Content warning: abuse
I used to put my dirty socks on my brother’s pillow. I’d put them on top of the pillowcase so when he walked into our room he would see them lying there like dead fish. Then I got better, and to delay my gratification, I’d stuff them in the pillowcase. I’d always use my stinkiest socks - basketball practice, skatepark, rainy day - but my brother had a notoriously bad nose and never smelled them right away. Usually, a couple of days would go by while these foot condoms stewed in his pillowcase. He’d notice zits on his face and wonder where the hell they were coming from. Eventually, he’d find the socks. Afterward, he’d rage at me.
My brother was pure fire when he had one of his tantrums. He’d attack me like I imagine a mountain lion might if I tried to take one of her cubs. We hurt each other when we fought, but most of the time, we’d be laughing our asses off. Fights with my brother were the only ones I’ve ever had where I could laugh while getting hit in the face.
For example, I never laughed when my dad caught me in the face. He had fists the size of catcher’s mitts, and when one would get you, it was with the force of an anvil. There was no laughing at that. He toughened us up, for sure. My therapist says that he thinks my brother and I were abused, but I don’t think he understands us because his dad wasn’t a cop.
A cop raises his sons a certain way, with inevitable violence, because he understands what the fight is like at the bottom. My therapist told me what his dad did once. It was some dumb, boring-ass job I don’t even remember; he definitely wasn’t a cop.
My dad’s gone now anyway, so there’s no point in thinking about that stuff too much. But it's frustrating because you have to keep thinking about memories to keep them alive. That’s the cliche; nothing is easy. The second you stop working at anything, it disappears. I tell myself I can’t pour all that I am into those bad memories when I got other ones that could use my time. I think about the past because I want to go back to the beginning; I’d do my life the same again - the beatings and all - to relive the time I had with my brother.
Alvin died in a car accident, just like my dad. Only he was drunk, and my dad was trying to be a hero. We have a lot in common, and if you had to mark my dad, brother, and me with a symbol, it would be the 300-year-old Oak tree on Diablo Rd. It's 65 ft tall. Its wide, twisted branches hang over both sides of the four-lane street. The town paid $150,000 to install a giant steel cage around the deciduous Oak so it wouldn’t fall. The tree symbolizes so much to so many, and it taught me that you could hate trees.
My therapist thinks that I’m a creative guy. I told him that when I was a kid, I played the cello; maybe he thinks I was like Yo-Yo Ma. Of course, it’s not true; I made it up. I wasn’t even sure what a cello was until I googled it. Then I laughed at how dumb I was for choosing such a big instrument. Still, my therapist says in earnest that I should pick up the cello again. I’ve been going to this guy since my brother crashed into that tree because my mom thinks it's a good idea. I guess I do too, or I wouldn’t be going. I think my mom should go, not to my guy, but to someone.
Today’s the 27th, which means tonight’s the Oak tree lighting. The only year I ever missed the tree lighting was last year, and that was because I was mourning my brother. Every other year for as long as I can remember, I went to see the lights get turned on. From November 27th, they illuminate the street every night until the first Friday of the first week in January when they’re taken down. Everyone thinks the lights are beautiful. It's one of the things my town's famous for, not that it's famous. Today, I think about the cage propping up the great Oak, and wonder what life might be like if they let it die.
Before the cage was installed, the city council had arborists assess the strength of the tree’s roots. They found decay in about 75% of the areas. It was time for the tree to come down, but the people said,
build a cage
take this money
put it in a cage
november can’t be
without lights on the tree
I like to imagine the Oak tree falling, perhaps in an alternate world where they remove the cage and let it die. I would show up the next morning with the biggest chainsaw I could buy and attack the bastard until it was chopped to pieces. Of course, this is just a fantasy; the tree is still erect. Did you know an Oak tree’s canopy can stay healthy independent of its roots?
My mother is part of my life; she’s my roommate. She’s more of my roommate than my mother. Now that Alvin’s gone, my mom and I don’t talk much. The only thing we ever liked doing together was going to the movies; we always had the same taste in film. But we haven’t gone or even talked about cinema this whole time. It’s been 15months of ignoring each other; me going to therapy; her staying silent. I think she resents me, but that’s okay because sometimes I resent her. I’m sure we both look at each other and wish we were seeing a different family member. My mom’s probably going to the tree lighting; she’s never missed a year. Even last year, when I couldn’t muster the strength, she attended. She hasn’t told me that she’s going, but I’m pretty certain she’ll be there.
