It's a beautiful evening to sit here on the balcony reading my favourite book of short stories and think about nothing. The ash tree in front is providing just the right amount of shade to keep me comfortable. Soon the setting sun will pass over the tree, making it much too hot to stay out here, so I'll have to move inside. But I'll stay here as long as I can, thinking about nothing but my book and the sound of cicadas buzzing in the trees. As the sun disappears into the horizon, they'll soon quiet down their electric hum and be replaced by the chirping orchestra of crickets that reside across the creek. Where do cicadas go at night anyway, I wonder? Do they sleep in the trees? But they eat trees, right? I guess it wouldn't be the first time I saw some guy spend an evening slurping down sap and flexing for the ladies, only to end the night passed out in his own food. The thought makes me giggle.
I've been doing this a lot lately, just sitting on the balcony thinking about nothing but the made-up stories in my book. I don't want to think about anything, not anything recent anyway. I allow my mind to pry open the memory chest and pluck out some evening from 30 years ago. I'm ok with that. Thirty years ago is fine, or 20 years ago, or even last year, just not this year. I don't want to think about this year.
Being a full-time caregiver for my mother and getting up there in age myself, there's not really much to get excited about in my life lately. Being locked down for the better part of the last year and a half due to Covid obviously doesn't help. My social circle has all but disappeared, so the moments I choose to think about are happy memories - the best memories.
I see a squirrel run with a snack he gathered from under the apple tree and remember the pear tree we had in the garden of our rented home back in the 90s. We had no idea how to take care of it properly, so we didn't really harvest much, maybe about 20 to 25 pears and all mainly from the same branch. The rest were all either rotted or too hard. Most fell to the ground and got eaten by birds and small animals. The rest would get cleaned up with the annual late fall rake of the garden.
I remember how annoyed I was when the one branch with the best pears broke off in a thunderstorm. There were other branches, of course, and the ones closest were maturing nicely. Their pears were good but not as good as those on the best branch, the branch that was now lying on the ground in the garden. I seriously considered attempting to tie it back up but quickly gave up on the idea once I realized how ridiculous it was.
There it is, I did it, precisely what I didn't want to do. I've opened the box for 2021. I don't keep that with the chest of memories. I stuff the unwanted 2021 happenings in a decrepit black box in a dark corner of my mind, separate from the other memories. I don't want to think of those, but now I am.
I go back to reading my book, or at least I try to, but I can't absorb the fiction right now. I get up and come inside. I'm too overwhelmed with reality, an awful reality that I don't want to think of.
There's another broken branch I can't push out of my mind, but it's not on a pear tree I had in the 90s. It's much more recent. It's from this year, and it's in our family. It's as hard as the chair I'm sitting on. It's as fresh as the fresh-squeezed orange juice in my glass, and it's as loud as the goddamn cicadas I can still hear through the open window.
A close family member, my very best friend, was diagnosed with cancer in January and passed away last month, one day after my birthday.
Getting the news of her diagnosis earlier in the year was the biggest shock of my life. Nobody in our family had been diagnosed with cancer before. It was unbelievable. I spent the next few months actively refusing to believe it. Each time I spoke with her as the disease progressed, I still couldn't accept it. She seemed fine; she sounded fine. This can't be happening, can it? In my mind, I knew the truth, that she wasn't going to make it, but my heart kept telling my mind to shut the fuck up.
My eyes are stinging with tears as the reality sinks in once again. It only happens sometimes now, as opposed to every day. I again reach for the memory chest in my mind and pull out a night from 1993. We're at a blues bar with about 20 other friends, dancing to a Colin James tune and celebrating the Toronto Blue Jays back-to-back World Series victories. It's a night I will never forget.
So many nights are stored in that chest, so many of the best times of my life shared with my best friend. The memories make me smile. The monster that tore the best branch from our family will be defeated by the hero that is the memories we shared. I keep telling myself that. I told her that. One day the memories will be enough. But for now, the knowledge there will be no more causes my heart to ache.
I begin thinking of the other branches on the tree, the closest ones, the branches she left behind. They have to be the best branches now. They have to be the ones to endure the punishing elements for the smaller, more vulnerable branches underneath.
It's their time to be the strongest branches. It's their turn to weather the storms of pounding rain, lightning, hail, and howling winds; their time to suffer the sometimes blistering heat of summer, to provide protection and shade for those below. It won't be easy for them. They can see the empty spot from the missing branch above. It's always there, rotting like a festering hole, a constant reminder of what they lost. They can feel the difference every day. The sun looks brighter, blindingly bright, the rain wetter, soggy wet, the hail stings more, like a million needles piercing the bark, the frost burns hotter, frozen hot. They no longer have the protection and shade from their best branch.
One day they will come to realize that the rain gives them breath, the sun gives them energy to grow, and as they get stronger, they'll be better equipped to withstand the punishing hail and blistering heat. One day a new branch will grow near the spot, a vibrant new branch with dark summer greens and bright flowering whites. It won't replace the best branch, but it will be a beautiful distraction, making the crack in the trunk less visible.
They will get stronger, that I’m sure of. I don’t necessarily believe that time heals all wounds, but it does give us more power to accept the pain and carry on. One thing I do know for sure is that the Best Branch would want us to carry on. She told me so.
I want to fix this now, but I can’t. No amount of duct tape or superglue is going to mend the broken branch in our family. No words of encouragement can heal the feeling of loss. We only have the memories now. One day the smiles on our lips borne from those memories will outnumber the tears in our eyes drawn from the loss. Then we can move on.
Until then, I will try to avoid the nasty black box of 2021 and continue to search through my beloved memory chest to reminisce about the good times. But for now, I head back out to the balcony, to hear the distracting buzz of the cicadas, to giggle at my ridiculous vision of them falling face-first into their dinner, and to lose myself in a book of fiction.
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