An old man and the tree outside are connected more than one can know. Sit with him for a while and walk through his memories.
The old man sat in his favorite chair and stared out the window. His hand rubbed against the worn armrest. His fingers rippled through the bare threads much like one might strum a guitar. The seat cushion formed around is backside and held him bringing comfort to his old soul. This chair. He looked down at his old friend of sixty-eight years, the first nice piece of furniture that he and his wife purchased after the war. His wife tried for years to get him to put it to the curb, literally. He refused. In order to keep piece in the house, they reached a compromise and the chair found a new home in the basement. Nine years ago, the chair took the place of honor – directly in front of the window in the middle of the living room.
Betty, the old man’s wife, never understood, or perhaps she had just the memories too far back in the long line of memories. This chair was the chair in which he sat with each child as they first entered the house. It held the memories of laughing, comforting, crying, and many hours of just sitting with each child until they were too heavy for his lap. No matter what, this chair would always have a place in this house.
He moved his eyes back to the window. The cold, brisk autumn day did not need to be felt, it could be seen. Leaves blew through the yard. Some tried to cling to a small bush, a tree, even a post lamp only to be tugged away with the next gust of wind. Little puddles on the front porch rippled. One puddle, filled with red, orange, yellow, and brown leaves, looked like a depressing rainbow. The old man had pity for the brown leaves. They had reached their end before they could show off their colorful talents. The man glanced up at the telephone wires to see a small bird sitting, wings tightly folded in and shivering. No other creatures could be seen.
His eyes wandered from the bird to the maple tree off to his right. The majestic tree stood there stripped of his leaves looking not quite as beautiful as in a summer’s evening or as stunning as it did only a few weeks ago at the height of fall filled with its colorful leaves. Today, it looked like a skeleton standing guard ready to welcome the cold winter. Each branch and twig exposed, one could almost sense the embarrassment of the tree as it stood exposed much like the emperor when he discovered the secret of his new clothes. The old man then spied it, a single leaf half way up the tree.
He watched as gust after gust tried to rip the one remaining token of life from its perch. However, try as it might, the wind could not snatch the last piece of dignity from the tree. How odd thought the man as his hand started to stroke his chin. Nature mirrored his life. That tree represented his family tree; once full of life and leaves and now just a single life, close to dropping, showing the end of a family. His mind started to wander, as it often did on quite afternoons such as this, over the past ninety-four years and the seasons of his life.
His life started shortly after “The War to End All Wars.” He, like so many, became the welcome home present for his father after years in battle. He was just one of so many babies that filled the maternity wards during the first eighteen months following the armistice. The world repopulated after the deaths of so many boys and young men.
The man had a quite uneventful upbringing. His father worked, his mother ran the house, and he became educated. He graduated high school and was able to, with the help of his father, attend a teacher’s college. He completed his studies in May of 1941 and luckily found a job in his small town’s school. Fortunately, the world had been kind enough for him to finish school and be employed before it began “The Big One.” Prior to the start of the conflict, he also celebrated his wedding to his long-time girl, Betty. Then all hell broke loose in the world, and the man realized that if he was going to teach history, he would have to live it first. December 8, 1941, the man stood in a long line of men, many much younger than him, ready to volunteer. Since he had his college degree, he traded his classroom for lieutenant bars. Betty promised to wait.
The next four years went by in a blur. A blur that only came into focus in subsequent years when the nightmares appeared. He never spoke of his experience when he returned. He didn’t want to relive any of that time, and he never felt the need for those not there to have to feel what he felt. He noted that most of the men stayed quiet about what they had done. The country praised them, but most just wanted to get on with life. When he did hear someone telling tales of their time “over there”, the man just marked it down as someone whom most likely held a desk job. Betty, being a loving wife who understood, never asked about it, even on the nights when the nightmares would wake them both.
The dreams were the worst part. He left his rifle and uniform behind, but the dreams stayed with him. Some nights he would be out with his platoon talking and laughing one moment and the next, he stood by himself; the only survivor in an ambush. All of his friends’ bodies lay strewn on the ground. Another night he would be parachuting in the dark. A popping sound broke the silence. He called out the names but would get no response. Still other dreams showed him all of the young men that he had killed, all of them in their early twenties holding children that they would never father. Even today, more than seventies year past and the dreams still came. The time between dreams had grown, but still even years could not completely silence them. The man knew that since he reminisced this afternoon, a dream would be quietly waiting for him to fall asleep.
