The Walnut Tree
It has always seemed to me that death is more about the living than the dead. How we cope and carry on, how life is better or worse without those who have passed. Losing you has forced me to confront the empty spaces you left behind.
The walnut tree grew tall and strong, spreading its feathery leaves over the yard like protective wings. We loved it for its shade as well as the sweet nuts it provided. As children, we would gather these and crack the shells between rocks to get at the meat inside, littering the yard with sharp surprises for unsuspecting feet. Its trunk stood in for the characters of our made-up games, as base during tag, and as a counting place for hide-and-seek. In its shade we lazed away long summer days, sucking the sweetness from clover and watching ants march to and fro over the bumpy roots. In winter it supported our snow forts and offered dropped branches for snowman arms. We watched its leaves turn slowly yellow and brown in the fall and sprout fresh and green in the spring.
The tree was planted by our many times great uncle, who had been a reverend in his time. It was one of three relics of the past that Father had clung to while alive, and that Mom maintained in his memory. I often wondered if this was a sign that she still loved him. Even though he beat my brothers. Even though he made my sisters into little housekeepers befitting his Catholic beliefs that women were worth less than men. Perhaps instead I should have wondered if it was her way of dealing with her guilt.
When we were forced to play inside, you and I often gravitated to the reverend’s chair. The seat was big enough to accommodate us both between the square oak arms, the back tall enough to hide behind. It smelled of old wood and leather, the padded seat and back cushions beginning to crack and peel with age. We would sit there and listen to “Sloop John B,” making up hand motions and silly faces to go along with the sailor’s lament.
Nearby sat the family bible, a solid tome with thick leather-bound covers beginning to fall off the well-loved pages. Our siblings tell me stories about Father reading the story of baby Jesus from it every Christmas. Mom recorded all of the family births and deaths in the front. I loved to look at it. Gently leafing through the thin, gilt-edged pages. Reading the names of all the relatives who had come before me. Seeing your name just above mine. There were just four years between us, and you were my best friend in the world until we both started school. Then it seemed as though the distance between us were too vast to cross. After you finished elementary school, we never played on the same playground again.
Moments became precious because they were so few. I remember us spelling all of our siblings’ names backwards and deciding that the eldest sounded distinctly Klingon. We wrote a story together about twins and airships and travel and wonder and hope. Now that you are gone, I can’t help but think of one particular conversation.
“What do you think death is like?” I asked.
“I try not to think about it,” you said.
“That’s just it,” I said. “I worry that I won’t be able to think anymore. That’s what scares me the most.”
You just shuddered and changed the subject, but I know that you agreed. Now I wonder if you were still afraid when the end came.
Our first brush with death came when you were in high school. You had a seizure while playing a computer game, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t wake you up. The ambulance came and the paramedics strapped you to the board, and you struggled and finally came back to yourself. They took you away and I finally allowed myself to cry, wondering what happened and why it should have happened to you. Later we found out that the seizure was caused by multiple sclerosis, and that you would need to take medicine for the rest of your life.
For weeks afterward, I was awakened by the slightest noise, terrified that you were having another seizure or that Mother had stopped breathing in her sleep despite her CPAP machine. Unbeknownst to anyone, I frequently left my room to check on everyone and make sure that you were all still alive. To make sure that there were sounds of breathing on the other side of doors. To make sure that I was not alone. I would sleep in blanket nests on the floor of my closet, reassured by the small space and the enclosing curl of my bedding.
Soon enough you went off to college and I learned to forget about my fear. I stopped being afraid of death once I learned that human beings are all made up of the same elements as the stars burning millions of miles away in the night sky. I imagined my bones disintegrating into stardust and blowing away to join with the Milky Way and the smallness of death began instead to feel like vastness. Death began to feel like hope. But that wasn’t enough to prepare me for losing you.
I’m home from college to find that the walnut tree is gone. It was blighted and rotted from the wet spring that year. It is too sunny now that there are no shady limbs to cast shadows. Mom has taken to staring out at the yard from the back window. I wonder if she is remembering all of her happy times under the tree, too. I wonder if she feels empty without Father, the same way the yard feels empty without the tree.
I feel empty, too. Now that I am done with school it’s hard to envision what step to take next. I wish it were possible to keep learning forever and never have to take up a job I don’t like and face the adult task of paying bills. You have been in this situation for four years before me, and the toll it is taking on you makes my heart hurt. More than the weight of debt and a job that offers no sense of permanence or hope for advancement, it is the way you have changed that scares me the most. Why, I wonder, do we have to keep on doing things that kill our very souls?
I hear the story from the rest of the family, second-hand: a coworker reported you for your general demeanor, claiming that you creeped them out and they didn’t want to work with you. How, we all wonder, could someone see a quiet, introverted human being and come to this sort of conclusion about someone they haven’t bothered to get to know? (How much quieter would you be, I wonder, if Father had been alive to keep beating you?) The event hits you hard, and you start to become self-effacing, apologizing for any little thing. You become a shadow of yourself. You lose all self-confidence and become even more entrenched in this rut that your life has become.
