Eye of the Beholder

“Luisa said that if we ever get over to Ukraine, we can stay at her house for free,” my wife told me.

A puzzled look settled on my face. “Who is Luisa?” I asked.

“Luisa—Florence’s live-in companion. She came to America to look for work and ended up taking a job as an au pair. When that fell through, she started working for Florence.”

“How is Florence getting along these days?” I asked.

“Her mind’s still sharp at 94, but her body’s giving out. I visited her the other day. I don’t think that she’s going to last much longer.”

“What’s going to happen to Luisa when Florence dies?”

“I don’t know,” my wife said.

Two weeks later one rainy afternoon my wife and I were walking down to the pub in the center of town to meet our son and daughters for a belated lunch. An older woman, grey and drawn, ambled up the street toward us. A pair of oversized dark glasses covered her eyes. She looked up when my wife called out her name: “Luisa!” The old woman’s face brightened as she took my wife’s hand in both of hers. “How are you?”

“Oh, today I am so wonderful!” Luisa said. “Today I can see again!” She lifted up her dark glasses to show us her eye.

The left eye was indeed clear and bright. I noticed that the lid on the other eye remained closed.

“You see,” she pointed with a gnarled finger, “you see where the doctor did the surgery? He took out the cataract. Now I can see again—so wonderful!”

“You can hardly tell,” my wife said. “It looks good.”

“Really?” Luisa said. “This doctor—so wonderful—a true doctor. I have no money. He did surgery for free. When I saw him, saw his face afterwards, I get down on my knees and kiss his hands—such a good man!” Luisa’s eye began to water.

I asked Luisa the doctor’s name. “He’s a good surgeon,” she said. “They don’t make doctors like him anymore.”

It started to rain. My wife and I popped up our umbrellas. Luisa had just a few more steps to the door of Florence’s house. “Stop by to see me soon,” she said to my wife, blowing her a kiss. Then to me she said: “I like your book—is good book. My sister is writer in Ukraine. Writing runs in my family.”

We waved and resumed our walk down the street under our umbrellas in the steadily falling rain.

“Luisa trained to be a doctor in Ukraine,” my wife said.

“A doctor! Why didn’t she ever practice here?”

“She came over illegally when the war broke out. She never took the exam to get her license.”

We walked a few steps in silence. “What happened to her other eye?” I asked my wife.

“She was attacked by a dog years ago and lost her sight in that eye.”

A few steps further I paused to ask, “What will she do when Florence dies?”

“I’m not sure,” my wife said. “Florence died this past week. Didn’t you know?”

A New England morning

I am up early, unable to sleep from the remnants of an overnight migraine. I make coffee, feed the cat, pour the coffee, let the cat out the back door and retire to the rocking chair on the front porch.

Here in New England the morning breaks cool under a cloud speckled sky. A slight breeze stirs the leaves on the wisteria that has wrapped its runners around the balustrade and posts on the porch.

On one of the bare branches of an old maple across the street five blackbirds perch, occasionally jostling one another, like patrons shifting on stools at a lunch counter.

The front yard is a sea of color: tall-stemmed tiny deep red flowers hover above a bed of yellow evening primrose. The wild rose on the arched trellis at the end of the walk is approaching full bloom. The bees are busy among the blossoms.

High in one of the neighbor’s white pines a grey squirrel chatters; bluejays perched nearby taunt their retorts. Across the street a chipmunk emerges from the bushes, pauses to make a quick calculation, then darts across the open yard—tiny tail upright, a small cinnamon streak.

The cat pads up the front steps and sits to lick a paw. She settles momentarily to survey the yard, eyeing the bees among the flowers. Off to the left the gravelly drivel of a chipping sparrow bleeds through the cool morning air.

Quietly, I sit and sip my coffee, observing this microcosm of the cosmos at my doorstep. I doubt that I have ever been more alive than at this moment.

The cat, the coolness, the clear calls of birds in the morning—together they spawn moments of peaceful delight.

After the storm

July 12, 2009

Dear Henry,

I lie in bed awake at first light, listening to the crisp calls of an ovenbird. We had another good old-fashioned thunderstorm last night with windy gusts and pouring rain. I got up to close the window by the bed and soon drifted off back to sleep to the sound of rain drumming on the roof. This morning a cool air stirs the leaves on the maples in our back yard. The air smells fresh, newly cleansed by the overnight storm.

