It was quiet as the sun rose behind him, the warm rays hitting his back, and a light breeze bringing the earthy smell of spring. Jonathan gazed out at the field beyond the swell that rolled and sprawled all the way to the wood line, and the edge of his property. He shook his head, staring out at what he thought was a beautiful landscape. His eyes shifted to the farmhouse, their farmhouse, covered in a green metal roof and brown vinyl siding. A few pieces of siding hung loosely from a windstorm over the winter, but that was all. Jonathon pictured the inside of the house, some to-do projects scattered throughout. Some missing trim, unfinished drywall hidden under a collage of family photos, a kitchen cabinet door that hung down from years of kids slamming it closed. But nothing major. And what about the good stuff? The stone fireplace with a 120-year-old barn beam for a mantle, covered in candles and frames, holding pictures of cherished family memories. Nothing worth ending everything, giving up everything, walking away from everything. Jonathon smashed his gloved fist into his opposite palm, still shaking his head back and forth.
His eyes followed the parallel worn dirt paths made by truck and tractor tires over the years. He pictured their four kids running on them toward the field and forest beyond it. Their imaginations led them to grand adventures. They shove and push each other in one instant and laugh and skip in the next. The oldest would throw the youngest on his back and carry her across the water and through the tall grass that tickled her toes as they trudged along. He hoped they were enduring this better than he was, but he knew all too well the angst and fear that stems from the world you know collapsing under your feet and having little control over the outcome. He prayed, please let them be resilient. They deserve what they had before, before this last year of confusion, frustration, and anger.
However, the dark cloud of the past year was unavoidable and always looming. The characteristics he developed while suffering through multiple divorces by his parents were now working against him. His friends and siblings looked to him to be the rock, the constant, always able to smooth the murky waters. The pressure to carry the weight of others while his pain swelled inside and gnawed away at it. But he never complained. He had his inner circle to vent and confide in, but they couldn’t fix anything. The conversations eased the pain momentarily, but it always returned. He arched his head back, wanting to scream at the top of his lungs, but only a deflating exhale met the breeze pouring across his face. He straightened his back and moved his hands behind his head. His fingers intertwined, his palms forming around the back of his skull. Looking towards the light blue sky, puffy gray clouds forming, he closed his eyes and inhaled the crisp air, striking his nostrils like scented candles of pine, mud, and wildflower. Our oasis.
He hated the disappointing look she gave him as she talked about their earliest days together in the Army, just married and stationed in southern Germany. They traveled all over Europe, finding adventure, culture, and creating stories to be told for years to come. She was glad to be away from the small crossroads where they found confidence in each other's company and left together for visions of grandeur that danced in her head. But their days in the Army ended, and they needed a place to stay. Grandma’s old farmhouse near the crossroads in which they grew up was available. Settling in, they began college, raising children, and seeing their friends they had known since elementary school. That must not have been good enough.
He dropped his head down, leaned forward, set his hands on his knees, and breathed deeply. His stomach felt like an endless pit of remorse and his grief was like anchors tied to his feet as he watched the surface of the water retreat away as he sunk into the depths of despair. A lump in his throat was demanding a tear to relieve the aching, but it wouldn’t come. There had been no tears, at least not in front of her. Maybe there should have been. Maybe that’s what she needed to see or feel or know. That she was worth crying over. She was worth all the tears that welled up behind red eyes, the vulnerability of a man who believed he always had to keep it together for everyone else’s sake.
Over the past year, he studied and read, and talked with counselors and friends about narcissism, midlife crisis, attention deficit disorder, people-pleasing, techniques for understanding children, prayer, and self-awareness. He tore through book after book trying to find an answer, or, even merely, a solution. But he feared the partnership was dead and his attempts to resuscitate it were futile. Each day was arduous, waking up alone, except for the occasional child in his bed that needed to be close to their father for a good night's sleep. No one to bounce ideas off of, or plan the day around, or tell stories to, and discuss the world around them. Nothing, just alone.
