Wednesday, February 23, 2011


A couple years ago I learned that the "tulip tree" in my parents' yard is actually called a "saucer magnolia." I'm not sure who started calling it a tulip tree, but I know why: the blooms each February around this time look a lot like tulips...big giant pink blooms with petals that are strong and almost fleshy. Even gangly at times. These are the sort of blooms that a storm can knock off the tree, but once on the ground, it takes a lot to destroy the actual bloom itself. They definitely aren't delicate, that's for sure. They are gorgeous, strong and always seem a bit on the un-tamed, earthy, wild side.

I don't know if I love the tulip tree because it's just beautiful in a unique way that pleases me, or if it's because it always blooms near my birthday, February 26th, or both. Probably both. There's something comforting about it. Every year it blooms. It isn't phased by what's going on in my little life. It blooms, like clock-work, no matter what, every year.

It bloomed the first year we lived in that house, when I was turning 14 and trying to learn to love the United States again after two years of running free in the green hills, snap-shot-fast storms of the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea.
It bloomed the Spring I broke up with my first boyfriend while we sat looking at an impossibly-pink sun set over the little lake.
It bloomed the Spring leading up to my wedding in a small, stone church in the country town we would eventually build our own house in.
It bloomed the February my second daughter was born, only 6 days before my birthday, her eyes huge and calm, even then.
It bloomed the February that my heart broke in two, or felt like I did, the shards mixing with old and new hurt, making a poisonous cocktail I would only be able to drink for six more months before it finally ate away a hole that I had no needle or thread to mend, or even fingers to carry them in.
It bloomed last year, the February that I lived in an apartment as a single mom, oblivious to the hurricane coming mere weeks later that would turn me upside down, shake me like a rag doll and leave me, almost lifeless and barely breathing with only a faint pulse.
And though I haven't been to my parents' house recently, I know, without needing to ask, that it's blooming this February, right now, in the days leading up to my birthday, even as I sit and write in my former-but-now-mine-again house, my husband in the next room, trying not to long too much for redemption but knowing I won't stop wanting it any more than I will stop wanting food.

So much has changed in my life in a space of only two years. There has been tremendous joy. There has been devastating heartbreak. There has been brilliant, shining hope. There has been deep, thick-as-mud depression. There has been startling love I swore I'd never allow myself to feel again. There has been throbbing, aching pain I hoped I could keep at bay by staying in safe, calm waters. Call me a masochist (or a romantic realist) but I find I've wandered off into those dangerous waters in spite of my vows not to and, sure enough, been turned upside down by a wave that wants to steal the bloody, beating, apparently-still-too-delicate heart out of me.

And yet every February, irregardless of what is going on, still water or storm, the tulip tree blooms. The only thing that changes is that the tree gets a bit taller every year and the number of blooms it holds multiplies. Those same blooms fall to the ground, eventually. And every year the gardener comes along and rakes the dying blooms into bags to dispose of. When I lived there still I would beg my parents and the gardener to leave the blooms for as long as possible. After a couple of weeks, a portion of the yard is covered in a blanket of pink that is almost as beautiful as the tree heavy-laden with the blooms weeks before when they were new and still attached to branches.

A few years ago I thought about planting a tulip tree here, in my yard. Maybe more than one. It only makes sense. Then I can enjoy it every day, all February, every year. It never happened.

Then last year I thought I would never live here again and I remember once thinking I was sadly glad I hadn't planted one here, as that would be painful to see when I drove up in the driveway to pick up my kids for my every-other-week with them. One more reminder of a dream that died. One more pang of disappointment that my love story didn't turn out as I planned.

And now, here I am, back in the house. There is still no tulip tree. Not yet. I can't buy a tulip tree for the same reasons I can't look at my wedding photos still, despite the fact that my husband and I are back together and want to be. These are things that rub against the wounds still, I expect for both of us. Sure, we are slowly healing. I have come so far in such a short amount of time, when I think about it.

And yet, that doesn't mean the pain is gone. It's no one's "fault." If I try to look around to find someone to hold responsible for this pain, there is no one face I settle on. Certainly not my husband's.

I look for the tell-tale bloody hands that reached into my chest and ruthlessly yanked my heart out before putting it back on my sleeve; I want to return that still-hemoraging heart back into those guilty hands that deserve to carry it around and listen to its soft-as-silk mewings of weak but still painfully-alive sorrow. I don't see bloody hands except for my own as they helplessly swaddle this heart of mine, its wounds still spitting blood every so often. I anxiously hope that, wrapped up in soft, handmade blankets it will drift into a deep, healing sleep and wake in the morning with bright eyes and a hungry, rooting mouth that I can hastily put on my breast to relieve the aching engorgement in my life. It seems, once again, I'm left to tend to my own heart with the tenderness of a mother. So I have. So I do. So I will.