I met Joan outside the post office yesterday morning. I know that you never had much good to say about the post office, but in our small town it’s a place where neighbors congregate to learn the latest news in the village. (I know you didn’t think much of the news, either. These days most of us get our news from the Internet, television or radio—but that’s another story.)

Anyway, Joan told me that she and John were heading down to the river for a canoe excursion. The watershed association was sponsoring a downstream paddle to teach participants about local Indian lore. I remembered the day you and your brother John took your students out on the river in the boat you built to the site of an old Indian camp; how you dug down to show them the charred remnants of an ancient fire, and then covered it back up again.

Last week I took a walk down by the river. The path was thick with brambles and mosquitoes; the river high and muddy from unrelenting recent rains.

I noticed the afternoon sunlight reflecting off the current, playing on the undersides of the big leathery heart-shaped leaves of a redbud tree by the water’s edge. I struck out along the path to the park, passing by stands of asters and daisies. The mosquitoes were out, making that infernal buzzing noise about the back of my head. I stumbled along the overgrown path, pausing every now and again to carefully lift a thorny briar shoot out of the way to pass by unscathed.

I chuckled to myself, recalling the time you introduced Nathaniel to a swamp. The mosquitoes were thick that day as well. While you waded out into the brackish water, keen to observe the life pulsating around you, Hawthorne, hands flailing about his face, emitted his desperate cry: “Henry—get me out of here!”

The pond in the park was choked full of green algae; numerous spotted turtles were sunning themselves on half-submerged logs. I stopped to investigate the foamy patches of spittle bugs on the plants by the bank, and scared up a black snake that promptly whipped its way back into the undergrowth. This little pond reminds me of Cat’s Pond in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery—the one that you designed—although ours is a bit more rustic. I think you would like it.

The other week we had severe thunderstorms in our area. After work I stopped at the post office to check the mail. As I opened the door on my way out, the sky suddenly lit up overhead and a loud clap of thunder resounded through the village. For a moment everything stood still. Then other doorways opened and people came out into the street to look up at the swirling grey clouds overhead. The lightning had splintered the sky just above us. Everything, it seemed, had come together in that one eternal moment. I thought that you, being a transcendentalist, would have reveled in it.

I didn’t make it up to Concord for the Thoreau Society annual gathering this year. I had too many irons in the fire and found that it was all I could do to tend them without taking time out for a three-day excursion to Massachusetts. It would have been nice to see Walden again; but we have our own ponds here, and the river too.

In any case I thought I’d drop you a line to wish you a happy birthday. Incidentally, the day of your birth is the same as my father’s. He’s 79 this year—a far cry from your 192 years—but then, when it comes to transcendental moments, who’s counting?

Now the sun is up, and once again life is stirring. As you once wrote, there is more day to dawn.

After the storm, goodness comes.

Ex animo,

An accidental death

As I drove along the highway en route to the gym for my morning workout, I thought about the last e-mail message I had read before retiring the previous night: a former runner and high school classmate, “The Shark,” now dead at 55 from injuries sustained in a freak motorcycle accident over the July 4th holiday weekend. A vehicle pulled out in front of him as he tooled down a local highway. The driver didn’t see the oncoming bike—until it was too late.

Shortly after I crossed the bridge heading north, I noticed a slight movement in the shadows beneath the trees. My eyes picked out the silhouette of a young white-tail deer, head erect, oversized ears panning the landscape to monitor the morning sounds. I eased my foot off the accelerator and coasted by the doe, close enough to see her nose twitch. I imagined that she was waiting to cross the road on her way down to a morning watering at the river.

Minutes later I pulled into the parking lot at the gym and stepped out into the cool morning air. Off to the east the sky lay littered with purple clouds edged in red; the sun was just breaking over the mountains. A wood thrush piped an eerie call from the woods as I crossed the macadam to the front entrance of the facility that housed the pool in which I would spend the next two hours.

I took up swimming as an exercise regimen sixteen years ago when I turned forty, after my knees had given out from two decades of distance running. A workout in the pool, much easier on the joints, allows me to keep my cardiovascular system in reasonably good condition without punishing my hips and knees.

When I was a miler back in high school, “The Shark” was a sprinter. Short, compact and powerfully built, he logged a number of records in the shorter distances and relays. While I worried about keeping my grades up and brooded over lost loves, “The Shark” grinned through those turbulent adolescent years seemingly without a care in the world. The writer of his obituary captured his disposition in a few short lines: “always pursing the light side of life…full of laughter and love…he uniquely left his mark on everyone he met.”

