“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17)
It was hardly surprising how deeply our family felt the loss of the enormous tree they felled this week in our front yard. Months ago a lightning bolt had severed all strength from this formidable giant. When the leaves first cascaded down, we presumed our outstanding friend was just releasing its seasonal avalanche. But this time it was different. Its bare arms were left uncloaked for weeks, and when the moon glowed between its naked branches our tree became a haunting silhouette. Finally, mushrooms took up residence on the trunk and sucked the last drops of nutrition from the rotting wood.
During our house hunting in 1997, this black olive was the welcoming committee that first caught our attention and drew us through the door. Instantly, we felt at home. The following year when our son James returned home after a heart transplant, our family and neighbors lined the street with red heart-shaped balloons. For weeks afterward a bunch of them stayed lodged within the arms of the tree and greeted us each time we returned from another round of check-ups. As James recovered slowly, one of his uncles climbed up and bolted two metal chains into one of the sturdy branches. After that, all five of our children, their cousins, and the neighbors’ kids as well, spent time swinging, hanging out, and growing up beneath the overhanging canopy.
The year the hurricane shook us all to bits my father had recently been diagnosed with bone-marrow cancer. Vividly, I recall peering out the window and watching gale-force winds battle against our sturdy tree. Each powerful gust threatened to topple the massive black olive. The root structure reverberated beneath the lawn as the hurricane grabbed hold and shook it like a flimsy, green tablecloth. The tree swayed sideways, regained its balance, and stood firm. It refused to be overcome. From my perspective, I pictured my father holding firm, too. His multiple myeloma was creating havoc as it thundered against him. But in this season, it would not topple him over just yet.
We spent many happy days walking past our towering guard. We hardly noticed it except to grumble whenever it unleashed bushels of leaves that created hours of chores for the children. Saturday mornings always held a round of irksome raking. They complained, but complied. Our tree was helping build character as they tackled a task they had little use for.
As the day drew to a close in August of 2006, I left our home in the passenger seat of an ambulance. James was sequestered on a gurney between two paramedics working franticly. As we drove away, I glanced back and waved at our six-year-old daughter Anna. She was sitting on the swing that hung from the black olive, my sister by her side. James would never return home. We would never be the same. In the early morning light I stumbled out of bed and went in search of air. Grief was suffocating. A neighbor walked by. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” he said. I nodded but no words came, as I stood beneath the overreaching arch of our front lawn companion.
Now a low mound of wood chips remains in its place. The disheveled lawn bears witness to the enormous work involved in removing the hulk from its post. Apparently when the Lord gives gifts we foolishly presume they are ours forever. Not true. Each season comes framed with his unique and undeserved treasures for us to relish and enjoy. He provides inconsequential moments, earth-shattering events, and ordinary trees to bring us pleasure and remind us of his goodness in the midst of it all.
Elizabeth A. Mitchell