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A sudden goodbye

February 19th, 2004 · No Comments

Sometimes when something dies, it has been dying for a long time but no one knew. No one had noticed it was ill. The death seems sudden to us when in fact it has been slow. It seemed alive and vibrant when in secret it was sick and weak, quietly rotting.

The other morning, when we came downstairs for breakfast, I discovered a truck in our front yard and a man in our back yard, climbing a tree. This tree had been been wearing its funeral dress, a pink and black ribbon, for weeks, ever since the arborist had declared it sick. We had been surprised by the diagnosis. The needles were green and the hemlock tree had seemed healthy enough to us. But it was ill, sick with hidden root rot, declared dangerous.

Even though we knew it would be gone soon, we had not prepared for its end. We had no idea the tree surgeons were coming so soon to claim it. I wish I had taken pictures of it for posterity. For years we had enjoyed it, as an anchor of our backyard, part of the strip of forest bordering our home and deck. The girls and I used it as a marker for our runs across the lawn: tag the tree then turn around. But now that it is gone, I’m not sure I have any explicit pictures of it when it was still alive.

It amazed me how easily the tree came down. While I busied myself with breakfast, putting out bowls, before I knew it, the rotted hemlock was lying on our lawn.


First the workers cut off the feathery branches. It reminded me a bit of plucking a chicken.


The branches were gathered into the shredder.


Then the chain saw was used to slice the tree into logs. Like the sparks from a welders torch, sparks of sawdust flew from the log in a bright arc.


The girls were quite distressed, distracted from breakfast, staring out the window in dismay.
“Why did they take it down?” Abigail wondered. She even started to describe a alternate system of warning “maybe they could put a sign in the tree for the birds…”

“Would you want it to fall on your head?” I asked bluntly.

“They care about us?” Abigail was amazed.

I realized she was looking for some kind of emotional answer for her question. It wasn’t science she was seeking. No what she wanted was something to calm her feelings. She was a child seeking reassurance for this dramatic change in her world. A reason for this sudden goodbye.

I figured I’d spare her the concerns of legality and liability, danger and probability, what kind of lawsuits could occur if the neighborhood didn’t remove the tree.

What she needed to know was that others were concerned. So I nodded.

“They care about us that’s why they took down the tree.” Michaela repeated like a mantra that morning.

The sound of cutting and mulching roared through our neighborhood that morning, ceasing only when the men took a break, the three gathering around the hood of the truck, one on each side, in dirty jeans and hard hats, smoking cigarettes. It started to rain and the men went home for the day, returning again in the morning to remove more trees in the neighborhood.

The logs remained in our lawn for a day until a man came with a wheelbarrow and carted them away. Bits of sawdust remain in the grass and the stump is still bright with the glow of unweathered wood.


Now we can see more into our neighbor’s backyard – and they into ours. We can hear their cats cry and see their daffodils blooming. There’s a large gap in the strip of woods, in the narrow border between our two homes. I don’t know what we’re going to do or how we’ll try to fill it.

Sometimes you can only remember what has died by the space it has left behind.


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