Comfort on the Death of an Ancient Oak by Carolyn Williams-Noren


Found in Willow Springs 80

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EVERY TIME I SEE A WOMAN with a baby I wonder if she wants to throw down one drinking glass after another into her kitchen sink, or stomp out her back door with a stack of dinner plates and hurl them, one by one, onto the concrete walk. For a long time I wondered, if she did feel this, what would allow her to say so. What would convince her that she was not the only one-that she had no reason for shame?

One time I threw Ingrid's red leather shoe in frustration-hard, cursing­ and it was lost for fifteen minutes in the drifts of toddler toys on the floor. She cried the whole time I searched for it. So did her baby sister.

One time, unable to find a matching pair of mittens, I went outside and hit the side of the house with my flat hand so hard it left a dent I can still see in the siding. All the while, my husband patiently helped our daughters with their boots.

Once in the kitchen, while Iris was crying in the living room and I was trying to cook dinner, I slammed my fist onto the counter so hard my arm throbbed for hours.

Most of the time, though, I behaved peacefully, softly. My body did not look, and my voice did not sound, usually, full of rage. I took good care of our baby, our babies. I'm sure now that there are no better cared for children in the world. They had my milk, my sleep, my time, my eyes, my words. All the time.

Today they are nine and seven. Ingrid is capable, wryly funny, hard to rattle. She loves to run, loves her gray and green running shoes. She loves a dozen different friends. She's learning to play the trombone. She still jumps into my arms-seventy pounds-to hug and hang and grin at me with her new big front teeth. Iris is philosophical, wondering, sensitive. Begged me last week to take her cross-country skiing in the school field on the year's first inch of snow, and I did. Our family is at ease these days. We make each other laugh. We help each other. Stretched, yes: work and house projects and school and fun. But we have contentment, a constant, filling stream of it. Nobody hits anything.

Fact: I had longed for babies.

The summer I felt whole again, the summer they were three and five, the oldest tree in our city died. I hadn't thought before about a tree dying in a given season-I'd envisioned a slow death, year after year fewer leaves, then maybe a fall in a windstorm. But this was in the newspaper: The oldest tree in Minneapolis, an oak on a broad terrace above the river, in the sound wave of the interstate, failed to leaf out this spring.

The tree was three hundred years old, maybe four hundred. It had stood through the building of the city, the coming of the highway, the years of children in the field, the houses rising, other trees swelling and ebbing back. The city park department planned to cut the tree down-its trunk had rotted and was beginning to split from the weight of its branches. It was no longer safe to let stand.

I thought about the grass in the shade of the oak's canopy, how for the first summer in three hundred years the sun would be able to touch those places at every hour. How long would the shape of the roots stay-that complicated, fleshy watershed-underground, invisible?

When I tell you about my worst moments, do you want an explana­tion, a story? I can tell several, but how will you know which is true?

Story: We had one baby, and she needed to be held all the time. She wouldn't ride in the car without screaming. I couldn't breathe right while she screamed. Once, trying to drive to the post office, I stopped every two blocks to soothe her, which meant nurse her. It was summer; I was sweaty and too big for my clothes. I held her in the back seat, my shirt up, the door open, my legs dangling into the neighborhood avenue.

She needed to be held all the time. She needed to be held all night, to nurse all night.

Fact: I walked every morning carrying Ingrid in the sling. While I walked I whispered stories to her, even while she slept. I wanted to show her the whole world. The cottonwood fluff is falling. In the grass it looks like snow. You'll see snow in winter. You'll see so many beautiful things. We'll see so much together.

Her breath smelled like butter. Her first laugh was a low, sneaky chuckle.

Facts: I was the one with the milk, the one with a long maternity leave and, after that, a part-time job. I was the one in the house, the one always nearest. My husband worked more than full-time, traveled for work, and came home to our daughter's overjoyed squeals.

Fact: We did it that way on purpose. We chose it.

I nursed her to sleep for every nap, for every bedtime, for many dark hours in the middle of every night. For eighteen months.

The same month she began to sleep most of the night without waking, I discovered I was pregnant again.

One time I punched my own leg so hard I made a bruise. One time I tried to hit my own forehead against the wall. My husband stopped me. This was on nights when Ingrid wanted to nurse for hours.

Afternoons filled with the feeling of waiting for my husband to come home. Waiting for him to lift something off me. The baby. The heat of the day. The guilt of wanting to set the baby down and walk away.

I developed a bump on the side of my wrist, the size of a fat green pea. For two hours the afternoon I noticed it, I wept: It was cancer. I would die, and I would miss the golden privilege of seeing this beautiful child grow up.