Life after the war proved far better. Like his father, he came home ready to start a family. Betty, having kept her promise, welcomed him with open arms and plenty of love. Betty and he had packed in so many great memories in the year leading up the birth of their first child. These times always rescued him from any bad memories. While it could not be called Utopia, it may have been the closest thing that this man would ever get. They stayed in the small town where they had been married. The school offered him back his job upon his return. The pay was lousy and the hours long, but the two didn’t mind now that they could hold each other every single night. Betty showed that she knew more about household finances and amazed the man with how she could stretch his paycheck. She made it work. He taught during the week. The couple worked in the yard on Saturdays or did outings with other couples. The kept the same traditions of their families spending Sundays at church and then resting or having dinner with their parents. They also prepared for the new arrival.
Kathryn enjoyed the honor of being the first child to be held in “the chair.” The man may not have been allowed in the delivery room, but nothing would ever stand between him and his daughter or any of his children. Two years later, Chris had the chance to get to know the comfort of dad holding him in the wee hours of the morning while they sat in the man’s favorite seat. John completed the family two years after Chris. With three extra mouths to feed the near Utopia slipped a little. The purse strings tightened, but still Betty kept things together. The man remembered many a summer of having to pick up the odd job or two to fill his pockets during the non-teaching months. He even worked a few times during the school year when a weekend position at the local grocer helped them get by. His children, thanks to their mother, learned early on the difference between want and need. Every penny counted in this family.
As the children grew so did his position within the school, first as a vice-principal and then principal of the high school. They could now afford a few luxuries but only if they could convince Betty, by a family discussion, to open the check book.
The twenty-five years since his return from Europe could almost be labeled as boring. The family did what a typical small town family did. They aged and prepared the children for the day that they would be out on their own. The boys played in the town’s little league and participated in scouts. Kathryn dove head first into the local 4-H club. She raised animals and showed them. All in all, it was the life for which Betty and the man had always asked.
Life was not completely perfect for them. Kathryn dated a few fellows that her father swore he would never let into the house. The poor girl suffered due to her father being principal. Unlike most parents, he knew every teenager and had an opinion about each and every one of them. Kathryn detested this and let her parents know her feelings on more than one occasion.
The boys also managed to find their paths going in the wrong direction a time or two. Each had been caught drinking well before the eighteenth birthday. John felt his father’s wrath the worst. He thought his parents were gone for an entire weekend and surprised them when they returned a day early. Betty and the man found John on the couch with a young girl, both of them stoned. The burn mark in the carpet did not help matters. The man kicked his youngest child out of the house when John’s told his parents that they needed to lighten up. He sealed his fate when he told them that it was the seventies and everyone was doing it, everyone but them.
While Betty and the man argued about different things throughout their marriage, this became their first major blow-up. They went to bed angry and not speaking for the first time on the evening that John left. The silence actually lasted a few days.
The man just could not understand it. Up until that point, all three children gave the impression of being on the right path. Kathryn was following in her father’s footsteps and studying education. She was dating a young man who would soon be completing his studies in law school. Chris had entered his senior year at the local university and would be enrolling in medical school the next fall. These two, while straying every once in a while, made their parents proud. John, on the other hand, had potential, but he failed to see it. He graduated high school fourth in his class and stopped. He had no interest in college and moved from job to job. He would disappear for days on end and then reappear without explanation of his whereabouts. But no matter what, he could do no wrong in his mother’s eyes. He remained her baby.
The old man remembered trying to explain that this was not the time for his son to be this way. Another war had broken out and not one supported the way that WWII had been. The old man had already added the names of too many young men to the wall of honor at the high school He did not want to add any more. If John did not go to school, his number would be in the pool.