After all, if we've learned anything this last year, it's to finally, sincerely believe that the other person has done their best, at every point along the way. And in spite of doing our best and in spite of, at each juncture, trying to make choices that will hurt everyone involved the least, we still walked away, wounded. It's like a car wreck; even when it's no one's fault, when all parties are doing their best to drive responsibly, accidents occur. People walk away wounded, or worse. Needing hospital care. Afraid to drive again. Shaken and haunted.

"Sadness is but a wall between two gardens," wrote Kahlil Gibran. That's a bright stone I find myself turning over and over in my hand, rhythmically, until it almost sounds like a prayer. Perhaps where I am today is standing in front of a wall that looks impossible to make a hole in or scale, even with the tallest ladder I can find in the back shed.

When I walk around in this garden, there is a sting when I see hard earth where I fondly remember laying (trustingly...innocently) back in a fairy ring of flowers. There is a twist of whatever that is that twists in our guts when I see a once-green, fruit-bearing tree toppled over, its roots askew the way a dead body's limbs lay in unnatural positions that you have never seen a human in even during dance, love-making or gymnastics. Dry, crunchy leaves still try to climb the garden walls in some last, desperate attempt to escape over and out. There is only the vestiges of what was once vibrant, green, buzzing with bees and fairly humming with the low, almost-indecipherable sounds of  insects walking in orderly lines, the slurping of roots underground as their always-thirsty mouths take what they need for growing, feathered bird wings flap and plump earthworms slowly turn earth over, seventeen pieces of dirt at a time.

Now the wind whips through empty air. Un-used oxygen catches the soonest plane out of town. Birds turn their downy heads away, skipping to some other richer earth in which to drop seeds and build nests and sing. They're not telling this garden's secrets; they're too well-bred for that. But that doesn't mean they are going to raise this year's batch of infants there, either.

There are not tulip trees here. And you know? I wouldn't want there to be. They have no place in this cemetary of dreams. They would find no rich earth with the worms having moved on. They wouldn't grow properly without a nest to weigh one branch down while another branch takes its turn growing. The tulip trees couldn't bloom without the muffled lullaby of fellow growing things escaping through ant tunnels and soothing them into a sweet slumber, dreams of growing teaching it which way to reach and when to stay in the bud and for how long.

Some days I press my ear against the wall of this garden and I swear I can hear life in the low murmurs of voices passing through stone. If I inhale while standing in the far corner of this nearly-lifeless garden, I swear I can almost smell Spring. I know there's life on the other side. A place where my tulip trees can be planted young and naive, properly nursed into adolescense, prompted into the quick adulthood and then endless twilight of tulip trees years.

Is this the year I find the gate that leads into that other garden? Is it finally almost time for me to pull back a dead, hanging vine to reveal the rusty doorhandle I've been looking for...well, nearly all my life, if I'm honest?

I'm reminded of the way things are in this day by the soft moans that come from that swaddled, still-bleeding heart that I so tenderly nurse. Will it ever heal and grow into the babbling, always-in-motion toddler that would run through the doorway and plop right down in the middle of a tulip tree blossom blanket?

There's no guarantee. Not with growing things. You can't get an insurance policy that covers hidden doorknobs or lazy earthworms. You can't numb yourself enough that finding the swaddled babe I'm sweetly suckling for now has died in the night won't level you for another day or month or decade. Growing things must be trusted to read their DNA with aptitude and eagerness. They must be allowed the space that a little blind faith makes for them to fatten in. Green leaves aren't greener because they were told to be. Doorhandles, as well, seem to be rather like growing things in that they present themselves when the time is right, just as surely as a peach becomes ripe and dripping with peach-sugar not a day early nor a day late.

Maybe I will sneak over to my parents' house some night and gather the blooms before the gardener can. Maybe I won't. Maybe I will tearfully ask my mother to pick some from the tree so that I can float them in a bowl of water and candles when no one is watching. Maybe I won't. Maybe I will drive out to a nursery early Saturday morning and buy a baby tulip tree for myself. Maybe I won't.

Each would require various amounts of faith...the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen...because they all say, in different voices, "She still wants a tulip tree."

I pull the still-breathing form at my breast a little closer and whisper into its left ventrical something no one else can hear. It seems to understand and begins beating a little quicker. After all this, it still wants to try again; it still keeps hoping to take its old place in my body...amazing, even after all its been through.

A door. Another garden. A hand-planted garden. A tulip tree. Maybe more. I inhale sharply. Hoping hurts. And yet...I can't help but hope. Maybe that's the piece my friend calls "God." Maybe it's not. I chuckle.

"God, the tulip tree." How silly. And yet that thought causes one tear to slide quickly down my cheek before I can brush it hastily away.

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