This metaphorical tree.
This is a tree in the park I live near to, Bushey Park.
I credit this park with keeping me sane. Day by day — whether I’m running, wandering along listening to an audio book or simply pondering my place in the universe — there’s always something new to admire: a pocket of woodland I haven’t explored, the unfurling curl of a spring fern, the petrol spectrum of a pigeon’s feather, rusted autumn leaves, the gloss of just-hatched conkers. This is where I go to solve problematic plots and characters from my fictional world — and indeed, my real one.
Back to this tree. You will note that it’s extraordinary. Here it is in all its full-size-technicolour glory, taken a few weeks back, before September snatched its green.
It’s been struck by lightening and cordoned — by the Park Rangers, I guess — to preserve its wonder. The trunk of this tree is charred and hollow; it seems completely void. Yet one branch lives on and as sure as the turn of seasons, bursts into leaf each year. I always stop to look at it, but only the other day did I stop to fathom why.
About seven weeks ago, I received one of those messages that turns a heart beat into a thump that leaves you crumpled, “I can’t believe I have to write this in a WhatsApp but Stewart is in hospital as he’s had a large bleed in his brain… We will know more later this morning. Will keep you posted.” It was from one of my oldest, most cherished friends, Lucy, about an equally long-standing, cherished friend — her partner.
I’m sure it’s just my age — my life stage — but those sorts of messages — from friends, family, colleagues — seem to come more frequently these days. My stepfather had a stroke back in the spring. My mum’s still recovering from being hospitalised with pneumonia. My mother in law is mourning hard for the loss of her partner. Just before Christmas an old friend, Stacey, shared the devastating news that her fiancé, Greg, has stage 4 lung cancer (her beautiful and poignant blog, Beneath the Weather, launched today; please take a look). These messages mirror the reality of our existence, but each one leaves us reeling: powerless, impotent, frightened. They remind me of a quote that I read on the wall of a Sri Lankan beach bar in Galle, which had been rebuilt after the total destruction of the 2004 tsunami:
“At every moment of our lives, we all have one foot in the fairy tale and the other in the abyss.” Paulo Coelho
Everything can change in an instant.
At the end of last year, I spent three days with my Father, waiting for him to take his last breath. There was nothing instantaneous about this; it wasn’t a surprise to receive the message that called me to his bedside. He had been very ill with dementia and the aftermath of a serious stroke for many years. He had been a resident at the care home where he died for over eight years and he’d had no quality of life — by the standards he’d have set himself — for over a decade. If he could, he would tell you that he’d been ready to leave this world for the longest time.
Those three days remain an enigma; they were both the most precious and the most gruelling of my life. Gruelling, because while I was prepared to see him go, I was simply not primed for death’s effort. Nothing I’d read or seen had readied me for the rasping, gasping fight of his body. “It’s rarely peaceful, love, I’m sorry to say,” said one of the nurses, as she handed me a cup of tea and checked his morphine patch, rearranging the blankets over the wheeze of his limp lungs.
At the time I found her frankness quite distressing. In that moment, I only wanted my dad to find his peace. But since then, I’ve been reminded of that wonderful woman’s words during some of the blackest moments that have touched my family and friends — moments that will, by the nature of all things, sadly touch us all in some guise or another. I’ve tried to hold on to those words as a sort of talisman of hope. And now, I will also hold on to the image of this tree.
Nature’s will to live can be profound.
Life cannot help but send us lightening and sometimes it will strike. But just as the leaves on that tree keep giving us air, so our bodies try their best to keep breathing.
As for Stewart? Surgeons positioned £13,000 worth of platinum inside his brain and stemmed the bleed. Armed with this knowledge, we are all keen to assure him that he’s worth more to us than that — in his brain it will remain. He is taking it easy, nursing a headache, recovering well, feeling lucky.
And we are all feeling thankful for the force of nature’s will.