Thomas Wictor

Trees were unclean

Trees were unclean

My father hated trees. In his world, trees were unclean. He hated the leaves they dropped, and he hated the shade they provided. To him, shade connoted sloth and secrets. Shade trees in your yard meant you were lazy and had something to hide. A moral, upright man had no trees. The lawn of a virtuous man looked like a golf course, and in the summer, his yard was like a blast furnace. Glaring sunlight was emblematic of blamelessness.

Dad especially hated this tree, which was over one hundred years old. My nephews Wylie and Hunter are standing under it.

You can see how much shade it provided. Mom is on the left; she loved the tree.

Every year Dad would cut off all the branches, leaving a pitiful stump that got cooked in the desert sun. Tim must’ve told Dad five hundred times that cutting off all the branches would kill the tree. Dad would feign ignorance.

“Really?” he’d ask. “Huh! I didn’t know that. I’m just prunin’ it.”

He knew. His plan was to kill the tree, to get rid of the shade that implied to his hovering, glowering, long-dead ancestors that he was lazy and had something to hide. The poor tree struggled back year after year, and Dad would mutilate it again. He overwatered it, causing it to rot and get termites, but Tim rescued it with some kind of cement filler. That infuriated Dad. Tim was “interfering.”

You could grab my father by the shoulders, shake him until he was as blurry as the spokes of a spinning bicycle wheel, and scream into his face, “STOP BUTCHERING THE TREE! DON’T DO IT ANYMORE!” The next day he’d be out there chopping off all its branches. He simply would not, under any circumstances, be turned aside when he wanted to do something. Tim, however, inherited our father’s implacability. He did everything he could to protect the tree.

Very early one morning in the summer of 2011, I woke to the sound of a chainsaw. I went next door and saw that Dad had cut down the tree and was sawing it into sections. Eighty-three years old and barely able to stand, he’d used his phenomenal willpower to marshal his energies. He’d taken care of the tree once and for all. It had survived two decades of his assaults, so he’d finally stopped pussyfooting around and openly murdered it.

I went into my parents’ house and said to Mom, “Did you see what Ed did?”

She sagged as she looked out the back door.

“He didn’t tell you he was going to do that, did he?” I asked.

“Of course not. He knew how much I liked that tree, so he wouldn’t have told me he was going to chop it down.” She smiled sadly. “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission, isn’t it?”

After Dad cut up the tree trunk into sections, he took a pick and dug out the roots, going down two feet into the soil. He was so exhausted that he swayed and staggered as though drunk. His final act was to put a section of the trunk in front of Mom’s pergola.

It was a trophy, like the stuffed head of a lion he’d shot. And—in all honesty—it was a raised middle finger to Mom, Tim, me, and everyone who’d tried to tell him what to do. The worst sin you could commit against my father was to make any sort of suggestion.

Don’t lecture me!” he’d shout.

After Dad died we discovered that he was aware of his cancer for almost two years and had done absolutely nothing about it. He cut down the tree in a frenzy, either to distract himself or because he was convinced that it would somehow save him. He wouldn’t die of cancer, because he wasn’t a lazy good-for-nothing! Look at all that blinding sunlight! He always referred to yard work as “cleaning things up.” The tree came to symbolize everything that had gone wrong in his life. Killing it would cleanse him of his cancer and make him twenty-four again.

About two months before Dad’s diagnosis of metastasized, stage-four cancer was confirmed, these appeared out of the ground where the tree once stood.

He hadn’t killed it after all. Though he did his best, abusing it unmercifully for twenty years and ignoring the pleas of his family, he failed in his mission to eradicate it. Tim immediately surrounded it with paving stones and told Dad to leave it alone. By that time Dad was too sick to chop down anything ever again, but he complained bitterly about the tree for weeks.

Dad now sits in an urn, and the tree slowly grows back to what it was before my father entered its life. Instead of admitting to the real problem, Dad played games, bargaining and tricking himself into believing in magic. If he’d simply acknowledged that he had cancer and undergone surgery and chemo, he’d still be here. Rather than do that, he chose displacement and took out his anxieties and rage on something that couldn’t defend itself. He died anyway.

I hope the tree lives for another hundred years. Its strength and resilience have made it one of my heroes.

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