In the Shelter of a Weeping Beech

Off Route 6 on Cape Cod, a few miles in from the bay near Yarmouth, Mass., there hides a giant ancient English weeping beech. The tree is so big that it has its own parking lot.

But you don’t see it right away. Tucked among a clutch of shrubs and smaller trees, it’s not clear where, or what, the tree is. You follow signs to a thick green curtain, push through, and suddenly you’re on the other side, inside. A huge gray-brown trunk, chiseled with lovers’ initials, rises 60 or 70 feet in a smooth, elephantine twist. Branches begin close to the ground, snake outward and upward and then reach back to earth, take root, and grow up again. The whole thing is enclosed by long trailing vines of leaves hanging all the way to the ground, creating a veil broken only by shards of sunlight.

From the outside, you can’t see in. From within, you can’t see out. For someone living on the edge of two worlds, as my mother did in the last grueling years of her life, it must feel like home.

My mother loved all trees, but this weeping beech was her favorite. It’s hard to describe the experience of being in its presence, but she tried. In the journal she kept while she was sick, she wrote that the tree appeared to her “as a herd of elephants huddled together, pressing their massive bodies together, with their trunks entwined.” Of one of her last visits to it, she wrote, “I had a clear image that I had come out of the earth, and that I had been born through this tree.”

Those passages stuck with me, and they are why, each year on her yahrzeit (the Yiddish word for the anniversary of a death), I go sit in a tree. It’s the best place I can think of to find her, since she’s not buried anywhere. Some of her ashes went into the ocean off the north shore of Massachusetts; some went under the beech tree. I keep the rest in a big cardboard cylinder from the crematory, stamped with a cloud-print that looks like a cheap painting of heaven. I’ve never figured out what to do with it.

Instead, wherever I am on that November day, I head outside at a few minutes before 1:35 p.m., the moment my mother’s breathing stopped and her eyelids opened. I have been doing this without fail since 2009. I set only two rules: phone off and hands on a tree.

Once I find the right specimen, I wait for my mother to join. I have no idea how long we spend there; time is hard to measure when you’re convening with the dead. Sometimes I tell her what happened over the last year — a marriage, a new job, a new kid, an illness, a news story she would have gasped at. I speak softly, but in a voice I remember. I address her as “Mom,” a word that defined my childhood but that I haven’t said out loud to anyone else for 14 years. And then, after this brief visit to the border between life and death, to the space between two worlds, I head back to work.

It is as sacred a ritual as I have in my godless life, other than checking that our two girls are safe in their beds each night. Whatever tree I find, wherever it stands, becomes for that moment my personal house of worship. It’s best if I can get up into it and find my own pew, although that was rarely an option when we lived in New York City, where clambering up a trunk on a Midtown sidewalk will get you the wrong kind of attention.

Now that we live in the country, that’s not an issue. I am surrounded by very big trees: sugar maples, some hundreds of years old; towering Norway spruces and Eastern pines, shaggy cedars, a ginkgo, a honey locust, a larch, even two redwoods.

And, by luck, there is a large beech, tucked back in a corner of the field beside our old farmhouse. It’s not quite as dramatic as the one on the Cape, but it has the same qualities — the smooth gnarled trunk, the surrounding curtain of leaves, the sense of sanctuary. In the summer, our daughters shimmy their way up and out along its branches, far beyond where I would go. My place is in a crook lower down, maybe five feet off the ground, where the main trunk divides into three. Every November since we moved, I park myself there. It’s the perfect spot to visit with my mother.

This year, for the first time in 14 years, I forgot. There was no good excuse. It was a windy, snowy Monday, I was handling an assignment for work, and I lost track of the time. I didn’t realize my oversight until the evening, when I saw the yahrzeit candle I lit in the morning, still burning.

Lying in bed that night, I felt guilty and desperate. I had failed to meet my mother at the appointed time and place. How long had she waited? This is my only physical connection to her, and I’d broken it. I was furious at myself. When you lose someone you love, people tell you about the importance of moving on from death, of emerging from the pain of loss. What they don’t tell you about is the dread of finally arriving in that new place. The feeling is one of deep betrayal — that you have the luxury of forgetting, of waking up the next day.

I did wake up the next day, and I walked down to the old chicken house that is now my office. Out of the side of my eye, I sensed that something wasn’t right. I turned to look. The entire western side of the beech tree was gone. I stared for a moment, not fully processing it. It had snapped off sometime the previous day, presumably from the weight of snow and ice. I ran over to it and pushed past the veil of bare branches. The central trunk had sheared off at exactly the place where I sat, or would have been sitting.

Irrational thoughts arise at times like this. Maybe I could hammer the tree back together. Had I caused it to fall by forgetting about my date? And I had another, unexpected feeling: anger. I was angry at the tree. It was supposed to be strong and whole, to stand for my mother in her absence. It had been perfect, and through its perfection I kept my connection to her, or at least to the person I remembered. Now it was just another broken thing, splayed and helpless in the dirt.

I wrote to an old friend of my mother’s to tell her what happened. “Your safety was always your mother’s top priority!” she replied. Had my mother somehow protected me from being crushed by thousands of pounds of wood?

I didn’t believe that, but in anguish I went back to her journal and reread the part about the beech tree. I remembered it being on one page. I was wrong; it went on for several pages more. In those pages she described her tears of grief at being unable to cure herself, at being powerless to protect the people she loved from losing her. And then, she wrote, the image of the tree came back into her mind, and she started to laugh.

“I have never faulted the tree for being a tree, for not solving world hunger or ending global warming,” she wrote. “I understand that the tree cannot move from where it is planted, it cannot leave its situation. I identified with its battle-scarred body, as my body is also scarred. I realized that the only thing this tree can do is to stand where it is: to be a tree, and to create a space of beauty and safe harbor around it. Someday it will be cut down, or succumb to disease or old age, and the offspring that now dot its perimeter will have more room to grow. I felt that this was my mission also: that I could not uproot myself from having cancer, or run from the scarring effects of treatment. My only option was to bloom where I was planted, to create around me the most sheltering, expansive place that I could.”

With luck, both of us will be back in the tree next year. She was right: This is our only option. The tree falls apart. Everything falls apart. But in the meantime it stands where it is, as long as it can, shelter for whatever or whoever might need it.

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