He recalled the day John came home to tell all that he had enlisted. He felt that it would be only a matter of time before his number would be pulled. John thought that it would be better if he chose his service before the government chose it for him. His friends had all told him that the Air Force was safest. His departing words still echoed in the man’s mind, “I’ll make you proud.” Yet anytime he remembered these words, he also remembered Betty’s, “This is your fault.”
One evening as he sat at his desk, in John’s old bedroom, he crossed off the date and said his prayer. He then counted the remaining days until John’s return; thirty-eight. The doorbell broke the silence of the house. The man rose and placed the calendar back into the drawer and started for the door. As he passed the living room, he noticed Betty sitting on the couch, her hands were folded in her hands to give a look of calm, her face said something else.
He opened the door and found a young man standing there holding an envelope. He took off his cap as he presented the envelope. He didn’t need to question whether he had the correct address or not, the man stood looking at a young man that had frequented his office during his four years of high school. Both men stood staring at each other for a moment. It was not a cheerful reunion. The young man extended his arm a little and looked at his feet while he mumbled, “I’m sorry.” He turned to leave as soon as the John’s father touched the envelope.
The man watched the “boy” leave. He remembered that this kid graduated a year after John, but he couldn’t remember a name. He shut the door.
He took the envelope, unopened, into the living room. He needed Betty. He sat down with her and the two looked at the envelope as he turned it over in his hand. With a quick jerk, he ripped the side off the envelope and pulled out the single piece of folded paper. He did not bother to open it since all they needed could be seen above the first fold. “The Department of Defense regrets to inform you” Neither saw the need to read any further. The two sat in silence for an unknown period of time. He wanted to cry but nothing came. John’s words echoed in his mind, Betty’s words followed. Betty just sat there staring at John’s picture on the opposite wall. She finally stood, walked across the room, touched John’s face, and walked to the bedroom. After the door shut, the man could hear that her tears had started. He allowed her time before going to be with her.
It took almost a year before life started to resemble normal – only resemble for life could never be truly the same again. No matter what would happen the family could never be whole again. There would always be an empty seat both literally and figuratively at every family function. Through it all, the man learned the pains that happen when parents outlive their children.
The old man raised his head leaving his memories. He sat in the same living room just in the present. He looked across to see the same photo of John still hanging in the same spot. He once again wanted to cry for John, but by now all of his tears had been spent. Through the years, there were many a night that the tears flowed freely for his youngest. He stared at the forever twenty-two year old and whispered, “You always made me proud.”
He glanced back out the window. The sun now hid behind the clouds. The street remained empty. The little bird had vacated its spot on the wire possibly in search of something warmer. His eyes moved back to the single remaining single sentry still clinging to its post on the end of the branch of the maple tree. It stayed fastened to its spot though a slight tear appeared. Perhaps the wind was going to win this battle. The man said a little prayer hoping that the leaf would defy nature and hang on through the cold of winter in order to be there to welcome the new buds.
He allowed his eyes to move back to John. “Too soon,” he said. The man commented on the fact that his family tree had started losing its leaves far too early. John never had the chance to show his true colors.
He looked at the pictures that joined John’s. They had changed over the years, but the subjects, for the most parts, were Chris and Kathryn. Of course they had of pictures of Betty and the man, but, like most parents, the walls honored the children. The top photo showed the last full family photo. The man and Betty held the seats of honor in the center. Chris stood on the right side with his hand on his mother’s shoulder. Kathryn and her husband Tom stood on the opposite side with their son Max. Max stood with Jessie and their son Joel.
Betty had a pretty smile in that photo. She was having a good afternoon that day. She knew what was going on and who everyone was. Shortly after that day, the number of good days became less and the confusion and anger grew within this woman who prided herself on being in control. Betty physically made it until the age of 85; the man lost his wife mentally four years prior.
He didn’t like to think of those years. Every day he would wash, dress, feed, and care for her. Each moment he could see Betty, the love of his life, hiding somewhere deep in her eyes. She was fighting to get out but unable to find the way. The only blessing was that when her body finally decided to cease living, the man had already let her go. He cared for her until the end, but had released her spirit much sooner. He still loved her on the last day as much, if not more, than he did on the day they married. For her the tears flowed easily.
