THE CHERRY BLOSSOM TREE
“No, honey, over there.” “Where,” said Mark impatiently? “Over there,” said Deborah pointing to a distinct spot on the lawn. “Three steps to your right and a step closer to the bird bath.” Mark, in no mood to argue, took three deliberate steps to his right, stopped, and took one full pace toward the bird bath, like someone pacing off steps while reading a treasure map. Deborah, not amused with this unnecessary bit of theatrics, said, “that’s fine.” Mark leaned on the new shovel, part of the garden tool set I had given him as a house-warming gift. He stepped on the edge and watched the sharp, clean blade disappear into the Virginia soil. His soil.
That was soon after I first met Mark and Deborah. They moved into the house next to me and seemed like very nice people. After years of renting in the busy hubbub that is Alexandria, an upscale city near Washington, D.C., Mark and Deborah finally had a house of their own in Stafford Courthouse. A real home. A long commute for Mark, but with a commuter rail station not far, not too bad at all. Although, it wasn’t looking that way to Mark right now. He felt like he had a million other chores to turn to on this forty-year-old house, and planting this tree today was not high on his priority list. But he knew better than put up too much of objection to Deborah, or Deb, as he called her. After all, it was he who was captivated by the beauty of the Japanese Cherry Blossom trees after first seeing them when he arrived in Washington, D.C. nearly twenty years earlier.
Mark was an attorney right out of law school when he saw an entry position in D.C. Born and raised in the farm country of eastern Ohio, this seemed like a wonderful opportunity in life – too exciting to pass up. After all, if things didn’t work out, he was only a day’s drive from his hometown. He could always return and start his practice close to family and friends. But things did work out for Mark. He landed a nice position at the Department of Agriculture and started his career.
The summer of his second year, a young co-ed came to intern in the office of his department chief. She, Deborah, was a senior at Georgetown University. At first he did not pay much attention to her. Presumed she was the privileged offspring from a wealthy family from Connecticut or Boston or such. Spend a summer doing pedestrian service before launching off to grad school. But he was wrong. Deborah wasn’t just mingling with the working class, as he thought. She flat out needed the money.
Deb was raised by a single mom; not by choice, but by death. Her father was killed in an auto accident driving back to Silver Spring, Maryland on the New Jersey Turnpike one December evening. Hit a patch of “black ice” according to the police report, and ran his Oldsmobile right through the guard rail and into sign post. Deb was eleven. Her mother never let her use that as an excuse or to feel sorry for herself. Quite the contrary, she used this tragic event to drive and motivate her daughter to excel. Never settle for good enough she told her. And she didn’t. A stellar student through school, getting into Georgetown was not the hard part. Paying for it was. So the summer internship was not a growth experience – it was a job.
As the summer passed, Mark took an interest in this impressive, and pretty, girl. Toward the end of the summer a group in his office was going out for drinks after work and Mark thought it the perfect opportunity to ask Deb to go along. Not quite a date, just an office social he thought. By now, he was really taking a liking to her and had wanted to ask her out. This occasion seemed tailor made. When she declined his offer, he was more than a little deflated. But, she quickly countered with the offer to take a walk, a “stroll” as she called it. He was relieved and amused; “stroll” was a word he would have heard in rural Ohio, not Washington, D.C. It turned out that she was more than a little interested in this tall, young lawyer and she did not want to be disturbed by the predictable office chatter from co-workers. She wanted his undivided attention. She suggested a walk around the Tidal Basin, a tree-lined body of water by the Jefferson Memorial, not far from their building. A cherry tree- lined body of water. Mark tried fondly to remember that moment, their first date, as he dug the hole for new tree.
That was Mark and Deb’s first summer in the house. Our friendship grew, the cherry blossom tree grew, and five years passed. I was the first to notice it, in the spring. Not terribly obvious, but there it was just the same. After five years of flourishing and healthy growth, the tree showed signs that something was wrong. The yearly expansion of new growth on the branches seemed noticeably less than in years past. And the stunning explosion of the cherry blossoms, while still spectacular, was again less than before. Priding myself in more than a little knowledge in gardening, I logically tried to figure out the cause. Too little water? No, we had had a wet spring. Soil lacking in nutrients? No, Mark had fertilized his plantings in the fall, just like the book says. I looked around the rest of his yard and viewed healthy azaleas and dogwood trees that were so beautiful that they adorned his lawn like jewelry. While somewhat stunted, the cherry tree grew on and I never mentioned my observation to Mark.
That summer when was when Deb was diagnosed with cancer. I remember being stunned when I heard the news. She was only in her forties. “Thank God they caught it early,” I said to Mark awkwardly. I really didn’t know what to say. She immediately started her chemo treatments and everything seemed normal again. Deb looked the same and, if anything, seemed more “alive” than before. No one ever brought up the topic for it was as if she refused to even acknowledge that she had cancer. Over time, however, in a casual conversation she would slip in an occasional reference to her “markers” being better than expected. Deb was not used to losing and in the winter proudly proclaimed that she would beat cancer. We all wanted to believe her.
The next spring, the little cherry tree was clearly in distress. It was only half itself from previous years. I could not help but to see the struggle in this beautiful tree. Normally, I would have spoken to Mark about it. You know, “Hey Mark, what’s going on with the cherry blossom?”, as if we could take some action to rescue it. It was too nice a tree to lose. But given the circumstances, I never addressed it with him. Poor Mark was now knee-deep in the cancer battle that Deb, for the first time, appeared to be losing. At least, that’s the way it looked to me. Now, Deb barely let on that she was sick and Mark never much talked about it. I guess that’s part of our human defense mechanism; when something is too traumatic to address, we don’t.
The seasons passed from spring through summer, and in the fall, the little cherry tree lost its leaves for the last time. Before Christmas, I visited Mark and Deb. It was too late to deny the obvious. Deb was now very sick and the seriousness of the situation seemed to finally hit her. It had started to snow, and as she sat by the window overlooking her front yard, she revealed that today was the day her father had died. She looked at the snow falling, falling on the cherry tree, and she started to cry.
I never saw Deb again. A few days later, while shoveling snow from my sidewalk, Mark came out and told me that they were stopping all medical treatments. I felt so sad I couldn’t move. Just frozen, standing in the snow. Three weeks later, Deb died at home.
I feel guilty now, because a year before her death I fostered this theory that when the cherry tree died, Deb would succumb to the cancer. I obviously could not share my morbid theory with Mark, and felt a little ashamed of myself for even thinking it. I don’t know why, it wasn’t my fault, but I felt it just the same.
Sadly, I don’t see Mark much anymore. I’ve asked him to join us a couple of times for drinks or a cookout in the two years since Deb’s passing, but he always feebly declines. He is truly living by himself now and I feel sorry for him. But there is one thing I will never forget, and it troubles me to this day. It was only a week after the memorial service. That spring, when life renews from the dormancy of winter, the little tree produced no leaves or sprouts at all. And on a Saturday morning in early March, in a soft and peaceful Virginia rain, Mark went out to his front yard and cut down the lifeless cherry blossom tree.