What happened was Melissa Catan broke up with my brother, and he got drunk and drove his car into the Oak tree. When I got the news in the middle of the night, I fled Chico State and sped home. I walked inside around 4:30 am and found my mother collapsed over the kitchen island weeping. It reminded me of a scene in this documentary where a mother whale was shown crying while carrying around her dead calf. Apparently, this behavior is shared among the species, and when some whales cry, it sounds like a song. I found no music in the sounds that emitted from my mother. There was only sadness that echoed through space in our home. A week later, I saw her cry like that at Alvin’s funeral. Melissa Catan was at the funeral; it was the last time that I saw her. I’m nervous about seeing her tonight.
My therapist rarely shows excitement, so it was noticeable when a smirk appeared on his face as I told him that I’d accepted Melissa’s invitation to the tree lighting. He wore a delighted expression on his face; it was like he thought he had something to do with my decision. I didn’t say anything to him, but if I could do it over, I would have said,
“I’m the conductor of my life.”
He would have said, “My dear boy, it is I who conducts. You’re merely a cellist.”
It's a shame that even in daydreams, I lose. If I remember correctly, the whole losing in my dreams thing started after my dad died. I told Alvin once, after one of the worst beatings, that I hoped dad would die. I don’t believe that you get what you ask for because I can’t seem to bring my brother back, but in a small way, because of what I said to my brother, I hold myself responsible for my dad’s death, which is crazy. It’s not my fault; he shouldn’t have been pursuing that close on a motorcycle. As soon as the driver in the stolen car brake-checked my dad, he smashed into the bumper and went flying towards the Oak. Being a hero is a death wish.
The decision to meet Melissa comes from a place inside of me that knows that none of this had anything to do with her. With time I’ve come to understand it’s not her fault. They were in high school. I’ve lived those years and felt just as my brother did. He got upset, and he acted impulsively; that’s what teenagers do. She’s not to blame for the things that happened after he stormed out of her house. It took me months to accept that it was his choice to drink and drive down Diablo Rd.
I drive to the tree lighting alone and park a good half-mile from the Oak. Hundreds of people are out, and the sidewalks leading to the landmark are packed. I have to slow my pace to avoid running into the group in front of me, and I can’t get around them because the streets are blocked off, and the sidewalk isn't wide enough. As we walk, I notice my mom’s car parked along the sidewalk. No one is in it. I keep walking, following the herd of people while looking for Melissa. All I see is a mass of winter clothes; people's faces are indiscernible under scarves and beanies. However, I sense I won’t have a problem finding Melissa Catan.
The group walking in front of me is an equal split of guys and girls in their mid-30’s. One of them is named Cliff. Cliff is wearing a San Francisco Giants hat and a Patagonia puffer jacket. There’s at least one other person in the group who’s wearing the same jacket. When I was growing up, I thought the tree lighting was just for kids. When I was a teenager, I thought it was best suited for high schoolers. Now that I’m a college student and I see these thirty-year-olds in front of me, I realize there’s something in it for everyone. I begin to listen to Cliff to see if I can understand what’s lured them to the Oak.
Cliff talks about his job. Apparently, he works in an office building right near the tree. It's so close to the Oak that a branch sits less than five feet away from his window. Cliff tells the group that he doesn’t like the tree. When one of them asks why, Cliff says, “Because these freaking birds live in the tree, and then they come up to the window and tap on it all day. It's annoying. I have a new motto. I think I’ll start tonight: Cut down the tree, get rid of the birds.”
Cliff’s words elicit laughter from his group, which is strange because I didn’t hear a punchline. It makes me think Cliff is probably the leader; anyone who can elicit laughter with such poor material must be in control. I also think about the crux of his complaint; this tree causes him annoyance because it's carrying life.
