My Father’s Treehouse

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photo by Dan Gibson

 

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My father’s treehouse is twenty three years old, lonesome and empty in our front yard, a constant reminder of his own abandoned Swiss Family Robinson dreams. Over the years, it has been the setting for a local children’s TV show, laser tag wars, sleep overs and tea parties, even my writer’s retreat with a deck side view of the Cascades to the east, the Canadian Coastal Range to the north and Puget Sound to the west. Now it is a sad shell no longer considered safe, as the support branches in our 100+ year old walnut tree are weakening with age and time.

The dream began in February 1995 when our sons were 8 and 6 years old and our daughter just 2. We had plenty of recycled lumber on our old farm and an idea about what to build. My father, retired from his desk job and having recently survived a lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, had many previous daunting building projects to his credit, and a few in his mind that he was yet to get to. He was eager to see what he could construct for his grandkids by spring time. He doodled out some sketches of what might work in the tree, and contemplated the physics of a 73 year old man scaling a tree vs. building on the ground and hoisting it up mostly completed. I got more nervous the more I thought about it and hoped we could consider a project less risky, and hoping the weather wouldn’t clear enough for construction to start any time soon.

The weather cleared as simultaneously my father’s health faded. His cancer relapsed and he was sidelined with a series of doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations and treatment courses. He hung on to that hope of getting the treehouse going by summer, still thinking it through in his mind, still evaluating what he would need to buy to supplement the materials already gathered and piled beneath the tree. In the mean time he lost physical strength day by day.

His dream needed to proceed as he fought his battle, so I borrowed library books on treehouses, and hired two college age brothers who lived down the road to get things started. I figured if my dad got well enough to build again, at least the risky stuff could be already done by the young guys. These brothers took their job very seriously. They pored over the books, took my dad’s plans, worked through the details and started in. They shinnied up the tree, put up pulleys on the high branches and placed the beams, hoisting them by pulling on the ropes with their car bumper. It was working great until the car bumper came off.

I kept my dad updated long distance with photos and stories. It was a diversion for him, but the far off look in his eye told me he wasn’t going to be building anything in this world ever again. He was gone by July. The treehouse was done a month later. It was everything my dad had dreamed of, and more. It had a deck, a protective railing, a trap door, a staircase. We had a open tree celebration and had 15 neighbors up there at once. I’m sure dad was sipping lemonade with us as well, enjoying the view.

Now all these years later, the treehouse is tilting on its foundation as a main weight bearing branch is weakening. We’ve declared it condemned, not wanting to risk an accident.  It remains a daily reminder of past dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled as I look out my window. Much like my father’s body, the old walnut tree is weakening, hanging on by the roots, but its muscle strength is failing. It will, sometime, come down in one of our frequent fierce windstorms, just as its nearby partner did a few years ago.

The treehouse dream branched out in another way. One of the construction team brothers decided to try building his own as a place to live in his woods, using a Douglas Fir tree as the center support and creating an octagon, two stories, 30 feet off the ground. He worked on it for two years and moved in, later marrying someone who decided a treehouse was just fine with her, and for 16 years, they’ve raised five children there.  The treehouse kids are old enough to come work for me on our farm, a full circle feeling for me.  This next generation is carrying on a Swiss Family Robinson dream that began in my father’s mind and our front yard.

I still have a whole list full of dreams myself, some realized and some deferred by time, resources and the limits of my imagination. I feel the clock ticking too, knowing that the years and the seasons slip by me faster and faster. It would be a blessing to me to see others live out the dreams I have held so close.

Like my father, I will some day teeter in the wind like our old tree, barely hanging on. When ready to fall to the ground, I’ll reach out with my branches and hand off my dreams too. The time will have come to let them go.

 

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That Ache of Memory

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Well-away and be it so,
To the stranger let them go.
Even cheerfully I yield
Pasture, orchard, mowing-field,
Yea and wish him all the gain
I required of them in vain.
Yea and I can yield him house,
Barn, and shed, with rat and mouse
To dispute possession of.
These I can unlearn to love.
Since I cannot help it? Good!
Only be it understood,

It shall be no trespassing
If I come again some spring
In the grey disguise of years,
Seeking ache of memory here.
~Robert Frost from “On the Sale of My Farm”

 

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From the road, each of the two small farms where I grew up in western Washington state look nothing like they did in my childhood.  When I drive past now, whether on Google Earth virtual reality or for real , the outbuildings have changed and are unfamiliar, fences pulled down, the trees exponentially taller, the fields no longer well-tended. Instead the familiarity is in the road to get there, the lean into the curves, the acceleration in and out of dips, the landscape which triggers a simultaneous comfort and disquiet deep in my DNA.