He moved his eyes over to the portrait of Chris. The painting showed him in his doctor’s lab coat. This painting had hung in the lobby of the children’s hospital in which he worked. Immediately to the right of the portrait hung a photo of Chris and Betty on the day he graduated from medical school. Below this picture, the man had placed a Christmas picture of Chris with his nephew Max when Max was only eleven. Sadly, this picture took the spot that used to hold Chris’ wedding photo.
Chris worked hard through school, his residency, and throughout his career. He actually surprised everyone when he brought a lovely, young lady home for Christmas the year he started working at the children’s hospital. The two met when she moved into the apartment below his. She edited manuscripts from home. This allowed her to schedule her off time to match Chris’ schedule. She immediately won the heart of the family and high hopes for a new branch of the family began. Two years later, as Chris started moving up the ladder at work, he took Joan to be his wife.
Shortly after the honeymoon, the two bought a house and prepared to start a family. During the first two years of marriage all seemed well. Chris worked a lot, but he always made time for the family functions and time for him and Joan. Joan often spoke about her wanting to be a mom, but she was willing to be patient as Chris solidified his place at the hospital. Then Chris received another promotion, started teaching, and worked with a colleague on a new treatment for childhood leukemia. He became the doctor that every family wanted working on their child’s case. He would not think twice about spending the night with a patient and family.
Joan tried hard to be the dutiful doctor’s wife. She stood proud next to her husband and his work. She hosted functions at the hospital, raised money, and even visited her husband during his all-nighters. However, her frustration started to grow. It seemed like a family would never happen. The thing that made it hard for her was the fact that she truly loved her husband. She told Kathryn one night that she was most frustrated with herself. She felt that she was being selfish whenever she wanted to time just with Chris. The fact that four years of trying had failed to produce a child only added to her suffering. In the end, she knew that Chris was married to medicine and not her. He gave all of himself to preventing a child from suffering or death. While this made her love him even more, she discovered that it took more than love to keep a marriage together. They parted as friends but in the end, the wedding photo lost its place on the wall.
Chris stayed with the hospital eventually becoming the director. He never stopped working with patients, continuing his research, or any of the work that had brought him praise from the medical world. He just added the obligations of the new position to the pile. Throughout it all, Chris tried to be with the family as much as possible. He adored his nephew. Often times Betty would mention the sadness in Chris’ eyes when Max would leave. She thought he regretted not having his own family. However, as the hospital demanded more and more of his time, even his nephew could not get him to some of the functions.
In the end, Chris forgot to take care of one person; himself. All of the years of eighty hour work weeks with little vacation or down time caught up with him. One evening during his fifty-fourth year, his secretary found him on the floor of his office dead from a massive heart attack.
The family held a private funeral. Betty had already reached the point where she lived somewhere deep in her mind. She kept asking, “Who died?” The man thanked God that she sat unaware that the casket only a few feet away contained the body of her second child – second in birth and second to die. Max, now in his thirties, stepped up and helped his grandfather with the arrangements.
The hospital held a public memorial service for Chris. The man sat astounded at the number of people in attendance. The crowd filled the entire hall and adjoining hallways. The audience consisted of doctors, nurses, staff, patients, patients’ families, and others. The new director brought the man to the center of the stage for the announcement of a wing being named in Chris’ honor. It took almost an hour and a half after the service before the line of people singing Chris’ praises ended. The nicest comments came from the parents of patients that had passed. Parents wanted the man to understand how hard his son had worked to save their child. They informed him that Chris would now be able to see their children without pain.
As the family prepared to leave the hospital, the man turned and looked at the empty hall. The number of people who shared their stories had amazed him. His son had touched the lives of so many. The plaque displaying his image still stood on the stage. The man looked down at the portrait that had hung in the lobby now in his hand. No matter what work Chris had done, he was still gone and, once again, he outlasted a child.
The man moved his gaze from Chris’ portrait to one of Kathryn and Tom. Kathryn had what most would consider a quiet, uneventful life. She married Tom the week after he passed the bar. She started teaching about the same time. Not wanting to work for her father, she received her credential in elementary education. During her third year, she and Tom announced that the family would be expanding. Kathryn also declared that she would be taking a leave from teaching to raise her son. While her father was disappointed that the school would be losing a good teacher, he also felt that if they could afford it then so be it.
