Music in the Trees
Losing a parent is one of the most devastating and painful experiences we endure...one that deals with anguish, the complexities of love, and the feeling that we have lost part of ourselves. 'Music in the Trees' is a short story based on a woman's experience about such a loss, and her bittersweet journey that leads to an astonishing gift.
The phone rang with an intensity that roused Kate with a shudder. She awoke to find herself gazing into the early morning darkness. Frowning slightly, she wondered who the early caller could be and glanced at the clock on her bedside table. 5:00 am -- too early for my wake-up call. Must be a wrong number, she thought. By the third ring, she suddenly recalled the events of the past several days. Her instincts immediately took hold.
She quickly moved to edge of the bed, snapped on the reading light and reached for the phone. “Hello?”
“Mrs. Donovan? Katherine Donovan?” The man’s voice was unfamiliar, but she somehow sensed that he was about to say something she didn’t want to hear.
“Yes?” Kate felt her body begin to tense.
“Mrs. Donovan, my name is Dr. Steven Miller. I’m on call for your mother’s primary care physician at St. John’s Hospital. I’m very sorry to tell you that your mother, Helen, passed away peacefully due to heart failure about a half an hour ago.”
Kate froze, saying nothing as she stared into the shadows. For a brief moment everything was surreal...like a scene in a play she was seeing from another time and another place. The curtain would fall within seconds and all would be as it was before. But shock and denial quickly gave way to an unyielding force that was the most overwhelming and painful sorrow she had ever known. Oh no…please, nooo….
She lowered her head and wept in the early morning silence as images of her visit with her mother the night before flooded through her mind.
As visiting hours came to a close, Kate rose from her chair and leaned over the railing of the hospital bed to give her mother a soft kiss on the cheek. “Love you, Mum.”
“Ditto.” Helen's expresson glowed as she reached up and gave her daughter a warm hug in return. Kate was pleased and reassured to feel the strength in her mother’s arms.
Bach's Air on a G String
“Which composer shall it be tonight?” Kate asked. Her mother was an accomplished concert violinist, and Kate would often insert one of her favorite CD's into her portable player before she left for the evening. Although Helen loved the brilliant masters of the classical genres, she would often envision musical arrangements that would bridge modern and classical themes.
“Bach," she replied, smilng. "I’m in the mood for Johann.”
Kate was delighted to see her mother in good spirits. She slid the CD into position, pressed the play button and waved a cheerful goodnight.
Helen's eyes, a clear and vivid blue, sparkled with warmth and affection as they followed her daughter to the door. “Goodnight dear, I love you."
“Ditto…I’ll see you tomorrow,” Kate promised.
“Mrs. Donovan? Katharine...are you all right?”
The sound of Dr. Miller's voice jarred her into the present and the aching realization that she would never see her mother alive again.
Kate spoke haltingly through her tears. “I’m sorry…I don’t…understand,” she said softly. “Her medical team said her recovery from surgery was progressing well and that she'd be able to come home in a couple of days.” Kate felt helpless, but was grateful his sympathetic tone was unlike that of many of the doctors she had met during the course of her mother’s care...informative, yet cursory and aloof.
“I was not your mother’s physician,” he went on. “But after reviewing her file, given her medical history, her prognosis was not very promising. Your mother was fortunate to have reached her late 70's having lived for many years with cardio myopathy, Type II diabetes, and recently colon cancer. Major surgery can take an enormous physical toll on any patient with these medical problems. And it's not unusual for a patient to rally just before they...they pass on.”
Somewhere in the back of Kate’s mind she knew he was right. The surgery had been performed six days earlier to remove a cancerous tumor from Helen's colon. The procedure was risky but after performing the necessary tests, her surgeon and cardiologist agreed that she was strong enough to survive the procedure. They marveled at Helen's progress during her recovery.
“What happened?” Kate gripped the phone as she fought back her tears.
“The nurses routinely checked on your mother. At 4:00 am they found her to be unresponsive, her pulse very faint. They called in the crash cart to revive her, but it was of no use. She slipped away peacefully, quietly. Her heart had simply given up, Katherine.”
