It has been losing leaves and branches since my next-door neighbor Julie abandoned it three years ago. It was on her property but most of the branches leaned over the fence and sheltered my house from the midday sun. It was once magnificent, but the drought and neglect of recent years were gradually killing it. I hoped it could be saved and ran water to it several times this summer yet feared it would never return to its former beauty. The renters paid no attention to plant life.
Julie passed away last year a few days before my husband PQ (Pba-Quen-Nee-ee) left his body to journey into a mystery I couldn’t share. My reality was already reeling. How could this be! She was beautiful, young, and kind. She left her house when she remarried, and although she had grown children, she recently gave birth to an infant. She was my next-door neighbor when I moved here sixteen years ago, and her landscaping inspired me. However, as the years went by, it became apparent that there were too many trees competing for space. Two aspens near the weeping willow died from overwhelm. In the back yard were two globe willows and a plumb tree. It was like a small forest and the magpies loved it as did the neighborhood cats. At one time Julie had several free-range chickens who talked to us in the morning when we had coffee on the patio. The green view outside the living room window took my imagination to the realm of nature spirits. How many places in Taos can one experience the protective umbrella of a deciduous forest? In the early days, Julie also had a small fishpond near the Latia fence between our houses and its fountain burbled like a mountain stream. Then she left and the whole property fell into depression.
Julie’s grown children put the house on the market a year ago, and a new owner moved in last week. She is a friendly, talkative woman who got right to work getting improvements under way. Of course, she has no history with the house or neighborhood. We talked a bit about its history. She had experts come in to repair the roof, and fix cracks in the stucco, then three mornings ago I heard power saws during my meditation and journal time. My heart sank and I ran out to see if what I feared was true.
Two young men were taking down one of the globe willows. “Well, that one was too many.” I hoped it would end there, but soon the most athletic guy was climbing the other larger tree, taking down the top branches. I kept hoping it was just a pruning, but within forty minutes both trees were down to the ground and the property looked naked. Then they started on the big weeping willow in the front. I felt stunned with sorrow tinged with rage. But all this time I knew the tree was doomed. My world was being redesigned, and I could do nothing about it, and besides I had no right to feel the way I did. My rights and preferences stopped at the fence and no amount of sentimental attachment mattered. I was identifying with those trees. Did it bring back the primal struggle between me and my dad about the great Cottonwood in our backyard? That tree was my source of solace. In the evening, when I couldn’t hold the tension in our house, I would go to the far end of our property where the cottonwood stood beside an old cinder block chicken coop, repurposed for storage. It was quiet and I would climb atop the cinder block building, lay with my back on the roof and stare up through the cottonwood’s branches, its leaves softly flickered with moonlight shimmers. Peace returned!
Dad and I had a complicated relationship. Mom tried to mediate, but ultimately, she took Dad’s side. If I loved something, Dad automatically wanted to kill it or remove it. That included trees, cats, and toys. I got to keep my wagon because it was useful for gardening. I had many dreams of defending the Cottonwood tree from dad’s determination to destroy it. As soon as I left home, he cut it down.
As an adult, I learned that dad had been his mother’s mule while his older sister and brothers were treated like show horses. Such an unfairness cuts deep for generations, and life rips the scab off an old wound again and again.
I moved into my present home in August 2006. The next spring, I bought a baby aspen tree and planted it. I had to be careful with money, so planned to buy another one the next year and plant them near each other, as aspens often grow in clusters. When I went to pick up the new aspen, PQ dropped by and offered his help and his pickup truck. We went to the garden store where I’d left my new aspen, but he thought I could do better. He’d seen a more robust one in another row. That was okay by me, so we went with his choice since they were the same price. I planted it near the first one and all was well until another year went by. At that point I noticed that something was wrong. Sure enough, it wasn’t an aspen at all, it was a cottonwood. As seedlings, they look much alike. I decided to keep it. Cottonwoods grow very large, but it was in a good location and thus the Cottonwood spirit found me again via my hayoka medicine carrier boyfriend.