Seven years after Max entered the world, Kathryn received the opportunity to get back into teaching. The town’s favorite third grade teacher retired. Since Max attended the same school, she jumped at the chance. Thirty years of third grade students gave Kathryn a sense of accomplishment. She had helped almost 800 students in that time. After all that time, Kathryn had become the town’s favorite third grade teacher that was retiring.
Tom acted as the town’s attorney for all matters. It never made him rich, but he provided for his family. He also made sure to have time with Max and to help teach him that being a man meant more than being tough. Unfortunately, Kathryn and Tom missed their fortieth anniversary by three months. Much like Chris, without notice, Tom fell over one morning with a massive heart attack.
Kathryn spent three years dealing with the title of widow. She continued taking care of her father, son, and his family. In her seventy-second year, she complained to her doctor about how during the last few months, she felt tired; more than usual. She also mentioned that she found breathing difficult when she would go out for her daily walk. A number of tests later, her doctor broke the news that she had stage four cancer. While they wanted to treat it, they could not decide where to start. By the time they diagnosed the disease, it had spread to too many parts of her body. The doctors offered her six months left in her life. Ten weeks later, all discovered that the doctors had been too giving in their time frame. Kathryn’s short bout with cancer ended, and the man buried his eldest and final child.
After Kathryn’s funeral the family tree had been whittled down to bare and broken branches. A total of three leaves remained; the man, Max, and his son Joel.
The clock on the mantel chimed three. It startled the man. He glanced outside; still quiet. The kids would be going by in forty or so minutes. They were all good kids that made it a point to wave if he sat by the window. In late spring, weather permitting, he would be sitting on his porch and many of the kids would stop to speak with him. Most of the kids wanted to know how much trouble their parents had gotten into while in his school. A few of them reminded him of Joel.
Max and Joel were closer than any father-son team that the man had seen. Max had gotten married shortly after his high school graduation. While people were happy for him, most thought that there was something odd about the wedding. A certain spark seemed to be missing. No one said a thing but celebrated the day with them.
Within six months of being married, Max was accepted into the Fire Academy for the nearby city. He missed his graduation in order to watch the birth of his son, Joel. He cut the umbilical cord to create an independent being and replaced it with an invisible bond that could never be cut.
Three years later, his wife said that she couldn’t be married to a man with such a dangerous job. She divorced Max and moved away to start over; Max gained full custody of Joel. No one heard from Max’s ex-wife again.
Within a few months of the divorce, Max’s best friend moved in. Max stated that it was the best of both worlds. His friend needed a place to stay and Joel needed someone to take care of him when Max worked. Jessie started attending the family functions shortly after. The family never said anything, but they all welcomed Jessie.
The man could still see the day that Max sat in his kitchen. His mother, Kathryn, had forced him to sit down with his grandfather. The man might have been old, but he wasn’t stupid. He had already figured out what was what. He had hoped that they could just go on pretending that Jessie was the friend who wouldn’t leave. He loved his grandson and would protect him to death, but this conflicted with everything he had been taught growing up. He went against his religion. He didn’t want his grandson to be hurt by the taunting of others. All of the conflict disappeared as his grandson sat across from him explaining who he was and asking for his grandfather’s continuing love. To hear his grandson with tears in his voice begging to be loved, all of the barriers broke and fell. The man questioned what type of person he was to have to have this young man begging to still be part of his life. He would love his grandson no matter what.
Max hid his personal life as long as he could from those with whom he worked. With the entrance of the new millennium came a bit more tolerance. He tried to slowly let it slip to his fellow firemen. However, nothing happens slowly in the fire station. He did suffer ridicule from some of the more closed-minded men, most of them didn’t care. Actually, a number of his comrades were happy that it was out of the closet. Many stated that they knew but never knew what to say.
Jessie acted just as much a father to Joel as Max. The three would get stares at times when Joel was younger. The whispers about the relationship did not stay within the fire department. A number of times Jessie wanted to stand up and say something, but since Joel was a young kid stuck in the middle, he thought twice. Jessie and Max raised Joel to always be true to himself and ignore the ignorance of others.