“I have to see her,” she heard herself saying. “I can be at the hospital in twenty minutes. Where do I go? Who do I talk to?”
Miller cleared his thoat. “You'll have to hurry, Katharine. Your mother is still in her room and will remain there until you arrive. I will inform the nurses at her station to expect you. They will tell you what needs to be done. Again, please accept our sincere condolences.”
“Thank you, doctor.” Her hands trembled as she hung up the phone. Needing to talk to someone, she reached for the receiver out of pure impulse. Her sister, Jane, lived in San Diego, and the three-hour time difference dictated that the call would have to wait. Kate’s son was a commercial airline pilot who lived in Philadelphia, and he was probably en-route to his early morning flight. She wondered if she should call Uncle Will but quickly decided that it was too early to wake him. Although Helen's brother had been in poor health, he tried to visit her almost every day.
Paul – I must call Paul... She picked up the phone, then hesitated. They hadn’t spoken in weeks. But at that moment, calling him was more than a reflex action...it was the one thing her heart compelled her to do. She dialed his number and waited. The phone rang three times before he answered.
“Hullo.” Paul was drowsy from sleep and irritated at being awakened at such an early hour.
“Paul…I’m sorry to wake you but…” She paused, feeling lost and apprehensive.
“Katie? What’s wrong?” The annoyance in his voice quickly changed to alarm and then concern as she explained the reason for her call. “I’ll be there in ten minutes. Please don’t drive to the hospital. I'll take you there myself.”
She thanked him and slowly replaced the receiver. Gazing down at the phone, she remembered what Paul had said to her the last time they were together.
“Just one more thing I need to say. And then I can leave you alone." He paused, treading carefully. "If you need me -- if you call for help, I will come."
Kate shook her head and took in several deep breaths. She felt confused and numb as if apart from the world. She quickly retrieved some clothing from her bedroom closet, and walked into the bathroom where she went through the motions of changing into a pair of slacks and a jersey pullover. She splashed cool water on her face before running a brush through her hair. To Kate, the sky that had just begun to lighten through her bathroom window resembled a photograph in a frame.
Several minutes later, with her purse tucked under her arm, Kate started down the hallway to the foyer, pausing at the doorway of her mother’s bedroom. Looking across the room she saw the outline of Helen's home hospital bed in the muted light. Mum? She started to enter the room, then pulled back. Softly closing the bedroom door behind her, she began to cry uncontrollably, barely hearing Paul’s car pull into the driveway.
"I let her down, Paul. I wasn’t there for her when she died.” Kate was leaning her head against the window of the passenger door of Paul’s car, staring upward at a leaden sky on a New England June morning. It’s going to rain, she thought. I hope it rains. The rain understands.
“Katie, you couldn’t possibly be with your mother every waking minute of the day or night, and you knew this was going to happen eventually. I know how you’re feeling but I think we need to strive for some clarity here.”
“ ‘Eventually’ is never now, Paul -- never today. It always exists somewhere in the distance...undefined.”
Paul glanced over at Kate and sensed that silence was best for the moment as he drove out of the hospital parking lot. They had spent the past half an hour at St. John’s, and the experience was brutal. He was not pleased with the way in which the nursing staff had handled matters. Helen was still in her room, but so was her new roommate with only the curtain divider to separate them. Kate immediately went to her mother who lay in her bed in complete peace and stillness. A blanket covered most of the length of her body, the top of its satin trim neatly folded beneath her chin. Death had already begun to drain the color from her soft features.
Paul was grateful they had arrived quickly. His heart went out to Kate as she reached across her mother to whisper parting words and prayers. As they were leaving moments later, her roommate had awakened and Kate could see the fear in her eyes. She reached out through her tears and give her a gentle touch and a reassuring smile. Had any of the nurses comforted this woman, or explain what had happened only hours before? He wondered.
“Paul…” Rain had begun to fall, and he neglected to turn on his windshield wipers. Kate pointed to the glass.
