His yardman said Your tree is dead, beetle-killed, bark beetle. He really wasn’t a yardman so much as a friend, a good man who helped him each fall and spring with turning on and turning off his sprinkler system. His yardman friend added This was Mother Nature’s doing, nothing you could have done to stop it. Look here at the evidence. He then proceeded to point out the tiny perfect holes running up and down the tree’s trunk, holes as if drilled or machined with absolute precision, quite amazing actually. They bore in, ruin the meat, and that’s that. He thought that much the way fear or sadness or even some strains of a rather religious brand of happiness could bore in, essentially undetected, and ruin the meat of people. Ruin their heart. Those people, like his tree, could still stand tall but without life in their limbs—no leaves, no green, even avoided by birds. You’ll need to take it down, plant something new, maybe a maple said the yardman friend. He sighed, and agreed.
His bent was to see signs and wonders in everything, to “look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five.” Joan Didion gets the credit for those words (Dear God don’t forget to note your source these days, as if we’re not all thieves). Didion—he’d been reading much of her work since the Governor said stay home. He felt simpatico with Joan, a coupla creative melancholics who, truth be told, probably ought to be in a 12-step group for life. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…” Yes we do, Joan, he thought. He saw the tree in his front yard as not so much metaphor but harbinger—some things have died, Mother’s Nature’s doing, nothing you could have done, now its best to uproot and plant anew. The whole thought spooked him though for as with tree-work so with life-work—it comes with a cost. And he is no longer a younger man.
A proven friend, not the yardman friend or the faux friend, but a bona fide like-a-brother friend sent him a link to The Daily podcast with this note: Its your kind of story. May 3rd “The Sunday Read”—Alone at Sea. He listened to the story of Aleksander Doba, an old Polish guy (71yrs old) who has kayaked the Atlantic three times, solo. Doba has vowed he will not die in his bed. He is willing to do anything and endure everything, a.k.a., SUFFER, to achieve this goal. Doba lives by this expression, common in Poland:
Nie chce byc malym szarym czlowiekiem—“I do not want to be a little gray man.”
He only half-listened to the rest of Doba’s story after hearing that expression. It lodged like a bone in the throat. No, he is no longer a younger man, but he too has zero interest in being a little gray man. His like-a-brother friend was right, it was his kind of story, a Didion story, the kind of story that’s told in order to live, to be willing to count and pay the cost to plant anew even. Maybe a maple. Maybe a life.