On a Friday night last summer – it was July 27, the day of the Blood Moon – the cat jumped on top of me, startling me awake. I glanced at the clock. It was 3:30 am. Seconds later, I heard a colossal double crack. I knew it wasn’t thunder. I should have looked.
In the morning, I went downstairs to open the door, and cried out in horror. In the middle of the night, the massive limb on the sentinel red oak in front of our house had cracked, ripping itself out of the trunk. Part of it still hung there, dangling from the wound like a broken bone.
The tree had survived at least a century of storms, maybe two. It seemed among the things that might last forever. Only yesterday, that limb had floated like a dancer’s arm a hundred feet across the yard. It was simply unthinkable that it should let go and crash like that. There had been no wind, no provocation at all. It was a great shock to see it now in pieces, its branches askew, its starry leaves spewed along the concrete. Without that limb, would the tree ever be whole again?
And what about us? What had been lost? Would we be whole again?
It was the tree that gave the house its shape. Through its branches, I watched the moon, the morning star, the glittering lake. But it was that limb I loved best. Its lift and reach. The hubris of the thing. The way it cut across the driveway and rose up into a rainbow arch that just happened to bridge the whole panoramic sweep of our bedroom windows. There was so much charm in watching the sun creep up out of the east and start out along that bridge until the whole room throbbed with light. I thought of that famous line, “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” *
There had been no passersby walking their dogs at 3:00 am. No students on their way to school. Our cars were safely tucked away in the garage. In spite of the massive mess blocking the driveway, sprawled out into the street, no one had been hurt. It could have been otherwise.
A worker from a city crew warned us not to try to drive or walk under the tree. Those who passed glanced our way, and hurried their steps. By mid-morning, the dangling bone finally let go and fell, exposing a wound so massive and raw, it made you want to look the other way. There was shame in that gaping maw, black at the center. It made you want to cry out, like Ionesco’s dying king, Let it not be! Let us be as before! Let it be yesterday! Let it be last week! Time, turn back!
It took two trucks and a city crew to haul the mess away. All day, the buzz and growl of the chain saw, the grinding of the chipper. I stood by and watched a century of wood chopped into chunks. In the end, all that was left was a haze of rosy red dust.
Was it hubris brought you down? Forced you to your knees? Where did you think you were going with that one long heavenly arm? Did we ever really see you? Were we blind? Did we love enough? Did we altogether miss the mystery unfolding every minute all around us?
It’s October now. I’ve grown used to the tree without its limb. An arborist came by and warned against the possibility of torque, or worse – the nightmare of a mother pushing a baby carriage. I worry about the incessant rain, the softening earth. Without that bridge, we’ve been displaced, knocked off our perch. To think that the sunrise was just for us. That we somehow deserved such a tree, such a bed, such a life. That we deserved to be here at all.
“It’s like a tree picked bare:
through the branches that bore you fruit…
a depth now gazes…”
What else will fall? What’s next to disappear without warning in the middle of the night? I think of all those refugees with their endless packs, babies on their backs. Children torn from their mothers’ arms. The whole caravan that keeps on keeping on, never knowing the day nor the hour.
* The last line from Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey