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.


*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?)

Sand and Music

The fairies are at work on the farm at this time of year.  I am grateful for the renewal of spring, when I am surprised by all of last year’s plantings and those from years past, by the reminders of the new life as the year, however challenging or joyous it may have been, completes it’s circle only to begin another turn.

“It keeps changing fast, and it don’t last for long.”

My mom loved the water.  We traveled the country for many summers in our state-of-the-art Coachmen RV, visiting the classic American tourist spots from coast to coast.  We loved riding the horse  trails, panning for gold, and visiting Opryland.  Our adventures, as the driving, were endless.  My mom listened to Elvis across a vast majority of the miles, but (perhaps at the hands of my dad) there was also music from the John Denver 8-track, which was my favorite.  I felt as though the songs were written just for us, as I, along with one cousin or another, jumped on the bed at my aunt’s lake house and roasted marshmallows with my brother and sister at the Yogi Bear campground.  Mom was happiest, though, walking on the sandy beaches of the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Ocean.  We were along for the ride, which was a great one, but the high tide, the starfish, and the shimmer of the sun in the ocean waves filled my mother’s soul.

We grew up, and the camper was sold in favor of more practical adventures such as college tuition and wedding expenses.

“Someday,” my mom would say, looking at old vacation pictures which surely brought back more than thoughts of sandpipers and sun.

If you long to do something, you must find a way.

When my college roommate and I were young mothers at home, we both bought bread machines at the same time.  I still have the recipe cards that she shared with me: Honey Wheat Bread and Apple Spice Bread, among others, especially endearing as they are handwritten, and I cannot look at them without thinking of her and of the life carving impact that she had on me as together we crossed the threshold to our adult lives.  

Just a handful of times have I seen my college roommate in recent decades, and my bread machine had long since been retired to a remote basement shelf.  

Led recently by a friend to do more scratch baking, I have been making our family’s sandwich bread.  To accomplish this, to mix the bread dough, I have resurrected the bread machine that had been used nearly daily for the course of several years during my early motherhood.

The dough cycle takes about two and a half hours, which seems just enough time for me to forget that I am making bread in the first place.  

At the end of the cycle, eight faint beeps can be heard.  If I neglect to take out the pan right away, the dough will keep rising over the edge of the pan, spilling into the heat mechanism and causing all sorts of trouble that does not result in sandwich bread.  If I respond to that tiny signal just as it calls, though, just at the right moment, the dough will be perfect for baking into two golden loaves to fill the bellies of my family.

If I don’t hear the sound, it’s like it never happened in the first place.  The window, the opportunity is lost.

I have to pay attention.

“And they say that he got crazy once and tried to touch the sun.”

I am grateful for one more chance to visit the ducks at the lagoon, to throw rocks into the waterfall under the bridge, and to be transported back to 1986 by the smell of the mingling of library books, musty furniture, and strong coffee which greets me as I open the door to the music building.  A great advantage to living at the edge of your college campus as an adult is that you know the best places for picnics, you remember where the soda machines are, and you are able to navigate, even with a stroller, to the bathrooms in the university buildings.  

We heard the sound of drumbeats as we passed by Still Gym on our way back from our circle around the lagoon.  Today, we could wait, and we could listen, unlike the students who were making their way to lecture halls and dissertation seminars in pursuit of the quickly approaching end-of-spring-semester.

It had turned out to be a bright, warm day in spite of the dismal forecast.

As we passed Gilbert Hall, it became clear that the sounds hadn’t been coming from Still Gym at all.  A group of students were practicing their music just beyond where we had parked.  We paused to take in this unexpected gift, which minutes before had been a bit of a mystery.  Up close, we could see and feel the passion and rhythm that had once been just background music.

With a greater level of awareness, we wonder how it could have been anything else.  When we think we have arrived, we may have only begun the journey.

“His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand…”

The springtime is no subtle beep, but rather a magical burst life, of new color and fantastic patterns that grow and change on a daily, even momentary basis.  If I fail to make it to the east edge of my property within a day or two, I will find spent magnolia blooms spilled throughout the grass.  I will have missed the skyward flowery burst that heralds spring’s beauty.  

Tomorrow, despite the expected rain and gloom, I am going to cut some lilac flowers and take in the gifts before me.

“Now his life is full of wonder, but his heart still knows some fear of a simple thing he cannot comprehend.”

I understand why my dad took my mom to the ocean.  It was time, and he couldn’t miss it.  The music was beautiful.  The songs were not from Elvis this time, or even John Denver.  This music was such that anyone would recognize, though it made no sound at all.  It was the music of a longing fulfilled, a soul opening to another, and a gift that can only be given when it’s bearer is truly able to listen.

Song lyrics: John Denver, “Rocky Mountain High”