by Tom Kelly
Click here for the painting of my tree.
Today at noon I drove over to Foster Park. I try to go there periodically to go for a walk on my crutches. I don’t use them all the time generally for long walks through airports or on the beach. I know if I don’t keep up I won’t be able to do the things that I am use to doing. And as I get older I will need them more.
When I arrived at the park on this crisp sunny fall afternoon, I parked the car, pop the trunk and grab the pair of crutches that I store for emergencies. The crutches are old and a rare design that they do not make anymore. The doctors said I should try the more modern kind. But since I have used this style for as long as I can remember I refused to change. Twenty years ago I traveled to Warm Springs, Georgia where Franklin Roosevelt started a Polio facility and I had them make two pair so I would never be without the style that I became accustomed to. The crutches are attached by black elastic that I put around my neck. My mother came up with that idea.
As I walk down the path, actually more of a road, and nod to other walkers as they pass by, I notice the colors in the trees, the wind and the shape of the leaves as they blew by. My destination is what I called My Tree. It is a large Oak Tree that has been there for a very long time and had not even changed since I was a young boy. I thought it looked like a hanging tree because the branches grew out at ninety degree angles as thick as other oak tree on their own. I wonder if a long time ago it was used to hang a man.
The tree is about a half mile down the road and I always stop and rest at that tree. I actually talk to it sometimes. The tree is mighty. The trunk holds well over 100 large branches as they reach out competing for space and the precious sunshine. Today I appreciate the strength of the tree holding up all the branches. I wonder in a large storm whether the tree would survive. I think it would not. It is getting old and some of the old tree’s limbs have died or been cut off. I imagine it would come down in a gust of wind. All the many other small oak trees would survive since they are flexible but the mighty Oak just might go down.
There are times that I feel like My Tree, supporting everyone around. The weight sometimes becomes unbearable. I don’t have all the answers for all those people that are in their personal storms. I try hard to hold them up. Help them as much as I can, but sometimes there is nothing I can do. I worry that I too may have that storm that will knock me down and others will have to grow up around me.
After thanking the mighty Oak for being so strong, I looked beyond down by the river and remember a story a long time ago when I was barely a teen. It was a cold day in the middle of winter. I left the house filled with 7 brother and sisters, filled with chaos. I was upset and need to be alone, to go for a walk. Heading toward Foster Park I walked across the now snow covered golf course and ended up by the same oak tree on that winter day.
It was not a good time for me at that stage in my life. I couldn’t play sports. I was not popular and I had lost all my friends. About a month before, my best friend taunted and mock me about being weak even bringing up my inability to catch him, and not being able to run. It hurt terribly. This friend whom I would later room with and be his Best Man at his wedding, would also go to become a top executive in Denver at a large Hospital chain. We still call each other and get together when he is in town. But way back then, he stopped calling me as well as most everybody else. I was a pain to be around. I interfered with meeting girls, a young boy on crutches. I was terribly alone. My mind was in a deep place I never knew, a place I try to avoid to this day.
As I walked by My Tree that day a long time ago in the middle of winter, I went down to the river. It was frozen solid with big chunks of ice that looked like big boulders. I stood on the river’s edge and wondered if I could walk across. I was told to never to walk on a frozen river. The water is moving underneath and the ice can be thick in places and thin in others. One could fall in and be swept under the ice in freezing water and surely die. I wondered as I stood there if I could make it across the river. I thought of what it would be like if I broke through the ice frantically trying to find a place to break out looking for fresh air. Surprisingly it did not bother me. It actually sounded so peaceful. It was surreal and calm. I looked around and there was no one in the park that cold day and I took a step out onto the ice. Nothing really mattered anymore.
I stood there on the ice with my crutches balancing me. The ice was holding my weight so I took another step forward and another, not scared. Suddenly, there was a loud crack. I stopped and stood there for what seemed like a long time. Then I thought of my mother. How she would blame herself when they finally found the body somewhere down the river. She would never forgive herself for letting me leave that day, a young boy on crutches in the middle of winter on such a cold day. I thought of my brothers, sisters and my father and I realized I didn’t want to die.
Snapping back to reality a quarter or so out on the frozen river I carefully managed my way off the river’s thin ice balancing the weight on my four limbs hoping I didn’t slip and fall. Once back on shore I walked the two miles back to our house passing by the big Oak. I looked up and admired the tree’s strength and decided I didn’t want to go back to that part of mind again.
By the time I returned to the home with 8 children and two loving parents, my feet and legs were frozen. My hands were numb. My face was bright red from the cold. My younger brothers laughed. But I felt a little bit warmer deep inside myself that day.