The doctor took one look and told me it was a librarian's cyst. Benign. Caused by carrying heavy things, like books. Or babies.

Story: I couldn't handle as much as other people can. I wasn't cut out for it.

I didn't want to do us all in myself, but one night I stared out at the trees rustling in hot wind and hoped a tornado would blow all four of us away. How tragic that story would be a promising young family, taken too soon.

Fast objects seemed faster than usual. A truck speeding beside the sidewalk was a weapon.

My mother-in-law told a story of a baby killed by a flying rock thrown by a neighbor's lawnmower. She told me this while I was sitting on our front porch cradling the baby. While the neighbor was mowing his lawn.

Lying on the bed nursing the baby to sleep, still aching where I'd torn open and been sewn back together, I wept over how perfect she was, and how much she'd already changed. Three days old.

Every time I tell a story that says every time, my husband reminds me, not every time.

The article about the tree had stories from neighbors--old people who'd played in the tree's shade as children. They said how tall and broad the canopy had been. People left prayers on paper, folded and tucked between ridges of bark. One said, I don't know how to raise my daughter.

Our children's preschool was near the oak about four blocks-walk, just on the other side of Franklin Avenue. One day that summer, the kids and their teachers walked there, Ingrid's class, the Penguins, holding hands in pairs.

This was five years ago, and I haven't stopped thinking about a woman saying to a tree, I don't know how to raise my daughter.

That's the past, but it doesn't have to be the center. We're fine now. I'm fine now.

When they both started sleeping well, it all felt better.

When they were both weaned, it all felt better. When they were both old enough to walk and talk well, it all felt better.

When I started taking a pill the doctor said would make it all feel better, it all felt better.

Rage wasn't constant, not even in the worst times. But it was inside my skin all the time, waiting.

Here's a story: Everyone is sad and miserable when her babies are young, but everybody lies about it.

Here's another: I had an illness cured by serotonin.

And another: Everybody's sad and miserable caring for babies, but only the brave admit it.

And a few more: Most people enjoy every minute of their babies. Only bad mothers feel like crawling out of their skin. Those days are so precious. Enjoy every minute.

When Ingrid was a baby, I wrote a whole year's book of beautiful moments. It was a tiny journal addressed to my daughter, one page each day, each day a precious thing: How beautiful you are-how you seem to glow; and, You laugh along whenever you hear someone laugh; and, You talked in your sleep last night: Bubbles! Bubbles! Bubbles!

But there was no grasping any moment. Every month a new size of clothing folded up and put away. Try to catch the world's rarest butterfly without moving your feet.

Names for a baby: Fat gold watch that rearranges time. Tyrant, terrorist, bowl of applesauce. Grocery store cake with loads of white frosting. Dumpling, terrible kitten.

I've lost the chronology. From here it all seems like one time, but it was years-from one child to two-from aloneness to help to complaint to peace. Where is the right moment from which to tell the story? The moment my fist hit the counter I was without words. There were years of not knowing the story because I was too deep in it. Now are the years that fade the story. It loses its timeline, loses its sense.

But as I began to feel better, I became less ashamed of having felt miserable.

As I grew less ashamed of how unhappy I felt, I began to feel better.

It was as though an invisible third eyelid reopened. My hands, relieved of the weight of dragging myself along, were free to work-free, sometimes, to rest.

I first told close friends and then others: This is no picnic. People say it's hard, but it is really hard. What I told them, I could say only in the past tense and only in a whisper: Sometimes I thought if I could go back, I would I'd have unmade them if I could I told about the fist on the counter, the dent in the siding, the shoe.

There needs to be a kind, fierce guardian at the gate of motherhood. Beware. It will ruin you. It's not for everyone. I was that guardian for a while.

I wanted to talk about it, to complain. More than that, I wished something, somehow had prepared me. I wished someone had said, This is really no joke. You might hate your days.

Story told at the natural baby store: Every object in your baby's life can be clean and soft.

Same story: Look at the garden in May, and expect it to stay neat and weedless.

All the time, I wondered why I hadn't known; I made lists, doodled cartoons of the truth wrapped in impermeable layers. We are ashamed not to like the work of motherhood. Even if we can admit unhappiness to ourselves, telling others takes more bravery. And if we say it, who will listen? Of those who listen, who will believe it's not hyperbole? Who can believe it will be the same for them?

It's not the same for everyone. Not even close.