“Hmm…oh, thanks hon. I was lost in thought, thinking about the nursing staff and the instructions they gave you. They could use a crash course in sensitivity training,” he said softly as turned on the wipers.
“Yes, I barely had time to write down the information,” she murmured. “I didn’t know the nurses on this shift. Everything happened so fast. It was like being swept up in some dense, bureaucratic haze.” Kate knew their actions were part of everyday protocol. Their modus operandi, she thought grimly. It was designed to avoid problems which might occur if family members displayed too much emotional instability that would interfere with hospital routine. She understood it, but resented it all the same.
“Can we stop at Jasmine’s, Paul? Would you mind?” In the morning light, Kate could see the weariness etched in his face. His work as a navigation software designer often required him to work late hours. He’s working too hard again…how much sleep did he get before I called?
“For coffee? Not at all -- I was just going to suggest that." Paul smiled, reached over and lightly squeezed her hand. Jasmine’s Diner was a popular meeting place that overlooking the harbor.
“Thank you. You’ve been thoughtful and wonderfully supportive.” Her concern for Paul had turned her focus away from Helen, if only for a few brief moments. But images of her mother quickly returned, and Kate fought to control her tears. She lost the battle as they pulled in front of the diner. Paul shut off the engine and reached over to hold her. They sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to the comforting sound of the falling rain.
Walking into Jasmine’s was like being transported back in time. Aside from all of the 50’s memorabilia adorning the walls, there was a jukebox in the corner that played 45’s. The atmosphere was warm and friendly, and they made the best coffee in town.
Paul guided Kate to one of the corner booths. “I’m just going to the ladies room…can you order some coffee for me?” she asked.
“Sure,” he replied. He knew that she would not want breakfast and watched her disappear through a side door leading to the rest rooms.
Once inside, Kate retrieved her cell phone from her purse to call Nattie who was scheduled to arrive at St. Johns at eight o’clock that morning. Although Helen had the ongoing care of the hospital nursing staff, she always made sure that one of her private health care aides was with her during the day. She knew it was the second of many calls she would have to make. The first had been to her uncle from the hospital.
Nattie was deeply shaken when she learned of Helen’s death. “Oh, no…not this woman,” she cried. “Are you all right, Katie? I’m so sorry you have to go through this.”
Kate had barely finished her conversation when the depths of her own grief felt so vast, she thought she would never recover. Death had introduced itself on a personal level that was both swift and cruel. Folding her arms about her waist, she wept as her heart cried out for her mother like a child lost in the darkness. Oh God...please...if I could only have one more day! They had been very close and the loss felt like a raging fire consuming her spirit. It took several minutes for her to finally regain her composure and return to the booth where Paul was waiting, drinking his coffee.
“I’m sorry to be so long. Nattie is coming to the house. I called her from the ladies room. I hope you can come too, Paul,” she said, settling into the seat opposite him.
“Natasha?” He glanced away trying to hide the look of disappointment on his face. “Well, then, you don’t need me.”
“What? I’m sorry, but...” she stopped herself. Why do I always feel the need to apologize?
Paul seemed impatient whenever the subject of her mother’s care arose. He’d often argue that Kate’s life had become a balancing act of juggling her career and personal life with Helen’s home health care needs and doctor’s visits. When her mother’s health began to fail and she could no longer live alone, Kate insisted that Helen move in with her. He had been opposed to the move but Kate was adamant. A nursing home was unthinkable. While her decision eventually ended their relationship, she was pleased they had remained close.
“You know Nattie was Mom's health aide for years,” she continued. "She’s also a good friend who wants to be there. She wants to help. I have to call the funeral home, my sister, my son, the office -- I have a hundred things to do...”
Paul gazed down at the empty coffee cup cradled in his hands, saying nothing.
“We’ll always be...friends, won’t we?” she asked softly.
“Of course,” he replied. But when he looked up, she could see the change. She saw in his expression an unasked question that Kate felt she was supposed to recognize, and then the distance in his eyes when she couldn't answer. His moods still rise and ebb -- like the moon tide, she thought. Even now.
