The hardest thing about living is making sense of the good and the bad. It’s never as clearly defined as you’d like — a monster can have a heart; a hero can be selfish; a painful memory can share space with a happy one.
There are layers to everything and this story — this is a top layer.
This story happened when I was 13 and it was December. This particular December, my dad was out of the hospital. He would return again soon, but at this moment in history, he was home.
My dad’s energy was contagious. I often compared him to John Lennon crossed with Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce from the TV show M.A.S.H. People always liked him immediately; he knew how to talk with anyone and was incredibly funny. He seemed to be good at whatever he did — sports, art, cooking, business, landscaping. His dinner parties meant a packed kitchen, guests nibbling on appetizers, crowding around the island, leaning in to hear his stories as he cooked and then all, in unison, leaning backward, mouths gaping with laughter, as he told the best parts. He’d lived around the world as a child, skipped school to hang with Buddhist monks, spoke German and Chinese, and hitchhiked across the US as a younger man. Throughout my life, he always had more than one business of his own, in addition to at least one ‘real’ job; when I was 13, he was busy with his landscaping company and an executive search firm he started with his brother-in-law.
I don’t think he had an actual plan for his life at any point. He lived it as it went, or as he felt it should go. And when I came along, he and Mom both went with it and got married.
When Dad needed to take care of a legal issue when I was two, we all moved in with my mom’s parents, her sisters, her brother, and one family friend. When Grandpa wanted to get closer with God, the whole group moved into the rectory of our church with the church’s pastor and his family of 13. When Grandpa bought an historic, Victorian fixer-upper, the brood moved there and Dad helped do much of the fixing. And, when the overgrown shrubs on the acre of land around the house were too much for anyone to stand, Grandma focused on creating flower beds, Mom set up herbs gardens, and Dad, with access to an array of trees while he worked for local nurseries, spent all his free time planning, designing, removing, and planting a landscape so beautiful that it attracted strangers to the front door asking for tours of the property to see the unique tapestry of plants around the house.
So, when I was 13, he was still living a life that he seemed to just go along with. A life that happened to include a diagnosis of terminal colon cancer when he was 33, about two and a half years prior. Six months was what they’d given him, but, though Dad lost most of his colon and was not allowed to eat food, he lived much longer.
That December, the house was filled with an unpleasant front of happiness. This was not unusual, truthfully. Our family had a malignant code: just don’t talk about it. So, the fact that everyone was pretending the cancer wasn’t there was quite normal. Pretending that Dad wasn’t sick because God was healing him, the doctors were wrong, and, therefore, things were fine — normal.
Christmas decorations were going up. Grandma was blaring hymns and traditional tunes, and, with her incessantly loud singing, was attempting to cover up the underlying reality that life in that house was filled with disturbing, buried truths.
Most years, the Christmas tree we put up had a root-ball, so Dad could add it to the landscape around our house. That year, it was a cut tree. Still a beautiful tree, but a clear reminder that Dad wasn’t fine. Things weren’t fine. No matter how loud Grandma sang.
When I’d been about nine, Dad got a gigantic blue spruce for our Christmas tree. He’d wanted one for a long time. It was massive and heavy with stiff and powerful branches. Tall enough to fill the foyer, nearly hitting the 14-foot ceiling. Once he planted it, it would become a centerpiece in the front garden, standing just near the entrance of the driveway, near the intersection on which our house stood. Four years later, it was one of my favorite trees in the yard.
One Saturday that December, we woke to find the blue spruce had been cut down and taken. It wasn’t entirely gone; whoever had done it, took only the top six feet, leaving a large, layered skirt of blue limbs around a cleanly cut stump.
Most of my childhood, I wished for a normal life. I called it normal, but as I got older I realized the idea of ‘normal’ is a feeling of safety in your space and knowing your adults are in this with you. Pretty as the house was, great as my parents were at many things, I never had that in my home. Even though I knew darkness was everywhere, I was surprised at how much that moment — seeing this huge gap in our fortress of trees —stunned me. How much it hurt. Another part of Dad had been taken from us —and right in front of him. And, for a moment, at least, I felt like everyone in the house felt that, too.
But soon, Grandma and Grandpa, and even Dad, decided to focus on the fact that if someone did this, they must’ve really been in need. They focused on forgiving whomever took the tree; focused on praying for them.
Never mind that a stranger came into our yard in the middle of the night and cut down a tree. Never mind they didn’t even take the whole thing. Never mind that Dad wouldn’t be able to remove or replace that tree because he had no strength. Never mind the constant loss my dad was living with. Never mind the strange pressure his in-laws had put on him to be healed at the hand of God so others could know His power. Never mind the insinuations that our belief wasn’t strong enough every time the cancer got worse. Never mind the surgeries, bed sores, and excruciating pain of gut cancer. Never mind the unbearable desire to simply eat something. Never mind the constant fear my mom, brother, and I lived with. Never mind the reality this amputated tree illustrated.
Everything was fine.
That Christmas, the aunts, uncles, and cousins came to dinner. Candles were lit, presents were given, and everyone, including Dad, pretended everything was fine.