During those years of babies and toddlers, our friends John and Kate were the outside world in our house. We went in together on a share of vegetables from a farm, and every week we met to split up the box and cook a meal. They were newly married and on the fence about children; to us, their childlessness was tonic.

The nights they came for dinner, my husband and I would chop vegetables side by side while John opened beers and Kate played a dancing game with the kids. Or I'd nurse the baby and chat with Kate while my husband and John roasted turnips and tossed a mizuna salad and grilled meat. The two of them had energy for our daughters, could see the humor and loveliness that my husband and I could only trudge through.

On regular nights I fixed our family's dinner one-armed, a baby or toddler on my hip more often than not, and we ate and cleared the table, moved on quickly through dishes and the kids' bedtime and collapse.

On the nights John and Kate came, we ate slowly, enough grownups around to keep up lively conversation while one at a time tended to a child. They stayed after the kids went to bed, and brought honest interest in what to us was terribly ordinary. How do you know how to handle this? How do you decide that? How does it feel? They were the first friends I trusted with the rage and fatigue and shame about the rage and fatigue. They listened. Sympathetic, interested.

Imagine that woman leaving her note. I don't know how to raise my daughter. The paper she left behind would eventually become brittle, then soggy, disintegrate with fall's brown leather, be washed into the soil, drawn up through the roots, made part of the wood. Her unknowing, rewritten in one cylinder of fiber.

That summer it all felt better, a bag of grapes and a bottle of water, a tube of sunscreen and a stack of library books were all we needed to be out and about for hours. My girls' hair was always glowing in the sun.

The summer it all felt better, people in the news kept digging things up. In New York, in the middle of construction at the World Trade Center site, they unearthed a wooden ship a hundred years old, ruined to a skeleton but holding its shape. The image of it swinging from a crane has stayed in my mind, lodged in that summer of emerging.

As I began to be able to see and think again, I spoke more openly about the lies we tell about babies. I was sarcastic, or serious, or both. Petal pink and baby blue, flannel, tiny T-shirts embroidered with the words, If they could just stay little. Wherever I could, I pointed out hardness. Harder than a marathon, harder than a dissertation, harder than the flu, those months of not-sleep, of don't-know, of terror-of­ dropping, of stepping-on, of starving, of overfeeding, of failing the baby. The wail that might start any time. I ridiculed photos of babies with feathery wings, downy yellow chicks, any suggestion of purity. Babies aren't angels or little birds; they are tiny people we love to the point of pain, who can't say what they need, who make noises our military-no lie-records for torture. Tiny people who wake and wake and wake, who are so fragile, who it seems could disappear by accident.

Just when I became the most vocal about this, John and Kate announced they were expecting a baby.

Throughout Kate's pregnancy, I kept up flippant talk about how hard it would be. I'm writing a poem for you, I told her. It's called, Lament for a Newly Pregnant Friend. I was thinking that I'd be the safe one to complain to. That by refusing to succumb to simple, nice celebration, I'd let Kate know she could say to me what I had been alone with.

I threw them a baby shower. I ordered a giant cake and cut up fruit and cleaned the house and put the leaf in the table, and another friend brought salads and punch. Their families and other friends filled our house. When I wasn't attending to drinks or cutting cake, I remember not knowing what to say, where to stand, which story to tell myself Kate sat on our sofa, opening gifts, looking teary and grateful and glowing.

The tornado sirens went off that afternoon, the yellow-gray sky raining fat drops. I thought of ushering everyone into our musty basement, but that didn't seem necessary; the sirens go off for thunderstorms, real or anticipated, and so seldom do they mean real danger. We stayed in the living room, an eye on the radar. Later we learned a tornado had touched down just a couple of miles away. While we ate cake, tree upon tree was torn up at the roots.

I remember wondering, as my friend opened packages wrapped in pastel tissue and tied with light blue raffia, why is nobody saying that our friend is about to do the impossible, is heading into years of isolation and hardness, fatigue and frustration and loss of the stars?

Word of the ancient oak's demise circulated. On the neighborhood's online discussion board, people began to protest that the tree, even dead and leafless, should be left to stand. City officials countered that it was too dangerous; the weight of the limbs could easily split the hollow trunk; it might fall at any time.

Kate and John's baby was born in June, and during that summer I went to their house many times to take their dog for a run. I brought them food, cut up parsnips and turnips from their farm box so they could snack easily, one-handed.

It took me months to see how little they needed from me. One day as I arrived, I met Kate's sister on the front porch; she was just leaving, having vacuumed the stairs. My friend----during the baby's naps, I guess-was energetically contemplating a career change, making a spreadsheet of grocery prices at various stores. Every time I saw her, she said how happy and blessed she felt. She didn't seem to be lying.

