We dug the hole and laid the tree gently in. With our bare hands Dad and I firmed the soil around it. I remember my Dad next to me. We placed it in the midst of a land that had experienced tremendous pain, the land of my late-aunt, Elenita.
Her first born died within weeks of being born, then her second-born, Maria Elena, a graduate of Boston College and Babson was diagnosed with cancer and subsequently passed away. Maria Elena had been building playgrounds in eastern Europe with the non-profit organization championed by President James Carter, Habitat for Humanity. This was in the years after the Chernobyl nuclear fallout. Her work with the organization was not far from it. The whole family went through the saga of her long and drawn-out fight and death. It utterly brought us all to the ground in a gut-wrenching, yet beautiful way. There where constant communal prayers that involved Elenita’s and Maria Elena’s friends, special family dinners, and constant visits. The routines of our lives circled around spiritually supporting her through prayer and our presence.
“What are we doing today after school, Mom?”
“We are going to go be with Elenita and pray.”
Maria Elena was special. She had a heart of gold with no guile in it and an ever-ready smile or slice of wit to bring to a conversation. She was a shining beacon in the family. In the end, she fought the cancer for two and a half years and saw it go into remission before coming back strong and wiping her out. She died in late-October of 1994. I believe it was the 24th. I had been woken out of bed at 5:30 in the morning to hear the news.
During this time, Elenita went through a divorce that seemed to last half a decade at the least. Then Carlos, her ex-husband and my former uncle died. I visited him on his death bed in Miami alongside his son to pay my respects. Elena was the Cuban-American version of Audrey Hepburn, full of style, grace, grit, tenacity and confidence. Our lives were in Puerto Rico. You may know this land. It is a Caribbean far-flung province of the United States filled with die-hard American patriots and good people. Her two remaining children, Sarah and Enrique Alfredo, whom I love are still with us. Sarah, my Godmother is now a widow with a young child on the autism spectrum and Enrique… well… Enrique is awesome. He runs his late-fathers low-income housing neighborhoods when he is not in Machu Pichu in Peru or somewhere deep in Nepal off-roading on his mountain bike at blazing speeds.
A few years later, Elenita died. She was a smoker, as was Mari. Now it is just Enrique and Sarah. My own father died two years ago also. I think of the tree we planted. In my heart, it is a new beginning for that land that has long been sold off. The tree, which is in the front lawn, is probably very big now, redefining the arrival into the property and providing shade from the hot, tropical sun. Yes, Dad and I firmed the soil around it and we planted the green tree. It was nothing, but now I see that it was everything. It signified that death
is a part of life. A process of renewal and not something to be feared. Truly, the death of a loved one is hard and the vestiges of pain stay long after the passing away of human life. Perhaps I will never get accustomed to not having my own Dad around. I see how much my life was a part of his. The experiences of my surviving cousins has been even tougher. We have no option but to go ever upward and on though. Coiling into a corner and entering the darkness leaves of nowhere… it leaves us now and here. That is to say, not moving forward, but stagnant as time keeps ticking away and the blessing of life slips past. Enrique Alfredo did not coil away, but sprung back. He is strong from the inside out. Because I know him, I can see deep into his eyes and recognize the pain, along with the joy and the love he still has. A love of growing and spreading forth his branches, just like that tree that was planted.