The morning sunlight of early spring beams through the window blinds and onto the table next to where I’m sitting, spraying dapples onto my coffee cup and the oddly shaped little potted plant next to it. I’m uncertain how long I’ve been sitting there, staring at the plant, my book ignored in my lap. One unenthusiastic sip reveals the coffee has grown cold, too long untouched. There are a lot of things I’m not finishing these days, and just as many I’m unable to even start.
The strange little plant, about 18 inches tall and bowed over in a curve like an inverted fishhook, first came into the household in early Dec. His narrow young evergreen limbs were pinned close to his baby trunk by a wide red ribbon wrapped candy-cane style from base to tip, and a single red ball hung from the ribbon’s highest point. The combined weight of the ribbon and ball was enough to bend him forward like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. In a mad pre-holiday dash through Trader Joe’s, I raced past the shelf where he stood (or rather, leaned) , laughed at the shelf tag that labeled it “The Grump Tree” and tossed one into my basket.
Anything for a laugh was the order of the day for Christmas 2021, a heartbreaker in my family. My 90-year-old mother’s declining health took a sharp turn for the worse around Thanksgiving, and as Christmas approached, we knew her time left with us would be measured in days. She always loved Christmas, but even a scaled-down version of the usual rituals that gave her such joy felt somehow insincere, maybe even disrespectful, as her time drew to an end. Bowed forward and down by unnatural weight, The Grump Tree was the only holiday decoration in the house that seemed appropriate for the season. Thinking about and praying for my mother, I wondered if my anticipatory grief was obvious to the eye, pitching me in a forward droop from the weight of it.
A friend who worked in palliative care once educated me on their term “good death,” which is not the oxymoron it might seem. Looking back at the blur of those final days, it feels okay to think that Mom’s passing fits that term. She knew us until just a few days before she died, and as she prepared to leave us, we took turns by the bedside, talking to her, singing (hymns were all I could remember, extemporaneously, and I’m sure there was a reason) and reading out loud. We did all we could to make sure she was as physically comfortable as possible as her body began its final separation from her soul. When she alighted with the angels two days after Christmas, we understood that it was truly her time to join them.
I believe that the chance to share in a loved one’s death, to affirm great love with presence, solidarity, and words of comfort, is one of that love’s most profound privileges. Still, anticipating and sharing in a good and peaceful death does not abbreviate the depth and breadth of the loss. Wandering the house aimlessly during those first few weeks after the funeral, wishing I could make myself eat and sleep and trying to remember not to call Mom and remind her that the basketball game was on, I piddled at repacking my few Christmas decorations. It was time to unbind the Grump Tree and do with it I wasn’t sure what. I wondered idly if he could survive his holiday obligations and maybe take up a new life in the woods just beyond my back windows. It was dark and foreboding back there as winter waned and days melted into each other.
The instructions included in his little pot made it sound easy (don’t they always?). With the ribbon removed, and light and a little water, the bright little tag promised that Grump would straighten up, stand tall and grow into a cypress tree 30 feet tall. Sure—why not? Grump came into our house at the worst possible time, and something felt distantly unjust about tossing him aside with the renewed promise of spring approaching.
By the time we were soaking in the morning sunlight together with my unread book and cold coffee, about eight weeks after Mom died, Grump wasn’t looking too great. Still bowed over, he was shedding tiny brown needles, declining to rouse himself and follow the promise on the card still stuck in the dirt at his feet. What to do? I was too exhausted to think about it at that moment. Outside the window, the bright sun teased the possibility of an early spring, but the woods beyond remained colorless, dreary, and unchanged.
Another few weeks crawled slowly by, and as my concentration began to slowly return, a few good days mixed in with the worst ones, I moved Grump to a better window with even more sunlight. Within Grump’s view, shoots of grass began appearing on the bare ground just in front of the woods, and the smallest, newest, most carefree wild sprouts made their spring debut under the high canopy. A lone flowering tree, small and solitary, popped out in a few pink blossoms, above the low clusters of the brave young greens and way below the highest points of the overhead canopy. The oldest and tallest forest occupants held their ground but continued waiting, taking their time in drawing strength up from the dark surface deep below to those highest reaches, a cycle affirmed over steadfast decades of slow, faithful progress.
Now Easter is nearly here, and it is almost time to liberate all the potted plants for the season, migrating them outside to the porch, sidewalk, and various perches. Mom loved this annual process, along with every part of tending to the well-being of green things. If I inherited any portion of her green thumb, my garden and porch will be the envy of the neighborhood. That thought is surprisingly comforting, so I began to inspect the indoor green population, pruning here and there, checking for growth, and thinking ahead to the summer that so rapidly follows the short spring in our part of the world.
Sadly, I realized just the other day, looking more closely in the ever-brighter spring light, that Grump looks worse than ever. One whole side of him is brown, and a touch on that side yields a sprinkling of tiny dead needles that clink down to the table surface just like the ones from Charlie Brown’s tree in the holiday classic. Did I fail him from lack of attention in the darkest, of those hazy, painful first days and weeks? What else did I forget, or overlook, when bowed down by grief, a journey without an identifiable end point? Would it feel better, like another slow step forward, to finally pitch him and leave behind the terrible winter that he represents?
Leaning toward that last option, I stop for just a moment to look closer and prod a little deeper, and a surprise awaits. Deeper inside Grump’s brittle and brown outer layer, tiny infantile shoots show strength and flexibility when bent. I can see he has grown up in two main branches, and one of them remains, defiantly, a bright green. While we wait for the trees outside to draw upward all they require to return to summer glory, completing the green mosaic from ground to sky, Grump deserves more time. And a little pruning of the brown side, and some plant food, and a bigger pot. Maybe it’s too late to save him from all that bowed him down. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe he won’t ever be what he might have been, after everything, but maybe he will grow into something else.
Stay with me, Grump. It’s getting a little warmer and brighter every day. If you can stand up for spring, maybe I can do the same. I’m pretty sure Mom is rooting for us.