I follow my father to the backyard just as the sun climbs above the horizon. A thick, greasy haze of yellow pollution drifts over from the city. The air is muggy, cold dew seeps into my sneakers. My father’s worn jeans and faded flannel shirt hang loosely on his frail body, drowning him. It’s the first time in ages he has donned yard work attire.
He stops in front of the family maple tree, I mimic him. The tree was planted here a little over four decades ago when my father was born. He never left the property. Its crumpled leaves bear scorch-like marks. The trunk, once earthy brown, and then grey, is now charcoal black. In its feeble branches, wisps of squirrel and bird nests cling precariously to hollowed limbs, abandoned.
When this tree was healthy, in my youth, I raced up its branches or laid in its shade on hot summer days. I watched helicopters spin down upon me. My father would stand beneath it whenever we played catch; his skin tanned a deep caramel color. His eyes would brim with energy as we threw, even after a long day of work. The tree has always towered over the neighborhood with enormous strength and girth. The only other tree in the yard is a young oak.
My father sighs, barely audibly, and trudges towards the shed behind us. I notice a
slight hunch in his posture. His jet-black hair is not as thick and rich as it should be.
He returns with a saw, its teeth somewhat dulled and kneels before the trunk.
Realizing what he intends to do I rush forward. He shoves me away with surprising
strength, the bones of his pale hand digging into my arm.
“Can’t you see it’s sick? Don’t you realize it’s dying?”
“But I can—”
With a growl he whacks into the trunk. The saw slides back and forth, splitting the brittle bark. Soon the coughing starts. Doubled over, panting hard, deep, scratchy hacks erupt from my father’s lungs. I sprint inside and return with a glass of water but he waves me away.
He wedges his way about three inches into the trunk. Face covered in a feverish sheen of sweat, he trembles uncontrollably. As he sinks to the ground, his dimmed gaze holds mine. There is despair in his half-lidded eyes, humiliated defeat in the sag of his shoulders. The determined indignation with which he had clenched the saw seems to evaporate. My father wilts under me, against the poisoned tree.
A few days later I find my father leaning against the window in his bedroom, staring at the work I had finished. The maple now lies in pieces, stacked neatly against the fence. All that remains is its stump. The oak tree reigns over the yard.
I hesitantly approach my father. He turns and gives me a tight-lipped smile of approval and a proud grip on the back of my neck. “Will you leave the stump, son?” He asks.
I nod. We blink back bitter tears.
Melissa Fangio is a student at George Mason University and is working for a Master’s Degree in Education.