Back in January, I watched as a team of men, one in a cherry-picker and several on the ground, took down a trio of huge oak trees.
I called the trees the Three Sisters. Half a block away from my Pittsburgh apartment on the property of an old stone church, they were part of my eastern vista for two and a half years. Their leaves turned glorious golds in October. Pale green fuzz in April whispered spring is rising. In between, their curving bare branches looked like waving arms, flung hair.
Chainsaws had buzzed all morning, but I wasn’t curious enough to seek the source. Then, as I walked on an errand, there it was. Huge limbs stacked, one fat trunk prostrate, smaller limbs being stuffed into a chipper-shredder. Nooooooo! If there hadn’t been so many people around, I might have wailed aloud to someone. To ask why. But no one owed me an answer. I assumed disease, and hoped someone could use the wood, maybe for next winter’s fireplace.
I kept vigil, watching the death from my dining room window. Branch by branch the last tree was delimbed, each piece lowered with a rope to keep it from whacking the stained glass windows. Then a horizontal cut, and the final limb descended, behind the building, out of sight.
Across town, in an assisted living residence, my great-aunt was tired. She had a cold, her nurse and I thought. An X-ray had revealed no hint of pneumonia. She didn’t have much appetite. She had lain down on her bed for a nap after lunch, the same day that the Three Sisters were taken.
She was still napping when I arrived in midafternoon. She roused enough to see me, but wanted to go back to sleep. Her breath sounded shallow, slow. A portable machine funneled oxygen through a tube into her nostrils, toward her normally well-oxygenated lungs.
Seventeen years before, when I lived far away in Arkansas, my household wanted to do something for her eightieth birthday. We settled on bestowing a dogwood sapling, to be planted outside her church. She loved gardening, and flowering trees, but at the time she lived on rental property.
My aunt, her aide and I went downstairs to dinner. No appetite, except for coffee. Her doctor visited that evening and listened with her stethoscope. The left lung sounded congested. She talked with the patient about antibiotics (yes, please), hospital (no, thanks), possible outcomes (silence, then the kind of “thank you” that means both thanks and you can go now). The doctor talked with me about hospice (it might be time).
I stayed with my aunt for a while that evening and tried to reword a question the doctor had started. To open a conversation my oldest relative and I had never had. Some version of “What if this is the beginning of the last decline?” Still, how do you go there? Do you think you’re dying? What do you want? What do you think heaven will be like? We had talked about that one, years ago. But my words were the wrong key for that door, and it did not open. “You can leave now,” she told me.
A little while later, I kissed her forehead and told her I loved her and would see her in the morning.
She breathed her last in her sleep. My oldest relative, the last of my elders, a 4-foot-10 sequoia of influence in my life, felled two weeks short of her 96th birthday.
Months later, across town, a dogwood whispers then wails, spring.