Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Promise of Life in a Tree

Saturday I planted a fig tree in my back yard.

The FedEx truck had stopped with a very strange package just a short time before. It was a tall rectangle, heavy on one end, and it took me a while to realize what it was.

Back in the early fall after enjoying figs from a friend's tree, I had the idea that it would be nice to have a fig tree. I was also on my seemingly endless search for a cherry tree that would not only live but bear fruit, after the two trees that bloomed so heavily in the spring gave me nothing. (In the future I'll remember to check cross pollination requirements more carefully. It may not be their fault.)

While searching for dwarf cherries, so the trees will bear sooner and the girls could enjoy helping me pick those imaginary cherries, I found a turkey fig tree on the same website. In a fit of generosity to myself, I ordered two dwarf cherries and a fig (all self-pollinating).

Often people plant trees as memorials, and I hadn't planned on this tree being a memorial, but as I chose its placement and dug the hole according to directions, I realized that in my mind it would always be linked to Ethan.

I thought about how nice it would have been to plant the tree together, but then reminded myself that even before we were cut off from one another, a request to help me do something was not generally a welcome break from his inactivity.

That thought was followed, not so strangely, by thoughts of the grave. I thought of another hole dug into a hillside just a few days earlier, a hole destined to never bear fruit. A bit of me wished I'd had Ethan cremated as I originally considered, so I could have a bit of him with me as I did the fruit tree. But he had told me he didn't want that, and while I couldn't spare him the indignity of an autopsy, I could follow that wish.

And so as I planted, following the directions for shaping the hole and not disturbing the roots, for the size and depth of planting, far more closely than I typically do, I thought about Ethan. I thought about growth and potential and spring. I thought about the future, when I would be able to watch the tree that seemed so lifeless put forth leaves that I had never seen and grow and bear fruit.

I knew that even without any intention on my part, just by its arrival two days after the funeral, the fig tree would forever be linked to Ethan in my mind.

I wrapped it carefully in a length of plastic pipe to protect it from the rabbits and staked it in the ground with tall pieces of bamboo. When the rain came Saturday night, I welcomed it as a blessing for the fig tree.

As I started to write, I was reminded of how often the fig appears in the Bible and how important it was to the people. I remembered the story of the fig tree that bore no fruit and was caused to shrivel and die at the hands of Jesus. I couldn't help but think that despite its frequent repetition by the apostles, that was a tale that had never made a great deal of sense to me -- my human instinct would have been to make the fig bear fruit, not shrivel the tree, even as an example of what could be done with faith. Even that, in some strange way gave me comfort because if Jesus did things that the people closest to Him couldn't make sense of, then why should it surprise me that 2,000 years later, there are still things that don't make sense and aren't addressed the way I would have them addressed. If He could make a long standing story of faith from a fruitless fig tree, what could He do with the story of my son?

So this winter I'll care for the fig tree much as I did Ethan as a child, taking care to protect it from the hazards of the environment. I'll mulch its roots to protect them from the cold, brace it with stakes, brush away any snow or ice from its limbs so it can grow straight.

But like Ethan, there will come a time when it has to stand on its own and has to be strong enough to face the winds without a tether and bear fruit without breaking. When each spring will have me watching its limbs for the return of life that I cannot watch for in my son.

Saturday, I planted a fig tree. I've never named a tree before, but I think in my mind this one will be called Ethan.

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