On November 24, 2015 after about two hours of yard work, we packed the kids into the van and went to Campbell’s Nursery. As the sun set and the wind shifted to colder notes, I asked Ryan to dig a hole in our back yard. A big one. He was less than enthusiastic. I couldn’t blame him. But grief and heartache make people do interesting things. My hurting soul needed a Christmas tree for our Christmas baby. So we dug a hole outside in the cold. As a living tree, it’s here for this Christmas and for all the Christmases to come.
As the weeks passed and winter swept in, I fretted over the tree freezing and not making it through the winter. Planting a tree in the fall can come with risks. The ground froze and everything was fine. The boys and I made birdseed ornaments as Christmas drew nearer.
Then of course, a string of white lights was carefully wrapped around the tree.
Still I fretted. I knew if this tree died, I would be devastated. This was the Christmas tree we had planted for our Christmas baby.
I would often stare out the window at this tiny tree, glowing with lights, and talk to Reece in my head. This was not the Christmas we had in mind. And time marched on. The tree stayed green. Suddenly, one side of the tree was horribly brown. I was frantic. After asking gardening friends and doing some research, I realized our Reece tree had been burned by the dog. The tree got a hair cut but survived. It looked lopsided and awkward but was still alive.
As spring broke, I was so excited to see new green tips sprouting on Reece’s tree. The tree was thriving, growing, still alive. It was spring and we had made it through late fall, all the way through a long dark winter, and had made it through to spring. The season of growth and abundance and light. Things were going to be fine.
The boys gathered around Reece’s tree for our family photo shoot as “their pick” of where to take a photo.
The new growth was lengthening every day. It was tender and soft and I often sat in the grass next to the tree and talked to it out loud. Anyone who overheard me and thought I was crazy for talking to a tree, I would say I was talking to Reece, my son in Heaven. Anyone who overheard me and thought I was crazy for talking to my son in Heaven, I would say I’m talking to the tree.
One day I noticed the new growth was droopy. So I watered the tree. It was unusually hot so I carefully monitored its intake of water. The new growth never sprang back. The lower branches began to brown. I watered it and waited and watched and worried. The heat kept beating down. And one day, it died. It just died. I was doing everything right and the tree still died. I was devastated. Our Christmas tree for our Christmas baby had died, just as inexplicably as our baby had died. It was growing and healthy and beautiful and then suddenly, just dead. Every time I had to glance at the brown remains, I would blink back tears and look away.
Today as I mowed the lawn around Reece’s tree’s remains, I cried. Mowing and crying just don’t go well together. So I did the only thing I knew to do. I took one last picture of our glorious tree, the remains, the proof that it was here and it was important and it was part of our lives.
I snapped a photo and I sat down in the long grass next to the tree and sobbed. Heavy, ugly sobs that shook my sun-warmed shoulders and mixed giant tears into my sweat. After a few minutes, I began moving the ring of rocks that protected the tree from the lawn mower. The tree no longer needed protecting.
“I’m so sorry,” I sobbed. “I don’t know what happened. I was trying to do everything right and you died anyway. I couldn’t save you. I’m so so sorry.” I heaved. I knew I wasn’t talking to the dried up Scotch pine. I couldn’t save him, even with the right amounts of everything he needed to grow and thrive. He still died. The rocks were moved. It was time.
I retrieved the tree saw from the shed. I knelt, still sobbing, and began cutting into the tree’s slender baby branches. I cut away all that remained and made a pile of what was left of our Reece tree. Loose needles stuck to my sweaty skin. I sobbed and sucked in haggard breaths.
Then, as I pushed back the grass that had been overgrowing through the rocks, I saw it. Slim and small. An oak tree seedling. Growing on its own, right up next to what was left of the pine tree stump. New life. I sat down and cried harder. My friend’s voice was in my head.
“That’s not coincidence. That’s God.”
Still as I write it, I cry. A new tree is growing in a spot where I was desperately trying to get a tree to grow. The one I planned for died, despite doing everything right. A tree I did not plant is now growing there instead. New life. So, I watered it.