Loops in the mortal coil

I’ve written about the deaths of two people this week. There was 40 years difference in age between Kirby Puckett and Grandma Dolly and one’s passing was a sadness and the other a celebration, but they both put me in a reflective mood — not that that is hard to do anymore. Funerals will do it, of course, but so does the time it takes in the morning for my brain to re-establish effective communication with my feet when I get out of bed.

I’ll be 48 in a few weeks and I’ve been mentally approaching old age in much the same way as I’d approach a skittish animal: slowly, with minimal eye contact — and no sudden movements. Old age is relative of course (especially if you have old relatives), but it really wasn’t that long ago historically when people my age would take their hand off the plow, clutch their heart, fall to the loam and people would say, “The old boy had a good run; you lookin’ to sell them horses?”

Today my parents are just hitting their 70s with an assortment of maladies and medications at hand, but both look positively spry compared to their respective mothers who are in their 90s. As C.S. Lewis said, “How incessant and great are the ills with which a prolonged old age is replete.” (Oh well, at least no one in the family has gout.)

I called home the other day and spoke first to my father, who had a pretty wild year health-wise last year, including undergoing major heart surgery. His voice was familiar but thin and tired-sounding. I asked how he was feeling and he said, “Oh, okay, you know. I get up in the morning and feel pretty good and then I take my meds and feel like I need a nap.” A pause, and then much stronger: “And that’s a bunch of shit, so I just go out to my shop and get some work done.” Normalcy restored.

My parents live in what used to be my grandparents home. My dad’s shop is in what used to be my grandfather’s garage. Off of the back corner of that garage there used to be an apple tree. Shortly before my grandfather died I was allowed to go through his desk and found in his papers an essay he wrote about that apple tree — and life itself:

Our apple tree has grown old and awaits Father Time’s delivery of the coup de grace. It has been a good tree. Each season it has defied the odds and produced a bountiful harvest even when most trees failed. It has been a tree of unusual stamina, battered at times by vicious winds to which it sacrificed some branches, but come harvest time it never failed to deliver. The fruit wasn’t of an exotic flavor such as those advertised in nursery catalogues; just a tart, appetizing flavor. It has been many years, if ever, since its branches exemplified the form and beauty ascribed by the poet’s pen. This has not been due to deliberate neglect, but rather from a lack of knowledge of the necessary care that a tree should have. Thus its life has been a challenge.

During the years children played in its shade and climbed among the branches. Rambunctious boys would gather green apples to use as ammunition in apple fights. Never did a season pass without birds making it a place to nest and raise their families. Year after year it defied the elements and continued to explode in a burst of pink and white blossoms, followed with branches bent to near breaking with apples. Never has a season passed without it sharing its bounty with birds that instinctively knew when to move in at the right time to steal the choice red fruit.

Later in his essay, my grandfather related the story of Johnnie Appleseed, the itinerant tramp who took as his mission the spreading of appleseeds throughout the country. Johnnie Appleseed was a man who had a perspective on posterity and his place in it and duty to it. Ultimately, this may be the best description of my grandfather. He knew the importance of the seeds he was sowing and the need to nurture, tend and on occasion prune the saplings that grew as a result.

His essay concluded:

The demise of our tree came to pass earlier than expected. Only one day after putting the foregoing tribute to paper I gazed across our back lawn at the cloud of pink and white blossoms and remarked to my wife that it was only a matter of time for the old tree. Only a matter of time until a strong gust of wind would claim it. In spite of the magnificent display of blossoms it had reached a state of frailty that could not withstand much more abuse.

My remarks were to prove prophetic. The morning following my prediction, the picturesque scene that had been a tree in full blossom was no longer. A strong gust of wind during the night had done it in. It was a crumpled mass on the ground between the woodpile and the neighbor’s fence.

With a saw and an ax and nearly a half day of labor the tree was consigned to the eternal orchard where it would never again be subjected to the elements. Even though its demise did not come as a surprise, it is missed. Our back lot where the tree stood in plain view from our breakfast nook now has a vacancy that had not existed during the quarter century that we have made this our home. The tree and view was taken for granted; it was not missed because it was there. Little attention was required, little given. The tree is missed now more than it was appreciated.

My grandfather probably wrote that essay in the weeks just before the stroke that sent him into a final but lingering spiral, and in his eulogy I drew the comparisons between his life and that of the apple tree. Now, even as I flex the stiff fingers of my mouse hand, his words bring perspective and I know that while pausing to reflect is okay, stopping altogether to do so is not acceptable. There’s much still to be done, and future harvests that must be prepared for, and then my father’s coarser words remind me there’s no time for napping.

Finally, I remember the words of my eldest grandmother, from back when she was in her mid-80s. “So many of my friends have gone on to be with the Lord,” she said. “They’re probably all wondering what happened to me!”

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