Though my younger brother recently stopped and looked around our long-ago childhood home, and sent me pictures that looked barely recognizable, I have never stopped to knock; instead I have driven slowly past to sense if I feel what I used to feel in these places.  My memories are indeed triggered but feel a bit as if they must have happened to someone else.

One clinic day a few years ago, I glanced at the home address of a young man I was about to see for a medical issue and I realized he now lived in my childhood home over 100 miles away.  When I greeted him I told him we had something in common: we had grown up under the same roof, inside the same walls, though children of two different generations.  He was curious but skeptical — how could this gray-haired middle aged woman know anything about his home?  He told me a bit about the house, the barn, the fields, the garden and how he experienced it felt altogether strange to me.  He and I had shared nothing but a patch of real estate — our recollections were so completely disparate.

I worry for the fearsome ache if someday, due to age or finances, we must sell our current farm ~ this beloved place our children were raised, animals bred and cared for, fruit picked from an ancient orchard, plants tended and soil turned over. It will remain on the map surely as the other two farms of my past, visible as we pass by slowly on the road, but primarily alive in the words and photos I have harvested here. There will always be that sweet ache of seeking out what might be still familiar on the map of my memory.

 

 

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Gone to Feed the Roses

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I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.
~Edna St. Vincent Millay “Dirge Without Music”
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Each Memorial Day weekend without fail,
we gather with family, have lunch, reminisce,
and trek to a cemetery high above Puget Sound
to catch up with our relatives who lie there still.Some for over 100 years, some for less than a decade,
some we knew and loved and miss every day,
others not so much, unknown to us
except on genealogy charts,
their names and dates and these stones
all that is left of them:the red-haired great-grandmother who died too young,

the aunt who was eight when lymphoma took,
the Yukon river boat captain,
the logger and stump farmer,
the unmarried school teacher who hid away an oil well,
the two in-laws who lie next to each other
but could not co-exist in the same room while they lived and breathed.
Yet we know each of these
(as we know ourselves and others)
was tender and kind, though flawed and broken,
was beautiful and strong, though wrinkled and frail,
was hopeful and faithful, though too soon in the ground.

We know this about them
as we know it about ourselves:
someday we too will feed roses,
the light in our eyes transformed into elegant swirls
emitting the fragrant scent of heaven.

No one asks if we approve.
Nor am I resigned to this but only know:
So it is,  so it has been, so it will be.

 

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When Flesh and Heart Shall Fail

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(Ten years ago this week, this healthy young college student came to our clinic stricken with seasonal influenza complicated by pneumonia.  His family gave permission for his story to be told.)

 

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Nothing was helping.  Everything had been tried for a week of the most intensive critical care possible.  A twenty year old man, completely healthy only two weeks previously, was dying and nothing could stop it.

The battle against a sudden MRSA pneumonia precipitated by a routine seasonal influenza had been lost.   Despite aggressive hemodynamic, antibiotic, antiviral and ventilator management, he was becoming more hypoxic and his renal function was deteriorating.  He had been unresponsive for most of the week.

The intensivist looked weary and defeated. The nurses were staring at their laps, unable to look up, their eyes tearing. The hospital chaplain reached out to hold this young man’s mother’s shaking hands.

After a week of heroic effort and treatment, there was now clarity about the next step.

Two hours later, a group gathered in the waiting room outside the ICU doors. The average age was about 21; they assisted each other in tying on the gowns over their clothing, distributed gloves and masks. Together, holding each other up, they waited for the signal to gather in his room after the ventilator had been removed and he was breathing without assistance. They entered and gathered around his bed.

He was ravaged by this sudden illness, his strong body beaten and giving up. His breathing was now ragged and irregular, sedation preventing response but not necessarily preventing awareness. He was surrounded by silence as each individual who had known and loved him struggled with the knowledge that this was the final goodbye.

His father approached the head of the bed and put his hands on his boy’s forehead and cheek.  He held this young man’s face tenderly, bowing in silent prayer and then murmuring words of comfort:

It is okay to let go. It is okay to leave us now.
We will see you again. We’ll meet again.
We’ll know where you will be.

His mother stood alongside, rubbing her son’s arms, gazing into his face as he slowly slowly slipped away. His father began humming, indistinguishable notes initially, just low sounds coming from a deep well of anguish and loss.

As the son’s breaths spaced farther apart, his dad’s hummed song became recognizable as the hymn of praise by John Newton, Amazing Grace.  The words started to form around the notes. At first his dad was singing alone, giving this gift to his son as he passed, and then his mom joined in as well. His sisters wept. His friends didn’t know all the words but tried to sing through their tears. The chaplain helped when we stumbled, not knowing if we were getting it right, not ever having done anything like this before.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

And he left us.

His mom hugged each sobbing person there–the young friends, the nurses, the doctors humbled by powerful pathogens. She thanked each one for being present for his death, for their vigil kept through the week in the hospital.

