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A Death in the Family
“Darling, I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
I’ve called mama from my car driving home from work. I hear the sadness and seriousness in her tone, and I steel myself. I debate whether I should pull over and more safely brace myself for whatever I am to learn.
In July 1997, I had just come home from teaching a summer class when the phone rang. I ran to grab it, and mama used that exact same phrase. She’d been waiting to tell me, she said, until she knew more, but now could confirm: she had both lung and uterine cancer. They were separate, both malign, and both needed surgery. Within days, she’d have a complete hysterectomy; not long thereafter, she’d have half a lung removed. I thought I would lose her, but we come of lucky and sturdy stock. Twenty-five years on, mama is still here.
In the years since, my mother has reported the deaths of her own mother and a dozen other loved ones prefaced with the same warning about bad news. My first thought yesterday was fear for my aunt; mama’s older sister has been in the hospital with complications following a bad fall. Perhaps things had turned for the worse.
It had been a hard day already, one of my “Pasadena” days, in which regret and grief and flashbacks about thwarted potential and a discarded vocation haunt my working hours on the sales floor. It’s been a hard week too; my children were shaken by what happened in that South Texas elementary school; like 50 million parents in this country, I’ve spent the last few days unsettled and heartbroken by the sheer horror of the news from Uvalde.
I think of Hamlet’s bitter lament about trouble coming not as single spies, but in battalions. What now, mama? I’m scared, but I’m ready. I take a deep breath.
“The family has had a long discussion, and we’ve made a decision,” my mother continues.
Jeepers. The last time mama said that, it was 2013, and there was talk of creating a codicil to the family trust. My loved ones were contemplating excluding me from the ranch line of succession, with my shares skipping me and going directly to my children. The fear was that I would do something so awful that someone would sue me, and once they found out I was penniless as an individual, would try to dip their paws in the deeper pockets of the extended clan. It was only briefly mooted as an idea, but as the black sheep, already ashamed of the trouble and embarrassment I’d caused, the mere contemplation of such a step shook me. (You’ll be almost as happy as I am to know that your narrator remains in the ranch line.)
“The walnut tree will need to come down”, mama says gently in a tone that suggests she knows I might find the news deeply upsetting. She pauses. “It’s been dying for several years, and we can’t wait any longer.”
The walnut tree sits between the swimming pool and the gravel road that leads to the two main houses on the property. It has an ancient concrete bird bath at its foot, and throughout my life, it’s had a succession of bird houses hanging in its branches. Well into my adult life the tree produced walnuts, but no nut has appeared in a decade or more. Still, even as it grew wizened and infecund, it hosted generation after generation of baby birds; its ancient branches held paper lanterns at summer parties and white lights at Christmas.
My bride and I in front of the old walnut, October 9, 2021.
My great-great-grandmother Jacqueline planted the tree and six others like it while William Howard Taft was president. (The Franciscan missionaries brought the tree, jugia reglans in the Latin, to California in the 1770s.) My grandfather was probably one of the first to climb it when he was a child more than a century ago; David may have been the last to wriggle up into its branches just last summer. The tree has witnessed weddings and fraternity weekends, skinny-dippings and coming-out parties, fireworks displays and memorial services, had a horse or two tied to its lowest limb.
Mama knows I’m sentimental about these things, and wanted to brace me. Still, part of me wants to burst out laughing. Only a tree this time, and not an aunt or a cousin?
The greatest gift we have in life is love and connection with other human beings. Next in line is a blessing given to too few: a multi-generational relationship with a piece of land. Spend enough of your life on a place that your departed ancestors and your children both love, and you will come to regard the rocks and flora as relations, cousins of a silent sort. My grandfather and the walnut tree were young together; my mother grew up knowing it in its proud and fertile prime; I remember it as a sturdy elder. My children will remember it as creaky and cracked but still strong enough to give them reassurance when they pulled themselves up into its branches.
I think of a line from Czeslaw Milosz: Not that I want to be a god or a hero. Just to change into a tree, grow for ages, not hurt anyone.
By the time my children and I come down the ranch road again, the old walnut will be firewood. “The family has made a decision,” mama says, and there is nothing left but to fire up the chainsaw and notify the next of kin.
Mom and I talk a little longer, and when we hang up, I cry a little, not so much for the tree but for the damned, heartbreaking frailty of everything and everyone that we love.