No Elderberry Tree

“Mom, why are you crying?” His question came from a place of innocence that I feared was about to fade before my eyes, which could no longer contain what I knew.

“Because she loves you,” said the nurse softly, gently, poignantly.

I knew it would be different this time, for so many reasons.

So I’m gonna weep a while…

It wasn’t at all what I had thought. They were words that I had heard, words that resonated and meant something to me. They weren’t even the right words.

Shortly after moving to the farm, we were delighted to discover the elderberry bushes that we had inherited with the land. We learned to make elderberry syrup, elderberry jelly, elderberry liqueur, elderberry vinegar, and, at the urging of Uncle Bob, elderberry pancakes. Elderberries seemed almost magical, promising health and well-being to me and my family in many forms.

I often play a song over and over, for weeks or even months, if it means something to me…if the lyrics strike a chord somewhere inside of me…even if their meaning is far from the writer’s intention. Sam had shared such a song with me; with a line that I had interpreted to include “there’s no elderberry tree….” After the song had made circles through my head, I found out that I was wrong. I had misheard the lyric. I think I needed it to sound just as I had heard it, though, in that space of time. I know there’s no elderberry tree, at least not one that can fix everything. But I think I much prefer to keep believing in the magic.

Oh, the demons come. They can subside.

It was the first time since he had come to us that we had been separated. Every time we talked during those longest and shortest twelve days, he asked if one of the dogs had died yet. He wanted to know how the birds were doing and if the chickens were okay. He asked about the bearded dragon, and even about his brother’s friend’s visiting bearded dragon, whether it was still at the farm. The barn cats, I assured him, were out every night, and the stealthy raccoon had returned with the warmer weather to show up each evening precisely when I replaced the food for the cats. His voice was happy, and he always seemed eager to get back to watching movies and winning prizes alongside his hospital mates.

“I tried really hard to hold in my crying. I only couldn’t a couple times.”

Twelve days.

How could I have known?

This time, I had to enter through a tent where a young woman with mirrored glasses and a mask which nearly engulfed her entire face motioned for me to enter the hospital. From this port of entry, nothing seemed the same. After reporting my child’s name, I was directed to sit on a nondescript, unexpectedly comfortable chair next to the elevator. Voices rose from all directions. Sharp, fast, thick, unintelligible words formed conversations from behind the doors and inside the closets. The glare from the lights bounced towards me in an attempt, I was sure, to flatten me.

These lights, they haunt me like orchids in a graveyard.

Men and women crossed lines before my eyes as they moved to wherever they were going. I wondered if they were coming for me, or if they thought they should be, or if they even noticed me. Time slowed with every breath. I wondered if I would be here again.

I was only for your very space.

I heard a person screaming. A child, not mine.

“Stop smiling at me,” bellowed the child. Then there was more screaming and this time, some very discernible bad words.

The screams turned into the rumble of the elevator. The heavy sounds filled my bones, making them hurt. The doors opened slowly as theater curtains, revealing the towering blue food cart which I had studied previously. Years before, it had been pushed by an old man who leaned heavily to one side when he walked and who always greeted me with his eyes, without smiling. As the cart emerged from the elevator, I saw the same man, leaning similarly, perhaps a bit further, to one side, pushing the cart. I knew his kind soul behind his mask. I heard his voice, though he said not a word.

Time slowed with every breath. I wondered if this would be my last time.

No one could understand all the lyrics: not anyone, ever. How could they?

It’s hard to find it when you knew it.

A masked attendant brought my little boy to me, then, simultaneously announcing that my son’s boots were lost and thrusting paperwork toward me, one piece that she noted was attesting that he had been given back all of his belongings. I wondered about the boots, his muck boots that he wore when we foraged for elderberries in the swampy August dawn.

We stopped at the donut store, because we always do on our way home from this hospital. Maybe it’s our reward for making it out; maybe its meaning is as magical as my elderberry tree, which isn’t really an elderberry tree at all. On the way in to get our donuts, my little boy reached for my hand.

“Mom, you know all those times I said I wish I had a different mom? I kind of regret that.” His words were clear as the sky’s vibrant blue, even through his mask.

Everything that happens is from now on.

Maybe there’s no such thing as an Elderbery Tree, in a theoretical sense. I did make some elderberry jelly last week, because I had more time than usual while the boy was gone. As long as there are still some elderberries in the freezer, though, I am holding on to the hope that one day, I just might find the recipe for what we are really looking for.