This young man, now lost to this life, had profoundly touched people in a way he could not have ever predicted or expected. His parents’ grief, so gracious and giving to the young people who had never confronted death before, remains unforgettable.

This was their sacred gift to their son so Grace will lead us home.

 

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A Full Circle Remembrance Day

weddingMy parents Henry and Elna Polis on their wedding day,
Dec. 24, 1942, Quantico, Virginia
He shipped out to the South Pacific front one week later,
not to return until June 1945

 

Sometimes, as a child,  when I was bored, I’d grab a step ladder, pull it into our hallway, climb half way up and carefully lift the plywood hatch that was the portal to our unlit attic.  It took some effort to climb up into the attic from the ladder, juggling a flashlight at the same time, but once seated safely on the beams above our ceiling, being careful not to put my foot through the carpet of insulation, I could explore what was stowed and normally inaccessible to me.

All the usual attic-type things were put up there:  Christmas ornaments and lights,  baby cribs and high chairs,  lamps and toys no longer used.  Secrets to my parents’ past were stored away there too.  It was difficult imagining them as young children growing up on opposite sides of the state of Washington, in very different circumstances, or as attractive college students who met at a dance, or as young marrieds unencumbered by the daily responsibilities of a family.  The attic held those images and memories like a three dimensional photo album.

My father’s dark green Marine Corps cargo trunk was up there, the one that followed him from Officer Training in Quantico, Virginia, to beach and mountain battles on Tarawa, Tinian and Saipan in the South Pacific, and three years later back home again.  It had his name and rank stenciled on the side in dark black lettering.  The buckles were stiff but could be opened with effort, and in the dark attic, there was always the thrill of unlatching the lid, and shining the flashlight across the contents.  His Marine Corps dress uniform lay inside underneath his stiff brimmed cap.  There were books about protocol, and a photo album which contained pictures of “his men” that he led in his battalion, and the collection of photos my mother sent of herself as she worked as a high school teacher back home.

Most fascinating was a folded Japanese flag inside a small drawstring bag, made of thin white see-through cloth with the bold red sun in the middle.  Surrounding the red sun were the delicate inked characters of many Japanese hands as if painted by artists, each wishing a soldier well in his fight for the empire.  Yet there it was, a symbol of that soldier’s demise, itself buried in an American attic, being gently and curiously held by an American daughter of a Marine Corps captain.  It would occur to me in the 1960s that some of the people who wrote on this flag might still be living, and certainly members of the soldier’s family would still be living.  I asked my father once about how he obtained the flag, and he, protecting me and himself, waved me away, saying he couldn’t remember.  I know better now.  He knew but could not possibly tell me the truth.

These flags, charms of good luck for the departing Japanese soldier as he left his neighborhood or village for war, are called Hinomaru Yosegaki (日の丸寄せ書き).  Tens of thousands of these flags came home with American soldiers; it is clear they were not the talisman hoped for.  A few of these flags are now finding their way back to their home country, to the original villages, to descendants of the lost soldiers.  My brother, who now has the flag, has returned it as well to its rightful owners.

Seventy some years ago doesn’t seem that long, a mere drop in the river of time.  There is more than mere mementos that have flowed from the broken dam of WWII, flooding subsequent generations of Americans, Japanese, Europeans with memories that are now lost as the oldest surviving soldiers in their 90’s pass, hundreds of them daily, taking their stories of pain and loss and heroism with them.   My father could never talk with a person of Asian descent, Japanese or not, without stiffening his spine and a grim set to his jaw.  He never could be at ease or turn his back.  As a child, I saw and felt this from him, but heard little from his mouth.

When he was twenty two years old,  pressed flat against the rocks of Tarawa, trying to melt into the ground to become invisible to the bullets whizzing overhead, he could not have conceived that sixty five years later his twenty two year old grandson would disembark from a jumbo jet at Narita in Tokyo, making his way to an international school in that city to teach Japanese children.  My father would have been shocked that his grandson would settle happily into a culture so foreign, so seemingly threatening, so apparently abhorrent.   Yet this irony is the direct result of the horrors of that too-long horrible bloody war of devastation: Americans and Japanese, despite so many differences, have become the strongest of allies, happily exchanging the grandchildren of those bitterly warring soldiers back and forth across the Pacific.  I care for Japanese exchange students daily in my University clinic, peering intently into their open faces and never once have seen the enemy that my father knew.

More than seventy years later, my son still teaches, with deep admiration and appreciation for each of his students, those grandchildren and greatgrandchildren of the soldiers my father hated and likely killed.  Not only does my son teach, but he married a granddaughter of those my father fought.  Their daughter is the perfect amalgam of once warring, yet now peaceful, cultures; symbol of blended and blending peoples overcoming the hatred of past generations.

In coming to the land of the red sun, in coming full circle, my father’s descendant, the teacher and missionary,  redeems my father, the warrior.

