The Memory Tree

By: David Kennedy, Bereavement Coordinator at Hospice Peterborough

Life just didn’t seem to matter anymore; each morning was a struggle – one that John had to do, not for himself but for his family who still needed him.

Since their mother had died his adult children were terrified that he would give up and die too. It was something that he couldn’t talk about because of this fear, so he just pushed it down and trudged on.

Joan, the love of his life, died in March and people expected that he was better now. If he were honest with himself he could never have imagined that this grief thing would hang on the way it has, or as long as it has and wondered if maybe there was something wrong with him.

The holiday season has put increased pressure on John to be what he can’t be – but the expectations are very clearly out there – even if they haven’t been spoken. His kids and grandchildren had told him, not asked, that they were coming this weekend to get things ready for Christmas. Today they were putting up the tree, something John would be more than happy to skip but realized this is an expectation that he probably needs to fill, so here we are.

The house was quiet as everyone else was still sleeping and he used the quiet to open the boxes piled on the floor that contained the tree ornaments. He opened the box marked fragile. It had the special ornaments – the ones that Joan had deemed fragile and significant so she always handled the task of wrapping and putting them away herself with great care. As he opened the box he jumped. It came out of nowhere, he wasn’t prepared for this reaction; the realization that the last hands that handled these ornaments were Joan’s.

Last January, even though desperately weakened by cancer, Joan was determined to carefully pack these treasures away safely and she spent a couple of hours carefully wrapping the glass balls and packing them into this box. 

As John picked one up he could almost imagine her hands gently holding this ball. He realized his hands were trembling and he almost dropped it. He was so close to leaving a note and just running away – telling his kids to do it all – when he felt a hand on his shoulder and a soothing calm come over him. He thought maybe he was going crazy but he swore he imagined Joan’s voice telling him it was okay and to spend some time remembering.

That is what he did, as he carefully unwrapped each of the fragile ornaments, packed so carefully by his wife. He spent time with each one remembering. For some of the ornaments it was where they had purchased it. For instance when they were on a vacation, the beautiful glass pineapple ball from their trip to Hawaii; he laughed out loud when he remembered that he wanted to buy the hula dancer but Joan had threatened to make him wear a grass skirt if he did. He spent a long time with the snow globe bulb they had bought in a Christmas store in Arizona one year when they had gone south for a break. He remembered how they had laughed because the girl that sold it to them, on a 95 degree day, had never seen snow and wanted them to tell her what it felt like. They had pictures on their phone of the big storm that had happened back home only weeks before they left for Arizona, so they spent an hour laughing and talking with her about snow.

Each ornament had a memory; one that he had been afraid of facing but what he discovered was that these memories, while painful were also healing. That remembering the life they had experienced together was a good thing and that to try and forget these memories would be to forget Joan and he wasn’t going to do that.

He lost track of time and it was an hour later when he realized that his daughter and granddaughter were standing looking at him strangely wondering if he was okay. By now his memories were no longer kept inside and he was laughing and crying and talking out loud as if Joan were right there with him and it must have scared them as they arrived at the doorway.

Are you ok Dad?” His daughter asked hesitantly. John looked up with tears and smiled and said reassuringly “I’m fine, oh yes just fine.” He told her to go get all the kids and grandkids and to come downstairs – he had something to tell them.

They all came not knowing what was happening and as they sat on the floor with him in the midst of all the ornaments. He started with the first ornament saying ”As we put these ornaments on this tree I need to tell you the story of where they all came from, and why your mother and I want you to know that all of life is making memories – just so we can have times like this to share.