Six months ago, Max and Joel were driving back from a camping trip. Max took Joel to celebrate his recent graduation from college. Jessie ended backing out at the last moment due to his boss needing him to pinch hit at a business meeting in New York City. Otherwise, the trio would have been together when there small Prius had been hit broadside by an F-150 driven by a drunk driver. Max and Joel died instantly. The police found the other driver being held by other drivers. He kept asking why everyone was yelling at him.
The old man had the hardest time with this funeral. He stared at the two coffins side by side. He watched the last two members of his family being laid to rest. He now had to deal with the pain of outliving all of his children, his wife, and now his grandson and great-grandson. Life was not supposed to be this way. He should have gone first.
However, the things that angered him even more were the comments he overheard. No one meant any harm by the comments and most people probably thought, since he was so old that his hearing had long since working. Yet, he heard it all.
The first whispers centered on how sad it was for one man to have gone through so much tragedy. Some even went so far as to recount each event on their fingers. Most just shook their heads as they passed on their way to the buffet. The man could not understand how people could judge his life solely on the sad events that occurred over so many years. A man’s life cannot be summed up without knowing all of the events and the person that is the result. The man knew that his good times far outweighed the bad. Since they were at a funeral, people could only see the bad.
The man admitted that he missed his family. However, he cherished every memory shared with those that he loved. He did not feel that he suffered more tragedy than the normal person. He actually considered himself more fortunate than most. The man concluded that the large number of sad events were due to his living far beyond the normal life expectancy. He had lived too long. He knew what the normal life range of a man in his situation should be; had he followed the laws of nature, he would have missed most of the deaths.
The other comments that bothered the man were the ones that referred to him as being part of “The Greatest Generation.” People even shook his hand telling them how great it was to meet someone of that generation. Some newsman had coined the phrase while reporting on different anniversaries of World War II. Funny enough, the man thought, the newsman turned the phrase into the title of a book. While the man understood that the moniker was supposed to be a compliment to his generation, he despised the words. The newsman talked about how they had worked through the depression, fought a war, and rebuilt a country. The man accepted that these events did happen and the people of his generation did work hard, but what did this title tell others.
Perhaps it was due to all of his years in education and trying to get young people to see that they could change the world. He thought that this phrase just told people of younger generations not to bother. He always felt that it sent the message of “welcome to the world, you’re too late because the best group of people already lived.” He knew that this was wrong. He saw that the younger generations still accomplished so much. He had proof with his own children, the students that graduated from his school, and the kids that currently lived in this town.
When he thought of the kids in town, he snapped back to the present. He looked out in time to see a group of five kids go by. They stopped looking at their cell phones and tech gadgets long enough to wave at the man. The old man waved back. He looked at the gadgets in each kid’s hands. He remembered all of the articles and news stories about how unmotivated students of today were. He remembered the countless complaints in the barbershop of how all the younger generation wanted was the television and video games. The man would often silences others when he would ask, “And who gave them all of those things?”
Perhaps “The Greatest Generation” had worked too hard to make things easier. He always said you couldn’t gripe about the current generation without blaming the ones that raised them.
He glanced down the road waiting for Lisa and Aaron to drive by. These two kids really showed just how great the young people of the latest generation could be. They gave the man hope for the future. They would graduate from high school in the spring and move on to college. In the meantime, they helped with Meals-on-Wheels, Habitat for Humanity, and a local tutoring program. They proved that if we wanted more great generations then we had to raise the bar of expectations. He waited to see if they would stop by this afternoon to check in on him. They had stopped yesterday so today would probably just be a wave.
As he looked down the road, he spied the leaf. He smiled and called out, “Come on guy keep hanging on.” He felt a slight draft. He would have to check all of the windows later. He pulled his sweater tighter around his shoulders. The man noticed that the movements started to make breathing a little more difficult. His eyes closed.
Outside Aaron and Lisa drove by with a quick wave. A strong gust of wind blew. The little leaf lost its battle and flew up into the air as it relinquished its hold. The gust stopped and the leaf started falling to earth. No one witnessed the event. Both trees, the old maple and the family tree, now stood completely bare. Neither tree held a single leaf of life any more.