My one-day, someday house will have a tree for her.
A red maple, rich like the grapes we stomped in that cobblestone driveway.
Instead of setting her a place at the kitchen table or glitter gluing her name to a Christmas stocking, the tree will be my reminder:
She’s welcome to wind her arms around me, even decades after she’s gone. She’s welcome to kick off her shoes and roll up the sleeves of her cable knit sweater and unroll a bag of Mint Milano cookies for after dinner.
She’s welcome to weave her passion into each of my steps. Each time I turn the key and open my front door, she’s welcome to remind me to be good, be present, be caring.
Her first tree was green as the grass that stained our bare feet when we planted it.
It wasn’t until months later, when autumn peaked its head out from under the covers of our grief, that we learned the truth:
The leaves turned deep shades of red, just like the fire of her hair and her fight. We belly-laughed hard into the cold winter, trying not to find meaning in the way those leaves fell one by one to the ground, shedding like her white post-chemotherapy hair just before she died.
We were lucky. For fifteen years, the tree bloomed and grew. It saw the birth of new baby boys and girls, surprise birthday parties and barbeques in the backyard. It saw forts erected in the summer heat and bridges drawn across the ever-widening creek. It saw photo shoots with grown-up girls and hide-and-seek with neighbor boys.
For fifteen years, it returned from the dead of winter.
This fall, disease took over.
And I remembered the cancer.
I remembered the first time cancer became real, the first time the light escaped her eyes. I realized all the things the tree had seen without her and started to slip into sadness.
How easy it would be to dwell on alternative endings, on what she might’ve seen if addiction hadn’t ravaged her cells.
How easy it would be to think about mornings in the hall bathroom, door wide open and vent fan on, her hairbrush tugging the knots from my hair. How easy it would be to picture her hand on my shoulder at high school graduation, at every single gymnastics meet, at the end of my college career and the day I moved into my apartment.
I could wreck myself with wishing for those moments. Or I can plant a tree and walk past her memory, her strength, her love of family, every single morning.