Facts: Some babies sleep more than others. Some babies cry more than others. Some adults need more sleep than others. Some mothers roll with everything better than others.

Story: Motherhood transforms us, makes us large-hearted and beautiful in ways we never imagined.

Fact: No sister came over to vacuum my fucking stairs.

Fact: The word blessed, in this context, makes me want to barf.

Story: Some mothers bounce back right away. It's amazing.

Another story: There's no sense comparing.

I was a beast of jealousy. I crushed myself against the difference between us like a bird at a window, trying to fly through. Was this friend hiding from me, denying me the frankness I thought we'd keep as she became a mother? Was she truly as overjoyed as she appeared? Don't we all have reasons to hide our darkest sides, even when a friend is ready to hear? Had I been a bad friend, done something to lose her trust? Was I just plain wrong about the hardness? Was it really only my own illness or weakness that made the baby years so hard for me?

I made my husband discuss it with me-this difference-over and over. These were battering, teary, bitter conversations: what happened in those years, how we each remembered them, whether it mattered that-in addition to sometimes hitting things and often feeling like I was fighting for every step through a day-I had also often smiled and laughed. The conversation seemed to have no end: Was I seeing Kate clearly? Was my memory of those years right? Had I seemed, in those hard years, from the outside, as glowing and happy as Kate did now?

Light travels through air, through glass, through water, through the other side of the glass, altered by each layer. Memory is like this, and it's like this to speak across motherhood. Even one color-the baby's hair, the baby's eyes, my bruise-we can't be sure we all see the same. How strange is it, what happened to me? How bad? Who's telling the truth? Who can hear it?

And what can be compared? Who's to say what's sick and what's just unhappy? Who's to say what's a cure and what's time? Who's to warn anyone, through the butter-vision of baby?

My husband and I retold the story, rehashed the difference, until we were finished. The last conversation ended with my exhausted tears, the two of us leaning into each other: We won't ever know what that time was. We can't know. It happened, and we didn't understand it then, and we don't now.

I don't know how to raise my daughter. Of course the years-ago mother wrote that on paper, rolled it in a tube, left it in a fold of bark. We want to say a thing like that to someone old and quiet, someone who will hold our helplessness and not tell. We aren't asking a question or making a request. We're not quite praying; we're telling a secret. We're saying to the tree: Hold this. Take I don't know and stretch it toward the sky, build a canopy of it.

It's an act of faith, that telling. A wild confidence that not knowing knows something that we don't know. A desire to see not knowing become sheltering, enduring-no longer just confusion that flies by ungrabbed, but a monument.

The tree seems to know something, but nobody expects to hear what it knows.

The tree is made of the past, doesn't leave each year behind, but buries it inside itself, keeps inside what's new. Each year is thin, hidden, solid, present.

A tree is good at giving us silence and memory at once.

For months, I could hardly look at Kate and her baby. My friend's alertness, her laughter, her happy weepiness.

I stopped trying to be so close to Kate. And when I backed away, I noticed she had stepped away, too-stopped sharing, stopped ask­ing what I thought. I deserved this distance. I'd overcompensated for the oversweet world, brought too much bitter to a time that she, like everyone, wanted to keep sweet.

I don't know how to raise my daughter. I picture this mother returning years later to the tree. Whatever mistakes she'd been afraid to make, she's made them now-or not-already. Her not knowing is no longer important. But she can still stand under the tree, the holder of that time, hollow at the center, and hear the rush of the highway, the voices of children in the field.

I'm not lying anymore when I say I'm glad that the baby year, for Kate, was golden, simple, and cherished. Now I believe her.

I have a story, too, about what my vegetable-chopping was for: to give what I thought my friends would need, yes. But more than that, I wanted to live that hard time again, but from the outside, from nearby. I wanted to be close to such an experience, to see it with­ out being pulled down by it. I wanted-impossibly-to be with that hardness again, but from an angle where I could think, could speak.

When I see a woman with a baby now, I say very little. I'm learning to give quiet without forgetting. I try to imagine I'm meeting her under a tree--its articulate leaves-their green, spiked corners casting shadows on the grass.

Ultimately the city sent workers to swing up and cut off the ancient oak's limbs. They left the trunk standing, open to one cut of sky, and the roots still reaching into the dark under the field. We have our monument. Not a plaque on a patch of bare ground, but a standing column, built of what we've left in its folds.

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