XOXO

*Musical inspiration from randomly heard and interpreted (or perhaps misinterpreted) lyrics mostly from Bon Iver (Salem, Towers, Re: Stacks, Calgary) but also from Ben Howard (London) and Keaton Henson (How Could I Have Known?)

re: Peaches

As we pulled up the long drive to my friend’s house, we were greeted enthusiastically by a little girl, the picture of sunshine, wielding a squirt gun and pulling the trigger as she announced that she was giving our car a wash which, indeed she was. We had come to buy a few jars of honey. The elderberries had been harvested for the season, and I needed local honey to make this year’s supply of syrup. We left, escorted out by the sunshine girl, with our honey, and also with a gift of a jar of peaches that had been canned in honey. I loved the way the fruit reflected the amber and yellow hues of the honey inside the Mason jar. I could almost hear the pop of the jar’s unsealing as I imagined how liberating it would be to eat the jar’s contents entirely by myself.

We drove around the back of my friend’s house on the way home, peeking at some of the many, many hives that the family tends. I, too, aspire to be a beekeeper; I hope to harvest my own honey to use for elderberry syrup. For me, the learning curve is great, and so is the accompanying anxiety and self-doubt. I know, though, that’s just how I am.

As I have already spent hours worrying about my future bees, I worry, too, and incessantly, about my children. For those who have come to us through foster care, having already experienced loss, trauma, and a perhaps higher level of chaos than even we have going here, their burdens are great…so heavy for such small shoulders.

Our youngest boy, as with some others who have come before, saves his most challenging behaviors for home. Lately, we have been home a whole lot. The day’s circus act begins long before the time that he has to sign in to his chromebook for school. His teachers and classmates have seen him playing with blocks, doing flips, swinging, and leaving the scene. They have also seen some moments of clarity, when he has retrieved a “brown bear” during the treasured read-aloud, or when he has proudly shown his brother’s lizard for sharing time. When he decides he has had enough for the day, he is done. There is no going back to the screen; at least, I cannot get him there.

Everything that happens is from now on.

I was feeling defeated, sad for a boy who had been through a lot in his small life, and frustrated at the circumstances which are far beyond anyone’s control. When I shared these sentiments with a compassionate teacher, she assured me that we would be okay. I shouldn’t push him to participate, nor should I struggle with this. I should, she said, give myself some grace…which I did.

That made me think about the canned peaches. Once, I did eat an entire Mason jar of peaches, only they were canned in sugar syrup, not honey. They were a gift from a dear seventy-something-year-old coworker at the department store where I worked through high school and when I was home for college breaks. I worked in the “candy and stationery” department; she worked on the other side of the escalator in “china and silver.” When I had no customers, I would sometimes visit Eloise as she rearranged her place settings or unpacked fragile china cups. We shared stories and conversations; she blushed as she offered marital advice (way before that was a thing for me), and I told her of my plans to travel to England (where, she pointed out, many of the china patterns in her department had originated). When I actually did spend a college semester in London, Eloise presented me with a parting gift of garden peaches that she had canned herself. I knew I couldn’t take them on the airplane, though I did consider it, so I ate every last peach before I left.

The other students were settled in with their internships weeks before my position at a children’s hospital had begun. I was agitated, even surrounded by flea markets, eclectic restaurants, and expansive rose gardens, as I longed for my shifts to begin. Looking back, I wish I had been able to enjoy the freedom of idle hours rather than to carry the restless burden of something over which I had no control. Perhaps, too, I could have saved the peaches for when I returned home. But, I didn’t.

I want to be a helper. I want to mend things, to fix what doesn’t seem right. I want to get the jar open. I stood in front of the class of twenty starry-eyed prospective foster parents, designated as “teacher,” when I had so much to learn.

“It’s not about you,” I heard myself say, as I told stories of damaged rose bushes and overturned tables. I wanted to believe that. I still want to.

All your love was down in the frozen ground.

Recently, a therapist gave me permission. She gave me permission, and actually recommended, that I try to release myself from the situation; that I let my child own her own grief, and that I trust that she will work things out on her own when she is ready. So, I didn’t fix it. I had been trying for a few too many years. I would have continued, too, to try, likely to no avail. Rather, this therapist helped me find my place, which is merely walking alongside…not unlocking, but merely supporting as my child uses the key.

Maybe I will know when the time is right to indulge in the honey peaches. For now, I am just going to enjoy thinking about how it will sound when I open the jar.

It’s the sound of the unlocking and lift away. All your love will be safe with me.

*Song lyrics from re: Stacks by Bon Iver

Thank you, my friend, for the honey peaches.