I wonder if my stories of how the tree took away life would get a laugh. I continue to search for Melissa as I think of what I could tell Cliff and his friends, “You think that tree's annoying because a bird flies from it and taps on your window? That tree killed two of my family members. My dad flew into it during a police chase. My brother crashed into it when he was drunk.”
You know, I doubt any of those words would get a laugh from Cliff and the gang; there’s no punchline, and people don’t appreciate it when you spring your life story on them. I can’t meet a stranger and tell them my dad and/or brother died; it's like putting fire in someone’s hands. It's why seeing Melissa tonight will be interesting. She is not a stranger. She knows my story and is a part of it. I remind myself that she’s not to blame.
We find each other while Melissa’s walking back to her group. We say each other’s names simultaneously and let out embarrassing short laughs at the same time. She’s carrying hot cider and was considerate enough to buy one for me. She’s three years younger, which means the people who are part of her group probably are too. And yet, I feel like we’re all the same age. I listen to the conversation and find out that Brad, standing to my right, comes from a wealthy family. Brad’s dad donated 75% of the money for the Oak tree’s cage. Now that I know Brad comes from money, his clothes look expensive. Luckily, I don’t have to stay around the group for very long because Melissa pulls me away.
We’re standing as a couple amongst many larger groups. Everybody is facing the tree, and the lights should come on at any moment. The anticipation is similar to the Time Square ball drop on New Year’s Eve, but the energy between Melissa and me is much more urgent than that. It feels as though we both have so much to talk about. We keep tripping on each other's words as we share what we’ve been up to since the funeral. She tells me that she started to plant trees. She says she’s doing it because she began to hate the Oak, and she didn’t like that. I don’t tell her that I also had a period where I hated the Oak. Instead, I tell her that I’ve moved back home and am living with my mom.
“How’s she doing?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
Just before the lights are turned on, Melissa admits to inviting me here to gain closure. I realize I'm also seeking closure. She tells me that she blamed herself for months about what happened and that she spun into a state of depression. She said she thought about reaching out to me to talk about Alvin, but she couldn’t because she thought I hated her.
I tell her that I hated a lot for a long time but that I’m working on getting past that. I assure her that what happened is not her fault. She whispers thank you, and then a man’s voice booms through a megaphone. It’s the mayor. He asks if we’re ready, and the crowd cheers. Melissa cheers with them, and so do I. A little of my hot cider spills. I look around and think about how happy everything appears. Then, the lights come on, the street is illuminated, and I see Melissa has tears rolling down her cheeks.
The color of the lights and the brightness that I feel underneath them take me back to my childhood memories. For all the bad times that my dad caused, I don’t think we ever had a bad night at the tree lighting. Those first few seconds fill me with thankfulness and love. I feel what it is to cherish a moment.
My brother probably told Melissa how my dad treated us. Before that, she probably knew my dad like the rest of the town does, as the hero cop who sacrificed his life while trying to stop a car thief. Life is all about choices. My dad and brother made the wrong ones. Just like Melissa, I have a choice in how I let this all affect me. Melissa and I thank each other for the time, wish one another the best, and separate.
On the walk back, I wait for my mom at her car. Fifteen minutes pass before she shows up. Her hands are in her pockets, her chin and nose are buried beneath a scarf my dad gave her. She’s getting her keys out when she looks up and sees me. She’s surprised.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hi,” She says.
“I saw Melissa,” I say.
“How is she?”
“She said she wanted closure. That’s why she was seeing me.”
“Closure?” My mom asks.
“Where’d you park?”
I point down the road, and my mom nods. Silence follows for a few seconds, and I want to tell her that I know it must be hard to be a widow and have a dead son, but I can’t bring myself to say the words. I don’t know where she is on her journey.
She breaks the silence by asking something I’ve been waiting to hear for a long time, “Do you want to go see a movie?”
In the background, over her shoulder, I can see the distant glow of the tree lights. The lit-up gnarled branches carve through the sky, reaching high and wide.
I smile and tell her I would love to see a movie.
She suggests that she drive to the theater and that we pick up my car afterward. I like this idea because I feel that once we’re inside the car, we’re going to talk.
She unlocks the doors, and we both get in.
Now the tree’s glow is visible to both of us through her windshield.
“That’s a beautiful tree.” She says, “It’s seen it all, and it keeps going.”