I swam my allotted yardage, showered up and headed back home for breakfast. The early morning clouds had broken up, leaving a faultless blue dome overhead. I got in line at the yield sign and headed south with the thread of morning commuters.

As I came up over a slight rise, I caught sight of flashing red and blue lights by the side of the road up ahead. A patrol car was parked behind an old pickup truck that had an extension ladder strapped to the roof. A man in a plaid work shirt kneeled by the front of the vehicle, inspecting the twisted front bumper. A uniformed policeman stood next to him, writing on a small tablet in his hand.

I glanced to the right, and there on the shoulder by the curb lay the doe, stretched out on her side with one foreleg bent, cinnamon coat gleaming in the bright sunlight, the white belly already swollen, a trickle of bright red blood oozing from the left nostril.

She had bolted at the last minute, I imagined. Most likely the driver of the pickup hadn’t seen her—until it was too late.

“Notes from a Healer” — Where the blue line leads

During my morning swimming workout, my thoughts occasionally wander. Stroke after stroke, lap after lap, I continue to follow the mosaic blue line on the bottom of the pool — wherever it might lead….

My latest installment of Notes from a HealerWhere the blue line leads — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online clearinghouse for manuscripts dealing with the humanities and medicine.

The Big Tree (II)

Though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. —John Muir

I ran into Loering down at the post office. His tall thin frame hovered over the long table by the window as he sorted through the stack of envelopes freshly extracted from his post office box.

“They’re taking down the big ash tree on Maple Street,” I told him.

The director of public works in town had ordered that the ancient tree be taken down. Many of its dead and decayed limbs had fallen without warning over the past year. The old tree had become a public liability.

“I saw them working on it this morning when I walked down for the mail,” Loering said. “That’s the last one to go.”

“Last one?”

“The last of the original trees on that street. Over the years I’ve watched them all come down, one by one—some diseased, some damaged in storms. I counted the rings on the last big one to come down before this one. I reckoned it dated back to 1806.”

Loering’s cloudy blue eyes danced in the late morning sunlight that streamed in through the front window.

“Now when that tree took root,” he mused, “Thomas Jefferson was president. Lewis and Clark were just returning from their voyage of discovery. The war of 1812 hadn’t been fought yet. Just think of all the history that tree witnessed over the years,” he grinned. “Why, if trees could talk, I wonder what they would tell us.”

Slowly, I nodded. The power of the imagination. Time and again I encounter the thoughts of a philosopher in the least likely of places. In this life there are no ordinary moments.

“From the diameter of the trunk, it must be at least 150 years old,” I told him.

“I guess we’ll find out soon enough,” he winked.

By the end of that day the town workers had taken down all of the branches on the big ash tree except one, leaving the massive trunk standing.

With no advanced notice, the men returned early one morning the following week to finish the job. They couldn’t have picked a more miserable day: cold, damp, overcast and rainy. Wearing fluorescent yellow slickers and yellow hardhats, the men worked steadily through the rain. By mid morning they had felled the trunk.

When the tree surgeon made the final cut through the base, a great volume of dark brown frothy liquid bubbled out. It was almost as though the old tree had hemorrhaged in its death throes.

That afternoon the sun came out. When I returned home from work in the evening, I went out to inspect what was left of the big tree.

I climbed up on the massive stump and with a straw broom brushed off the remaining debris.

The center of the stump had rotted, leaving a soft spongy black pulp devoid of any markings. I measured the base along several distinct diameters and recorded anywhere from 52 to 60 inches.

Genuflecting on one knee, I notched the first visible ring near the spongy pulp with my pen knife and started counting outward—118 rings. I measured the pulpy heart, and reckoned the tree to be about 135 – 140 years old—close to my initial estimate of 150 years. This tree dated back to 1869.

The ancient ash had certainly seen a lot of history: a century of wars; the invention of the airplane, radio and television; the atomic bomb; the civil rights movement; a man on the moon; the fall of the Berlin wall; the tragedy of 9/11; the election of the first black American president.

Loering’s words echoed inside my head: “If trees could talk, I wonder what they would tell us.” What would this one have said?

I rose to my feet and regarded the remnant of the old ash, straining to hear its ceaseless song.