summer was followed by a brutally cold and snowy winter. Nature wasted no time reminding us the willow shares the fragility of life with William. By planting a new life in our midst we ran the risk of losing yet another life. A life we’ve invested with extra meaning. Many of the trees we’ve planted on our property have thrived. Some have not. None of them have had a name attached, or even been chosen as a species for their particular significance. We’re asking a weeping willow to both memorialize our son and somehow make our grief palpable.
Nature’s vicissitudes continued well into the spring in the Catskills. There was snow three days in a row over the last weekend in April. Waiting in New York City, the weekend gardener in me was getting itchy. Practicality dictated it was too cold to begin anything in the garden and I remained in the city. The weather finally turned for the better the very first days of May. I headed north, the brilliant green of new leaves along the Palisades Parkway slowly turning back to eager red buds as I drove further north. Less forsythia, more daffodils. The willows, however, are among the very first to show off their new spring garb. All along the way, splotches of light yellowish green proclaimed willows happy and proud in the chilly new spring.
Those same splotches served to awaken a dormant anxiety in me. Had Will’s Willow made it to this new spring? Would I have to call Margot and Elizabeth and share bad news? It was clear I was keenly invested in this tree, more so than I’d been aware. By the end of my trip most everything was bare, especially my anxiety. Only clusters of new daffodils promised more spring to come. I drove in our driveway and headed not, as I usually do, to the house or the garden, but immediately down the slope to the lower meadow. From the top of the hill the willow looked barren. Fretting, I continued on downhill. To my great relief, the young branches were lined with small green buds, preparing to burst forth. Spring comes late to our house, especially late this year, but Will’s Willow was on schedule. I rushed back up to the house to phone the good news to Margot and Elizabeth.
Trees, like children, require faith and patience. Especially when they’ve had to face trying times. Sometimes even faith and patience aren’t enough. It’s a tough lesson to learn. It’s a tough lesson to remember.
As I climbed back uphill from Will’s Willow I recalled a favorite line of mine from a poem by Richard Wilbur. “And the found voice of his buried hands rose in the sparrowy air.” Now on to the garden.