Looking back, I can’t help but see this as the beginning of the end. How could you fight back against cancer when you had already lost all your strength fighting a battle you couldn’t win?
It has been months since I last saw you, and when we meet I am shocked by your appearance. There is a gray tinge to your skin, and you are gaunt and bony in a way you have never been.
“You look like crap,” I say bluntly.
“Gee, thanks,” you reply. “It’s the medication. One of the side effects is death.”
I stare at you for a moment, shocked into silence. I suppose I had an inkling then that you were not far off the mark. But this was supposed to be a treatment for your MS--a clinical trial for a new drug that might prevent your flare-ups. Shortly after, the doctors send you to the hospital for testing when they find elevated levels of calcium in your blood. The results aren’t good: cancer has taken root in your gut and has already metastasized to your ribs, pelvis, and liver.
Despite this, the doctors tell us your prognosis is good. They are optimistic about treatment and all of our lives are immediately turned upside down.
Except mine. I actively avoid getting involved in your treatment, which is easy to do now that I’m not living at home anymore. I don’t think very hard about my reasons for doing this, and choose to believe that I’m simply too busy to visit regularly. The truth is that I don’t want to see you like this. I want to remember you as the boy who played with me under the walnut tree.
Mom tells me that you can’t believe this is happening to you. The doctors put you on antidepressants and tell you to be hopeful, but it takes only three months for the cancer to win. It hasn’t responded to any treatment. I want to yell at the doctors for their optimism, but I’m too busy ignoring that this is happening in the first place. Mom calls me on a Wednesday to say that you’re not doing well and to prepare myself. Family who we haven’t seen in years start coming to visit you in the hospital. You use up your words telling everyone how much you love them.
I don’t come to visit you until Friday. Mom has called again and says that you are on hospice treatment only and that you haven’t woken up since the night before. I feel obligated at last to see what the cancer has done to you. To witness you at the end, despite knowing that if you were yourself you would hate all of the attention everyone is giving you.
I force myself to look at your face when I come into the room. You don’t look like my brother, and I am relieved. It would be so much worse, I realize, if you looked like the man I remember instead of the one the cancer has made. I am relieved, too, that I won’t have to hear your last words or see your pain or your thoughts writ plain on your face. Seeing your body failing is hard enough.
Our niece is there, and she holds your hand frequently as the family gathers to keep vigil over your dying form. We tell stories and laugh, and I know that if you can still hear us you are glad that we are not moping about or crying over our remembrances of you.
The hospital sends the pastor in, and I cringe as he tries to force us to speak about you in artificial ways. He does not belong here. He is a reminder of the religion our father forced on us, and the excuse it became for his abuses. You have been quiet for some time, but when the pastor leans over you to say a prayer, you make a loud exclamation. I imagine that this is you objecting to the man’s presence and his words of devotion. Whatever you think death will be now, it is not what this pastor thinks he is sending you to.
We all stay until it grows dark outside and we need to get back to our own lives, now that we have celebrated yours. You slip away quietly once we are gone, as though you were waiting until you were alone to finally let go. It doesn’t matter to me that the doctors say people often do this at the end of their lives--I choose to believe that you held on to one last stubbornness by waiting until we had all left to die.
Mom will write your death date beside your birthdate in the family bible. I will take possession of the book and pay to have it restored to its former glory, the binding painstakingly reassembled so that the covers are no longer separate from the spine. I will know that this is an act performed out of guilt--an attempt to make up for the distance I placed between myself and your illness. The guilt will follow me for a long time, until I can accept that creating distance is just another way of coping with death and illness. Others will tell me not to feel guilty and it will take me a long time to believe them.
We will go through your things, and I will possess many more books that once belonged to you. Science fiction and fantasy volumes that you once shared with me will become memories of you that are stirred every time I pull one from the shelf to re-read. You wrote all of your computer passwords in the pages of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World. Knowing that I can never get rid of this book will haunt me until I find a way to safely dispose of it.
Your body will be cremated, and Mother will arrange to have your remains interred in the family plot next to Father and baby Matthew. I will be the only one to dress up; the only one to wear black; the only one who feels guilty enough to swathe myself in mourning. We will bury your ashes inside a box made from walnut, as a substitute for your request to plant a walnut tree over your grave. It will not be enough to satisfy my own sense of honor, but I will feel helpless to do anything else.
Someday I may own a home of my own. I will remember our happy days in the shade of a walnut tree. I will remember your request. I will plant a walnut tree in my own backyard. Beneath its roots will rest a worn copy of The Eye of the World that has long since lost its dust jacket. I will watch the walnut tree grow, feeding on the dusty, disintegrating pages of a worn out book and long-cherished memories of a brother who is no longer with me.
Susan M. Strayer recently earned her Ph.D. in Literature for Children and Young Adults at The Ohio State University. She also has an M.F.A. in Children’s Literature from Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. She primarily writes for young adults in the genres of fantasy and science fiction, but also dabbles in poetry, contemporary realistic fiction, and creative nonfiction when the mood strikes her. She currently lives in Hilliard, Ohio with her cat, Rigel.