The rain stopped, and Kate looked out of the window to see light breaking through the sky. Shimmering prisms of a rainbow arched downward toward the bay. “Oh, Paul, look…isn’t it beautiful? Nature’s magic symphony of sun and rain; each color stands alone but blends together from a distance.”
“You always said Helen gave you your love of music, and your Dad, your love of nature."
Kate felt a warm tear start to slip down her cheek and quickly brushed it away. “Yes, well, it’s who they were, and the gifts they gave.”
“I think it’s time we get you home,” he said quietly.
“Yes.” She nodded as she gently pushed her coffee aside and closed her heart. “It’s time.”
Kate’s son was her greatest joy. Billy Donovan had grown into a bright young man with a welcoming smile full of promise. Like his grandmother, he was the kind of person who made one feel better just by being there. He had caught the first flight home on Friday when his mother called with the news about Helen. It was Saturday morning and he insisted on preparing breakfast.
“I should be cooking for you,” Kate protested.
“Scrambled eggs have become my specialty,” he said, smiling.
They were getting an early start on a long day that stretched before them uninvitingly. The painful agenda included a meeting at the funeral home to arrange a memorial service for the following Friday, and retrieving Helen’s personal things from the hospital.
Kate arranged the place settings while Billy busied himself in the kitchen. She remembered the last time they were together. It was early on Christmas morning, five months before. The images were clear in her mind. The sun had just begun to edge its way over the horizon and there was a deep frost covering a light layer of snow. Outside, all was chilled and sparkling. Inside, lights shone from her kitchen where warmth and aromas played with the senses. Helen and Billy talked and laughed together like old friends. They shared more than the love between grandmother and grandson; they understood each other perfectly. How the memories seize the heart.
“Mom.” Kate felt Billy’s hand on her shoulder, breaking her from her reverie. She smiled as he placed a steaming plate of toast and eggs in front of her.
“Thank you. I’m so glad you’re here. Does the airline mind you taking this time off?” she asked.
“No, not at all. And I have a some personal time built up."
“So how are things in the friendly skies?”
“You know, Mom, I still love flying those jets. I look forward to it every day.” Despite the fatigue in his eyes, Kate could see the same excitement in them he had as a young boy, dreaming of becoming a pilot.
“When are Aunt Jane and Uncle Ted flying out?” he asked.
“Wednesday. They have to make arrangements for a part-time staff to service all of their accounts while they’re away.” Kate’s sister and her husband owned an interior plant design firm in San Diego. “I just wish she didn’t live so far away…I miss her.”
“Your dad is arriving on Thursday.”
Billy nodded. “He called me on my cell phone yesterday afternoon.” His mother and father had divorced years earlier but had remained good friends.
Before long, they'd finished their breakfast and could no longer avoid the day.
“Where did you want to go to first this morning?" he asked.
“Well…” Kate sighed. “I dread the hospital the most.”
Kate shook her head. “We can talk about it later.”
Billy calmly folded his arms on the table. “Mom…we’ve always been able to talk about anything."
Kate took a long, deep breath and leaned back in her chair. “It wasn’t the night before she died…it was two nights before, late Wednesday evening. I dreamed that she was frightened and called out for help but her voice was so faint the nurses couldn’t hear. I know this must sound quite odd, but I awoke in a panic. I threw some clothes on and drove to the hospital. When I arrived, the nurses told me that she was sleeping comfortably. I suddenly felt embarrassed...I must have looked ridiculous.”
“But you’ve always been intuitive. You sensed something.” Billy’s eyes were somber as he studied her face.
She drew a deeper breath. “At the time, I thought I was being paranoid. The night before she passed away, I took an over the counter sleeping aid. It was about three hours after I returned home from the hospital on Thursday evening. Your grandmother looked so much better. I was relieved she was finally coming home on Monday. In my mind I kept running through all of the things I had to do to over the weekend to prepare. I couldn’t sleep and had an important planning meeting scheduled in the morning at the office.” Kate’s voice broke. “Maybe if I hadn’t taken that pill…I would have sensed something else…maybe…” I should have known…I should have been there, she thought as her eyes burned with tears.
