The Tree

Every now and then when I am outdoors walking down a random path, a branch will catch my eye and remind me of my Tree.

I haven’t seen this particular tree in almost 45 years. I remember few things about the catastrophic illness that nearly took my life, and it is possible that the tree I remember never existed, that it represents a figment of my delirium-ridden imagination.

Thinking back to that time, at age seven, I experienced the hospital in much the same way that a feral animal might. I had no language or experience to explain what had happened to me. My body weak, I lay in a sterile, beige room full of metal and hard edges, with scary machines, industrial sounds and smells of sterile chemicals and disease. I slept a lot in between blood draws and painful tests, occasional visitors and meals. But sometimes I found myself alone in a small sterile room with a window that looked out upon a tree.

I don’t know where my hospital room was — I had been brought in semi-conscious and burning with fever and slipped further into delirium before coming awake in that strange and foreign place. There was nothing special about the room — hospital rooms look much the same today.

But the room had a window. And the window had a view of the sky and of the branch of a deciduous tree.

I don’t know what kind of tree it was, and it doesn’t really matter. I will be forever grateful to the people at Pullman Memorial Hospital who saved my life. But the Tree saved my spirit.

Through the branches of my Tree, I could see the sky changing from black to gray to the blue of day. I knew when a cloud obscured the sunshine, and when it left to reveal the sunlight. I could sometimes see mist obscuring the leaves of the Tree.

Such an amazing Tree! The branches danced gloriously in the breeze, leaves trembling to and fro. I could imagine the sound the wind made as it blew by. I watched rain gently push on the leaves and recalled the smell of a fall rain storm.

All of this I could conjure up from gazing at my Tree.

Watching that small piece of sky and the edge of a tree, I could remember all that I loved about the outdoors, about the world, about life. As I gazed at my Tree, I recalled climbing trees, reading beneath trees, hiking through trees, all memories of a happier time.

I could not understand, sometimes I could not even believe what was happening to me in the hospital — my body weak, wracked with pain and infection, the added pain of physical therapy required to recover. It felt like I had been in the hospital for ages — and I feared that perhaps I would be there forever. After all, I was at the age where “Are we there yet?” was the classic phrase for an hour-long car ride. I had no words for the tsunami of emotions I felt with every added insult to injury. I sometimes fell into despair, as I felt as if the misery of the hospital would never end.

But when I looked out the window at my Tree, it served as an anchor, a possibility, a goal. I will get to see the outdoors again, I told myself. I will not only see the trees, but I will experience them. I couldn’t wait to get outside and hear the wind, feel its breath upon my cheek and smell the crispy dryness of fall leaves descending from the sky.

The day I left the hospital, a nurse bundled me up in a big blanket, nestled my weakened body into a wheelchair, and my parents accompanied us as she pushed me through the corridors and out the sliding glass doors.

The cool wind whirled past my ears and kissed my forehead. The leaves swirled and a small breeze grazed the skin on top of my foot between the blanket and the slipper. I wept with happiness.

And more than four decades later, I sometimes catch a glimpse of a certain Tree out of the corner of my eye. That’s enough, along with the smells and the wind on my face, to take me back to that little girl in the hospital bed looking out of her window, watching her Tree. The memory of her takes my breath away and fills my eyes with tears of gratitude.

I am here, with your Tree, I tell her. We made it.

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