Climbing Trees

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The spring of 1973 was a pivotal time for me, though I didn’t know it at the time. On the playground that year, I ran as fast as I could to beat all the boys in the relay races. When the boys would rough house around, I was in the middle of the fray as the only girl. I paid no attention to the fact that I was a girl, so why they might was beyond me. I was simply jumping in when someone seemed to be in the underdog position, ready to correct any unfairness in the fights by putting this one or that one in a head lock. I stood a head taller than the boys then, so I reigned over them to keep them fair. We would run down the hill to the crab apple trees that lined the playground and then run as fast as we could back up the hill, all fights forgotten again.

Then, I got viral pneumonia and my days of running and playing ended for a while. I almost forgot how to be a child in those dreary moments of my illness. I remember my mother taking me to the doctor because my cough would not go away. He then told her that if I was not better by the next morning, he would want to put me in the hospital. All I could think about at first was missing school. I wondered who would be winning the races that week.

The coughs that wracked my body felt as though they were ripping my insides out, one lung at a time. Each breath was like fire, and even the shallowest of breaths would leave me with a knife of pain in my lungs. It hurt so much to breathe that for a little while, I thought I was dying. Still, all I longed for was to be running along the grassy hill to the crab apple trees. I looked out the hospital window at the trees outside, and felt the loss as I saw the small birds flitting in and out among the branches.

Then, slowly, I got better, and after three weeks of that, I got well enough to go home. I spent the better part of that summer sitting on the back porch. I longed to run and play like I had before, but I had no energy left. A short run across the yard left my head pounding, and me gasping for air. I remember sitting weakly in a chair on the back porch, sucking on a soft peppermint stick my mother had given me and watching my siblings and the neighbor kids playing in the back yard without me.

I began to look around the back yard more closely. The trees around the chain link fence always drew my attention, and I loved the huge mimosa that dominated the back yard. I could hardly wait to climb it again.

As I regained my strength that summer, I didn’t try to run so much. Something about that intimidated me now. It made me feel weak, not being able to breath and run like I had before. So, I climbed the mimosa when I got stronger. At first I only went up a few limbs, worried I’d fall. As my dizzy spells began to disappear, I climbed higher and higher into the mimosa. It was the biggest mimosa I had ever seen, and I loved the sway of the limbs as I got higher.

Then, while swaying in the topmost limbs of the giant mimosa, I looked up and saw the birch climbing skyward above me. Day after day I thought about climbing the birch … about getting higher than the mimosa and being able to see over the house and out into the world beyond the safety of home.

Finally, towards the end of summer, when the leaves begin to brighten into that lighter green that tells you they are going to be golden soon, I decided it was time to climb the birch.

Bright and early that Saturday morning, I stepped into the late summer heat. I wanted to hurry because my mother never liked anyone to climb that tree anyway. I knew she’d yell at me to get down if she saw me climbing the birch. 
“You’ll fall and break your neck,” she would always say to us. “Or worse, you’ll land on that chain link fence and REALLY hurt yourselves!”

I stuck my toes into the fence to help myself climb up to grab the lowest limb on the birch. I strained to pull myself up into the branches, praying I was strong enough to get there. Once I had settled myself on the lowest branch, I had to sit for a moment to catch my breath, and focus my mind on the task at hand. It was a goal that a few months earlier would never have occurred to me to have any importance at all. Now, I wanted to reach the top.

Taking a few breaths to calm myself, I began the climb upward. I walked the branches that almost provided a stair step to the top. As I got closer to the top, the branches began to thin, and I could see the rooftops of the houses around me.

The tree began to sway with my weight as I got closer and closer to the top. I noticed the small nests in the tree as I got higher, too. I wondered what it would be like to fly easily to the treetops, and I imagined myself as the mockingbird that I often saw sitting in the birch.

As I reached the highest limb that I thought would hold me, I put my back against the trunk and straddled the branch, putting my feet on two lower branches to balance myself. The wind blew stronger this high. I had never known that before, and it frightened me a little as the tree leaned with the force of the wind. I leaned into the trunk and prayed I had not overstepped myself in being so determined to go this high.

My mother’s words were screaming at me at that point. I looked down, trying to see the wicked edges of the chain link fence below. All I could see were the green laced limbs below me.

I looked up at the sky as the sun began to brighten the clouds. The bottom edges of the clouds were adorned in pink and lavender and orange as I watched the sun decorate them. I sighed. Morning had always been my favorite time of day, and moments like this were part of the reason why. The birds were singing, and I felt the wind on my face as I closed my eyes against the sun’s brightness, letting the perfume of the birch leaves drift over me.

Then, I listened …the birds were not all I could hear. Suddenly, I could hear the trees, too … the wind in the branches caused them to sing, and I felt the rush from it as though I had been given new breath. I began to feel the sway increase as the wind picked up. This time, I was not afraid. I felt the wind going around me, whispering in my ear. It spoke to the trees and they answered. I could feel it in the air as I let myself lean into the arms of the birch, held safely at the top where I could see the world when I decided I was ready.

I am not sure how long I sat in the comfort of the birch’s branches, held safely in its arms, but when I opened my eyes, the sun was higher. The day was bright and it had grown warmer. The birds had gotten quieter and I felt the wind quit its whispering. The trees stopped talking so loudly and I felt a sense of loss when the connection was broken.

Until that moment, I had not known.

I had not realized the depths within the branches, nor the sadness I would feel in letting go of the last branch as my feet touched the ground once more. From that moment until we moved the next year, I climbed the birch daily. When my father found out that I was climbing the tree, he just smiled. When my mother discovered my secret, she started to fuss at me about it. My father stopped her. Somehow, without any words, I knew that he knew. He understood why I had to climb the birch and he knew what it was I listened for each day.

Though I am old now and I do not climb trees any longer, I listen to the wind whispering to them when I enter the forest. On especially nice summer days, just before fall comes knocking with crispness in the air, I take a walk just to listen to the trees. I remember and I still learn. I feel the healing in them and though it is not my body that always seeks that tender touch, my spirit benefits from the energy I find there once more.

So, in my dreams now, I am sitting on that top branch, swaying in the birch as the wind whispers to me and caresses my soul with the songs of the ancients. Even now, I listen, when I am not in the treetops, and I hear. Then, I smile, knowing that the secrets of the universe are not lost … they simply wait for us to find them.


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