A gentle breeze tousles my now graying hair. The faint sweet aroma of the meadow clover greets my nostrils, stirring memories. I stand and trace the crudely etched heart carved into the majestic oak’s rough trunk. I recall, though it was long ago, the difficulty carving through the thick bark to keep the letters within it legible.
I cast my eyes upward, squinting as the sun sparkles through the swaying and dipping leaves. There nestled in the tree’s gnarled and twisted branches is the tree house, our tree house, with its weathered wood, graying from the elements and time, boards warped and hanging precariously from rusted nails, defying gravity.
A covey of meadowlarks flits about, chirping as they play, flying in and around my memories.
The memories. It was to this tree house we came to retreat from reality when we were hurting. Lying on its rough-hewn slats, we gazed into the night skies. The twinkling stars, and the full moon’s silver glow, bathing us, while we pondered the unfairness of a teacher, the unrealistic expectations of our parents or an unkind remark made by a friend.
Within this tree house, my best friend Jeremy and I fantasized great adventures. We’d be on a sailing frigate, traversing an ocean, bucking swells and withstanding gales to visit strange new lands. Or on a jumbo jet soaring over majestic mountains and unexplored jungles, lands we would one day rule. The place we played with toy soldiers that conquered evil empires, where we read between the pages of worn comic books of our favorite superheroes, debating which one was the most powerful. I can still hear his voice in my head. “Joey,” Jeremy had said, “Batman is way cooler than Spiderman. He has all that money and besides he’s got neat gadgets.” I remember his words exactly.
This is where stories were fabricated, dreams were dreamt, hopes for a great future were nourished.
As I grew older, it is where I learned about sex; where I had my first awkward romantic experience. Where I fell in love and professed my devotion. Where I experienced my first heart-wrenching breakup. Where with tearful elation we made up. Where my commitment for a lifetime of love and happiness was forged with my childhood friend, Jeremy.
I feel a soft touch on my shoulder, bringing me back. I don’t want to come back—I don’t want to leave Jeremy.
“It’s time, Joseph,” my father says.
I nod assent. I bend down and pick up a jagged sliver of wood lying at the base of the oak. We slowly make our way down the sloping knoll to the small gathering of people standing around the newly dug grave.
“…may you hold him in your gentle embrace and may he rest in peace.” The preacher’s voice is deep and solemn. Somehow it doesn’t comfort me.
As they lower Jeremy’s coffin into the grave, my, our, adopted six-year old son grasps my hand. Tears flow as he looks up at me and cries, “I’m going to miss Poppa, Daddy.”
“I know, Bobby. We both will.” I pull him close. We cry together.
As everyone places a rose upon the casket, I place the sliver of wood next to them. I have said my goodbyes to the man I had shared most of my life with, but have a few more words. With a bowed head, my eyes blurred by tears, I say softly, “I thought it only fair you take a piece with you of where our love began and grew, Babe. God, I’ll miss you. You were my life.”
After the small gathering expresses their condolences and leaves, Bobby, still holding my hand asks, “Daddy, what were you doing up at that big tree?”
“That is where your Poppa and I spent a lot of time, Bobby. We fell in love there. Here, why don’t I show you.” I pick him up in my arms and carry him up the hillside. It seemed like such a big hill back then. The grass was still the same height, but it came above our waists, and we would hide in it sometimes. Now it is knee-high, but still as golden.
We see a flurry of flitting butterflies; hear the chirping of crickets and the lowing of a heifer in the distance, reminding me that this is still farm country. I continue walking, carrying my son, moving toward the sprawling oak that holds my memories.