My little one questioned the pile of branches and limbs with their dead and rotted cores, the grayed sticks that used to reach and wave magestically above the surround of our yard…and house the denizen birds and whatnot that came to live in their shadow and shade. He asked if he could have some of the sticks to build a fort and I told him no. I told him no because “You already have your swingset-fort thing that I added to and now it’s a hideaway with all the walls and elevated table-bed…just like you wanted. Don’t you remember how you cried and pleaded for it?” Yes. He didn’t ask where all the branches came from, he just entered the house and went about his “I just got home from school” routine that included going to the bathroom, hanging-up his back-pack and jacket, and then letting his dog in from the back yard.
My little one walked into the yard after opening the door for his dog and found that the cottonwood that had been his shade and companion for his entire eight years of life had been greatly diminished since he left for school this morning. In the summer and fall, it covered his swingset-fort-house thing in full shade. That far corner of the yard was always cooler in the extreme heat of our Arizona seasons. Sitting on the bench beneath the grand tree was one of our family’s favorite pasttimes, enjoying the cool shade, the birds overhead in their many and favored spots, and the rustle of the millions of leaves clapping and shimmering in the many evening breezes. Somehow, during the past summer, it either caught a bug or suffered more intensely from the summer’s heat than it has in the past. Midway through the year, the leaves turned brown on one branch and then on another and another, until finally, the top two-thirds of the tree was dead. The birds would still visit the tree in their more sparse numbers, but gone are the days of hundreds of them congregating overhead and chatting down the sun.
The last monsoon season blew down several large branches and we often wondered how much longer the skeleton tree would last. Given that it’s in the corner of our yard and there are three other neighbors’ yards on the other sides of our fence in that corner, we were concerned that branches would break away and fly into their yards during another storm and cause some unknown degree of damage to the neighbors’ yards or houses. Anyway, after trimming the date palm that reaches over and into our southern neighbor’s yard, I finally got out the chainsaw-alligator-jawed apparatus to cut the limbs, rope to pull them down into our yard precisely where I wanted them to land, in our yard, and the extension-pole-saw-thing that I usually use to trim the palm trees. Four hours later, the bottom half of the tree was bare, the ground raked clean, and all the branches and limbs hauled out to the front curb, from which the city will soon take them away.
And my little one walked into the yard and surveyed the damage, climbed up into his cedar swingset-fort-house kind of thing, got a piece of chalk out of the can and lined-through his earlier printed sign that said “Cottonwood Observatory.” He then wrote in his squiggly hand as he hung from the rock-wall-climbing thing, “Closed Permanently.”
The somber mood was cast. Deliberate steps around the yard, walking around the swingset, climbing up to the top level, walking about, climbing down, swinging on the swing, eyes downcast, and none of his usual happy antics. I had to ask/tell him to do certain things two or three times each in the several minutes that we’d been home, so I wondered if he was fading a little from not eating all of his lunch. I finally managed to get him to decide what he wanted to eat and then set about preparing it. He wanted “sopa,” or ramen noodles, “the kind that smells good,” which is the chicken flavored variety.
It was only a couple minutes after we both sat at the table until his tears started and the sobs came out as my little one told me that he didn’t want the cottonwood to be dead. Between gulps of air and crying he told me that the tree has been there all of his life and that it always shaded his swingset from the sun and he wants me to get another one right away. He wants the big tree to be there again because the yard doesn’t look the same, it’s different now. He doesn’t like different, my little one. He likes consistency and routine and to know what’s happening next; he’s less anxious that way…and now his tree is gone.
About a year and a half ago, when my wife and little one and a couple of his older siblings were living in Utah for a year, the landlord came to the house one day and cut down my little one’s favorite tree. It was nearing the end of the lease and the landlord and his family were going to be moving back into the house. He thought he’d get an early start on redesigning and landscaping the back yard…and he started by cutting down and removing some of the trees, and the one tree in particular that my little one climbed almost every day. It was his hideaway, his place to recover from the storm of school and a life in a new house with new people in his life and without his dog and his dad and other siblings. His world was upside down, or sideways, anyway…and he would climb the tree to be by himself, to find that peace again that he needed to be ok in his unsettled world.
So I thought about all of that today, limb by limb, and branch by branch, as I started “chopping down” my little one’s beloved cottonwood…and I wondered if he’d be ok, rather, I wondered how long it would take for him to be ok again.
And he sat there at the table with his tears covering his cheeks and the little trails of snot running from his nose and down into his ramen noodles…and asked, “But what about the remains?”