“Mom, there’s nothing you could have done...no way you could have predicted what happened. It was her time. Uncle Will said the same thing last night and he was right.” Billy reached out to comfort his mother, then quickly looked down at the table with misted eyes. He rarely wept and was struggling to control his emotions. Kate caught the moment and put her arms around her son as he cried for the loss of his grandmother and his friend.
Kate spent the next two days taking care of the preliminary service arrangements with her son, while discussing the details with Jane over the phone. Evenings were dedicated to writing Helen’s obituary. Determined to avoid the impersonal style that characterized so many obits, she chose her words carefully when describing her mother’s various achievements in music education and her 52-year marriage to her husband, a research biologist. She wrote of the many active interests they shared, including music and the protection of the environment.
On Tuesday, Kate picked up her sister and brother-in-law at the airport. It was a bittersweet reunion. Like many sisters, even though they were separated by many miles, neither time nor distance could weaken their bond.
Planning the memorial was overwhelming to Kate until her uncle suggested that she plan the chapel service around music. She loved the idea, as did Jane and Billy, and threw herself into the planning. She welcomed the many details; they were her buffer and her friend, and kept her strong. Billy and Jane were her touchstones, as she was theirs. The days were filled with emotional conversations about the memorial. These were their final gifts to Helen. Kate chose the musical selections and poetry; Jane and Ted planned all of the floral arrangements.
On Wednesday evening, Helen’s daughters managed to find some private time together. They settled in the large settee on Kate’s front porch to discuss the final plans for the memorial.
“Sis, I thought we could take some of your beautiful flowers to the site for the scattering of the ashes,” said Kate.
“I love that idea. Where did Mum want this to take place?” Jane asked.
“Her wish was to have them scattered off of Westport Bridge.”
Jane recognized the symmetry instantly. The bridge spanned the heart of Westport Harbor, a lovely, off-the-beaten-path coastal area that stayed surprisingly untouched over the years. They spent many happy summer holidays in Westport while Jane and Kate were growing up. When their father passed away several years earlier, Helen scattered his ashes on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico where they often vacationed in their retirement years.
“Oh, Katie, I think that’s a wonderful choice…very appropriate. That bridge is very close to where Mom and Dad used to launch their fishing boat in the summer when we were kids,” said Jane, smiling through her tears.
“It’s only five miles from the chapel,” Kate replied softly as she put her arm around her sister. “And you’re right…it’s the ideal place.”
“Friday is the summer solstice,” said Jane.
“The longest day and the shortest night of the year.”
“And it won’t rain.”
“Not a chance,” said Kate shaking her head. “Mum wouldn’t hear of it.”
Jane nodded and laughed, kowingly.
As the porch wind chimes spun their songs on the evening breeze, they reminisced between laughter and tears about days gone by and the carefree summers of their youth. Those were cherished seasons...unfettered and uncomplicated by the demands of today's world.
Woodland’s Memorial Chapel was warmly elegant and unpretentious. On the day of the services, sunlight streamed through the windows, spilling onto Jane and Ted’s brilliant floral arrangements -- the most beautiful Kate had ever seen. The memorial was a perceptive and heart-warming tribute to Helen’s life. The minister’s words were smoothly interwoven with musical selections ranging from the Baroque period to the symphonic rock harmonies of Vangelis. Kate, Jane and Billy held hands as he captured Helen’s unique spirit and expressed the ways in which she had enriched the lives of others. Many felt her presence there. “Your mother would have been very proud,” whispered her uncle.
At the conclusion of the service, family and close friends drove the five miles to Westport. They gathered in silence at the center walkway of the bridge. The view of the harbor was magnificent. Kate watched those whom Helen had loved, and who loved her, come together on that warm and sunny afternoon. Each carried a great deal of emotions within, from sorrow to admiration and beyond. They dropped flowers onto the waters below as Billy carefully scattered his grandmother’s ashes on the ocean breeze.