The two species tolerated each other for eight years. The aspen grew faster at first, but then sadly the Cottonwood found its spirit and surged upward. One year, I noticed the aspen’s leaves were turning brown and falling off. By the end of summer, it was dead, and sadly we had to remove it. That was one of the last physical things PQ and I did together before his lungs became too weak. Meanwhile, the Cottonwood shot up to meet the sky over the next three years. It was magnificent and I loved it.
Then the year before PQ began his exit dance, the Cottonwood’s lower branches began to drop their leaves. I cut off the dead branches and hoped for the best. But this was just the first sign of trouble. I researched tree diseases and learned that it had succumbed to disease because it was too close to the aspen. The aspen had the same disease but died first. I felt cursed by God for always taking away what and whom I loved most. Next came self-doubt. Maybe I’m too flawed to get anything right. Life works only if I’m not invested. I’m a good gardener, and a good caretaker of humans and animals, but the ones I love most die young. I’m now remembering a beautiful, spirited, intelligent cat we named George because he was so curious, and he died from a heart defect before he was three years old. PQ took it outwardly even harder than I did. I was used to such losses.
I’m grateful that our Cottonwood tree still had some of its beauty last year, and our flowers, especially the purple one’s, PQ’s favorite color, were at their best while he was still able to see them. This second year without him has been more difficult than the first year. For most of that first year, I lived in a simulation of our life. Everything seemed to be a fragile image about to fade away. The Town of Taos, the grocery stores, the streets and especially our home, seemed fake. There was no sequential time, and I couldn’t remember the places and streets I’ve known for years. I didn’t understand then, but my identity was set to Taos with PQ. That role had ended and there was not yet a replacement.
I’ve been challenged to learn that reincarnation can happen at any time, and you don’t always have to trade in the old body. Renovation will do. However, until last week, I didn’t want a new life. I was still floating on the waning vision that brought me to Taos. I will always love PQ, I’ve loved him in lives and times both past and future, but I’m now on a steep learning curve. One of the most important lessons is that we are more than we know, and we would be scared and thrilled if we knew what is possible. Our higher self keeps the lessons light until we get to high school or maybe beyond. Some make it to graduate school. Maybe they can consciously choose what happens after that.
The more challenging the situation, the more my higher- self must trust that I will grok it. When I drove up to my house yesterday after a trip to the store and post office, I was surprised to see that my neighbor’s house looks much fresher and more alive without the dying tree and consequently, my house looks better also. It was hard to admit. Now I can see a new life and I’m assimilating the thought that the life of that once beautiful tree was honored more by its removal than by grieving over its sad decline. After putting away the groceries, I walked to the back of my house where the dying cottonwood stands. There were several small shoots nearby, but I doubt they’ll survive. Then I saw a new tree encircled with a wire guard through a crack in the fence shared with my other neighbor, to the south. I was happy they’d planted one, and then noticed with amazement, that it was really another shoot from my Cottonwood, and was already nearly six feet tall. I gave it my blessing. I don’t have enough money now to have its dying mother taken down, but I know that must come.
Death and its follow-ups bring a revelation that I’m still reeling with. However, after the internal storm subsided, my house began to look and feel real again. PQ has been so far away, that I wondered if he was glad to be free of me, even though he was always on my mind, and I talked to him everywhere I went. But was he ever listening? I couldn’t tell. Today he feels much closer. I can hear his voice and feel his presence in the house. Then perhaps, he visited many times, but I was hanging onto our old relationship.
The Lakota, have the saying, “We are all related.” That is undeniable common sense, although the leaders of most modern nations don’t believe it applies to them. Yet the entanglement of the cosmos takes this up a notch, “life and death events are all related.” We are all a spark chipped from our big star and a cell in the body of Gaia. While the parts that make our form wear out and are replaced or upgraded, the spark within remembers its source, and Source knows each of us as a work of creation in process. Changes must come. That’s life!