He rotated his head to the right, fixing his eyes on a stout maple tree with sprawling branches that rose to about the height of the house itself. The two of them planted the tree the first spring after they moved in. Jonathon drove his shovel into the dirt, removing chunks of sod and clay. His wife smiled as she proudly stood next to the young sprout covered in light green leaves and anchored by a round ball of burlap. They giggled, fighting the burlap off the roots, then together, dropping it in the hole. They took turns using the shovel to fill the dirt in around their new maple tree. With a final scoop, she patted the pile with the bottom of her shovel, and with a grin, said “all done. Now we watch it grow.”
Jonathon continued to stare at the tree, remembering them draping it with lights for Christmas, watching the kids scurry up the branches, like the squirrels that made it their home under its canopy. They cherished the way the leaves turned to a crimson red in the autumn and then formed a perfect tree skirt around it when they fell in late November when the stiff, wintery winds arrived. They took family pictures under it, laid out a blanket for picnics beneath it, and would sneak out after the kids were sound asleep to watch the stars beyond it.
His eyes darted to the covered porch, where the stacked wood for the fireplace climbed neatly to the ceiling. He moved feverishly towards it, the wet ground squishing and spraying with every step as his eyes set on the chainsaw that sat in front of the woodpile. He scooped the handle and pulled it to his side, reaching for the cord to fire it, but hesitated, looking to the shadowed corner where the porch met the house. Slamming the chainsaw back to the concrete, he bounded forward and wrapped both his gloved hands around the wooden handle of a dull ax, and yanked it from its resting place. Positioning it like a Scottish warrior at Bannockburn, he bounded off the porch, sloshed back through the yard, pulled the ax back as far as shoulders would allow him, and smashed the blade into the trunk of the maple. Bark and chunks of wood spewed from it. He swung again and again, tearing chunks of yellowish-white wood, pieces of bark and splinters smacking his bright red cheeks. His lungs burned from the cold air as he inhaled and exhaled as he ripped and cut away the lower part of the trunk. Sweat poured down his brow into his eyes, burning, but he didn’t slow down. His hands vibrated with every blow, jarring him, but he kept swinging.
With one final vicious blow, he struck the tree, and with the sound of wood cracking, it cried out and gave in. Jonathon stepped back, gasping for air, threw his ax into the mud, and watched it fall. It hit the ground with a gentle roar; the branches cushioning its landing. He glared at the tree; angry and frustrated at the energy he exerted on it. He pointed his finger at the tree and stepped towards it. “How dare you!”, his voice bellowed into the chilly air. “How dare you do this to us? To our family, to our home, to our dog, for God’s sake. We were building something here! We had everything we ever needed, and you didn’t want it. How could you?” He questioned with spit flying from his mouth as the words echoed off the house. Four shocked faces appeared in the picture window behind him, having never seen their dad so angry, especially at a tree.
He bounded forward, following his index finger to the motionless, broken trunk. Water and mud sloshed under his feet as his voice cracked. “You know I would have done anything for you, you know that, but you didn’t tell me what to do. You wanted to travel. I told you I‘d take you anywhere in the world, and you just stood there and said nothing. You stood there cold as ice and said it’s too late for that now. What more do you want? Tell me!” He slammed two fists down like hammers on the rough bark. Then turning his wrists, he smashed his knuckles into the sturdy trunk, allowing the coarse exterior to rip away the skin on knuckles. Blood poured through tightly clenched fingers and spotted the light gray bark. Winded, he stopped, dropped to his knees, leaning against the tree like a pew in church. He folded his bloody hands together and rested his head upon them.
“I don’t understand,” he whispered. The mud-soaked his pants, but he didn’t notice. “I’ll never understand. We should’ve grown old together. Don’t you remember saying that’s what you pictured? You said that right under this tree. This tree, right here. This one. Our tree. The one we planted together. The one we loved. The one I loved more than anything.” He leaned against the tree, palms down on the bark, feeling the cold, rough exterior of a once-living thing. A rush of guilt and sadness poured over him and he wished the tree was still standing, still upright, moving steadily towards the sun again. Tears streamed down his face.