Two figures stand under a tree near the Bowdoin Chapel. It is a birch tree or maybe an oak—I am not sure, and it doesn’t even matter. The tree is just beginning to bloom. Its silvery green leaves shudder in the cool May breeze, and its rosy buds are filled to burst with flowers that reach to meet the morning sun and cast stippled shadows across the grass. Families surround me. Parents, siblings and grandparents jostle about to find their children—all grown up and ready to take on the world. There is excited chattering, whooping and shouting. There’s the occasional flash of a camera.
In a whirl of excitement and pride, the figures under the tree embrace. My dad wraps his arms around my sister and kisses her on the cheek. She is the first of his daughters to graduate from college and the only one that he will see do so. I, too, am beaming. I am also holding back tears. I commit this scene to my memory and hold it close.
At the time, I did not know that our family of five would only have a few months left together and that most of those months would be spent apart. That summer, weekly trips to the hospital were a staple. Even as my dad’s own body attacked itself, he looked to a future that we all hoped would continue—a future that had more than enough room for a family of five. I am forever grateful for the hours of car rides we spent together, listening to the Talking Heads in silence. I am grateful for the way in which my parents looped me into the conversation. “What do you think?” they would ask, “What do you want?” I didn’t know. I wanted things to go back to the way they had been. I wanted a future where I would stand under a blossoming tree next to the Chapel, wrapped in my dad’s arms. 2016 saw my hopes for that future run their course with a final breath and the scattering of sunflower petals onto a freshly turned earth.
When I returned from winter break in 2016, the tree next to the chapel was bare. It was highlighted by a dusting of soft snow, and it glowed in the pale winter sunlight—a grotesque, mocking skeleton of warm days long gone. Where two figures had once embraced under its branches and radiated warmth, all I saw was frozen earth and the emptiness of a moment that I would never have.
Bowdoin continued. I went to class. I went to practice. I lost my sadness in bouts of laughter with my friends, and I found it again during those nights when I woke up in tears. In the quiet of my bedroom I found comfort in the low buzz of my housemates going about their days, even as I sat at my desk trying to remember conversations with my dad that could only exist in dreams yet left me feeling the shadow of his presence—a presence that was fading ever further into the past.
Imagine my confusion, then, when the end of the semester arrived and that tree next to the chapel was beginning to bud. I had forgotten that trees could hold color, that the earth around me was still ablaze and brimming with life. I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but I forced myself to recognize and remember warm days and freezing cold days alike. And the weight that had paralyzed me persisted, but it was different. It grounded me, keeping me company even in my solitude.
Every day, I walk past the tree on my way to class. My chest ripples and tightens. A chaotic rush of thoughts winds its way down my spine, leaving my mind either curiously numb or surprisingly clear. Sometimes I avert my gaze and quicken my step, hoping to shake away the feeling. Other times I stop to revel in the feeling. I allow the tide of sadness to curl over me, then begin to traverse the peaks and valleys of calmness that are carved within me, searching for that same warmth that filled me on that May morning. I let that warmth move ever closer towards me, though I know it will never reach me—a cruel joke, certainly, but such things happen.
I continue to hold the image of those two figures under that particular tree close. I am ready for that day in May, where I get to hug my mother and my sisters under that tree. I am ready to remember, to quietly revel in another moment captured and another moment shared.