It is, on this Remembrance Day,  as it was meant to be.

 

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An Unimaginable Zero Summer

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At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving…
{Burnt Norton}

Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
Zero summer?
{Little Gidding}

~T.S. Eliot, from Four Quartets

 

ZeroSummerE-471x630Zero Summer by Makoto Fujimura

 

“Zero Summer” imagines the unimaginable horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and yet points to epiphanic awakening that transcend human imagination at the same time. T.S. Eliot, who coined this term in his “Four Quartets,” longed for that eternal summer, birthed out of the “still point,” where imagination is met with grace and truth.
~Makoto Fujimura

 

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As a grade school child in November 1963, I learned the import of the U.S. flag being lowered to half mast in response to the shocking and violent death of our President. The lowering of the flag was so rare when I was growing up, it had dramatic effect on all who passed by — something very sad had happened to our country, warranting our silence and our stillness.

Since 9/11/01, our flag has spent significant time at half mast, so much so that I’m befuddled instead of contemplative, puzzling over what the latest loss might be as there are so many, sometimes all happening in the same time frame.  We no longer are silenced by this gesture of honor and respect and we certainly are not stilled, personally and corporately instigating and suffering the same mistakes against humanity over and over again.

Eliot wrote the prescient words of the Four Quartets in the midst of the WWII German bombing raids that destroyed people and neighborhoods. Perhaps he sensed the destruction he witnessed would not be the last time in history that evil visits the innocent, leaving them in ashes. There would be so many more losses to come, as Makoto Fujimura illustrates in his artistic depiction of the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki transcending to an epiphany of the human imagination.  And then the horror of 9/11/01.

There remains so much more sadness to be borne, such abundance of grief that our world has become overwhelmed and stricken and it seems we’ve lost all imagination for “a grace of sense”.

Eliot was right: we have yet to live in a Zero summer of endless hope and fruitfulness, of spiritual awakening and understanding.  Where is it indeed?

We must return, as people of faith, as Eliot did, as Fujimura has, to that still point to which we are called on a day such as today.  We must be stilled; we must be silenced. We must grieve the losses of this turning world and pray for release from the suffering we cause and we endure.  Only in the asking, only in the kneeling down and pleading, are we surrounded by grace.   A flag half lowered may have lost its power to punch our gut, but we are illuminated by the Light,  a grace of senses on the move in our lives.

 

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“There Are No Words” written on 9/11/2001
by Kitty Donohoe

there are no words there is no song
is there a balm that can heal these wounds that will last a lifetime long
and when the stars have burned to dust
hand in hand we still will stand because we must

in one single hour in one single day
we were changed forever something taken away
and there is no fire that can melt this heavy stone
that can bring back the voices and the spirits of our own

all the brothers, sisters and lovers all the friends that are gone
all the chairs that will be empty in the lives that will go on
can we ever forgive though we never will forget
can we believe in the milk of human goodness yet

we were forged in freedom we were born in liberty
we came here to stop the twisted arrows cast by tyranny
and we won’t bow down we are strong of heart
we are a chain together that won’t be pulled apart

 

The Cathedral to Memory

 

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I planted an apple tree in memory
of my mother, who is not gone,
 
but whose memory has become
so transparent that she remembers
 
slicing apples with her grandmother
(yellow apples; blue bowl) better than
 
the fruit that I hand her today. Still,
she polishes the surface with her thumb,
 
holds it to the light and says with no
hesitation, Oh, Yellow Transparent . . .

they’re so fragile, you can almost see
to the core. She no longer remembers how
 
to roll the crust, sweeten the sauce, but
her desire is clear—it is pie that she wants.
 
And so, I slice as close as I dare to the core—
to that little cathedral to memory—where
 
the seeds remember everything they need
to know to become yellow and transparent.
~Catherine Essinger “Summer Apples”  from What I Know About Innocence

 

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A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible. 
~Welsh Proverb

 

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It is at late summer and harvest time when I most clearly remember my mother – she is standing for hours at the kitchen sink peeling yellow transparent apples, readying them for sauce, and always a pie.

The apples were only part of her daily work:  she canned quarts and quarts of green beans, peeled the peaches and pears for canning, sauced the plums, pickled the cucumbers, jammed the strawberries and raspberries, syruped the blackberries, froze the blueberries, cut the kernels off the corn cobs, baked up the zucchini into breads and cakes, dried the filberts, dug and stored the potatoes,  dehydrated the tomatoes.

Over the years I’ve stood by the sink and the stove and have done what my mother used to do, usually not as well but with the same mission of preserving what I can for another day.  We have been fed from our summer labors.

I know well these trees and vines from which the fruit grows.  I plant the seeds which somehow know to produce when tended and nurtured.  I stand and peel and wash and boil and stir as this is what generations of my family’s women did before me.

May it ever be.

 

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