After the services, friends and family drifted homeward and Kate returned to her life of details. As the weeks passed, she tried to break free from her feelings of quiet despair. Unable to make the connection back to everyday life, she took little comfort in her surroundings. She often forgot to return phone calls from friends. Paul called from time to time but did not come to the house. He somehow sensed it was better to stay away, and Kate was surprised that she felt relieved. Being alone was hard, but closing herself off to much of the outside world had become a pattern – one of calm tentativeness that shadowed her decisions and controlled her life.
Kate’s work in human resources management kept her occupied, but she felt as though she was merely clocking time. Although she sometimes composed song melodies, she was unable to move beyond her constant numbness to begin anything worthwhile. Her piano sat in the corner of her living room waiting to be played. Occasionally, she would run her fingers over the smooth mahogany casing and lightly touch the keys. Like a steadfast friend, it never questioned her absence.
Grief counseling helped, but not as much as she had hoped. “Some of us are more deeply wounded than others,” her counselor advised during one of her sessions. “When someone loses a parent who is in their care, someone they are very close to, it’s often like losing a parent and a child at the same time.” Kate nodded but the guilt still echoed through her mind. I should have known…I should have been there.
“You have to let go, Katherine,” her uncle said one day. But Kate was resolute. “We all have a right to spend our down time with life, even with God for that matter. It’s our rite of passage. We each have to find our own way,” she told herself.
The summer dragged on, and relief from the steaming heat and humidity was nowhere in sight. One Saturday morning in late August, Kate felt a strange restlessness – an adrenaline building with nowhere to go. On impulse, she decided to take a drive to Horseneck Beach in Westport. She loved the beach in any season, with its salt sea wind, open skies and rhythmic roll of the waves. Even in the dead of winter she often observed people sitting in parked cars facing the ocean, staring off into the distance. We all head for the water – for nature's liquid infusion, with an irresistible longing.
Rather than take the highway, Kate chose instead the winding country roads of Westport. She lowered her car window and felt the warm air rush softly through her hair as the world passed by in summer hues of greens and blues. Less than a mile from the beach, she sensed a sudden peace and warmth envelope her like a welcoming embrace. Inexplicably the stress began to fade, resulting in an unwinding of tension throughout her body. She felt tranquil and contented – feelings she hadn't experienced in months.
Soon after, Kate found herself at a small bridge that stretched across the Westport River leading to the ocean. A road crew had temporarily blocked the narrow entrance to the bridge. She slowed to a stop directly behind another car and waited for the construction workers to motion them on.
Kate looked to her left and glanced upward toward a cluster of basswood trees near the edge of the road. What she saw held her gaze in disbelief. Their heart-shaped leaves were gently rippling in the breeze, but with flawless, rhythmic symmetry. The small green forms moved rapidly with the melodic precision of musical notes playing a symphony.
This can't be real...no one will ever believe this, she thought. Like soft keys of instruments, swaying, lulling, and drawing her in, the leaves danced on the wind of a whispered song. With each heartbeat she waited for the rustling melody to fade, but the leaves continued to move in perfect harmony with each other.
Ohhh…how I wish Jane and Billy were here to see this. Kate watched, astonished. But she understood the wondrous gift. She knew. “Thank you, Mom, Dad…we love you too,” she whispered as her hand swept away the tears.
Sensing movement ahead, Kate turned to see the car in front of her begin to move forward. The entrance had cleared. Smiling, she shifted into first gear and drove slowly across the narrow bridge. She didn’t need to look back. Sudden images and feelings of Paul overwhelmed her, and a melody began to form in her mind. It was the same melody that sang to her, silently, only moments before. His unanswered question was now beautifully clear, yet unspoken, like words flowing on a page.
Grateful for the beauty of love and life’s sustaining mysteries, Kate waved cheerfully at the road crew as she exited the bridge and headed toward the future. The road ahead was open and free. And so was she.
"The Secret Life of Trees" Tracy Bartelle
© Copyrighted 2013 Genna East All Rights Reserved
More by this Author
Sometimes when worlds pass by our own, they graze the edges before moving on. All that remains are mysteries that linger in the mind.
An alternate ending to Frank Atanacio’s compelling Jenny Camacho thriller; Frank's writing challenge.