I tell my son each family has a tree.
I pencil lines on a page leading to his father, his sister, me:
“People, like trees, have branches.”
Branches in our tree bow abruptly on one side:
One cracked unceremoniously—it was brittle—
Two committed suicide—snapping off willfully—
Another was in slow decay and was whittled away…
in each, the bark exposed the core.
I know, but do not tell.
I also recall, slowly, with lead, how else it is done:
other boughs break, peeling, cracking, succumbing—
only one splintered edge at a time.
On one side of my hand-drawn sketch,
the angled and slanted lines extend only toward absence—
one generation back from the boy, and the whole already begins to recede,
inching ringless, limbless, toward a well-known cliff.
Completing the halved tree, I tell my son, as I gesture in his direction:
“All families have trees—this one is yours—.”
I wrote this poem while my husband Bob was driving. It was winter. The trees were bare. We had driven to St. Louis from our small town in Illinois for some sort of outing. We were on our way there or on our way back. Our son, Liam, and his sister, Maeve, were sitting in the backseat, likely in a booster and car seat. I don’t remember exactly how old they were, but Maeve must have been under a year or two, given the time frame, and because I hardly remember her in the car.
Liam was talking about family trees in school and maybe had to write one or was at least learning about them and so Bob and I were trying to explain what a family tree was. Realizing it wasn’t quite going over as we tried to orally explain what one looked like, I opened the glove box of the mini-van and searched for a slip of paper and began sketching one out. Let’s see, Bob, me, Liam, Maeve. Now go up one from Bob: Bob’s dad, mom, sister, husband, and their three kids. Then, my side: my parents, me, my two brothers. How do I account for divorce in a family tree? I wasn’t sure. My mother remarried. My father remarried. No additional kids were produced. Okay, I would skip that. Now go back a level. Bob told me whom to put on his side, only as far back as his own grandparents. I went to mine. My mother was a foster child. I didn’t know her parents. I could list my father’s: mother, father, brother, sister. The brother married and had one child. The sister married and had three. I could hardly begin to go one up from there. I strained to recall any of the names of my father’s grandparents, except the nickname of one grandmother of which my father was particularly fond. The more I tried to assemble the tree, the less it looked like any family tree I wanted to give my son.
I showed Liam the tree and tried to explain the branches. “This is your uncle, Paul, and your other uncle, Sean. They were my brothers. This was Papa, my father, you might remember him. He died when you were three. So did your Uncle Sean. Uncle Paul died when I was 18. You weren’t born yet. Here is your grandmother. My mother. She died when I was 23.” Liam was attentive for a short time, absorbing a sense of what a family tree was as he leaned forward with the seatbelt straining against his small chest and me twisted in my seat and looking back toward him. The stark landscape whizzed by as my husband drove the minivan. My boy was staring at the pattern and considering it geometrically, but the names and people weren’t being registered as in any way meaningful. Liam then said, “Got it,” and as young children do, went back to whatever he was doing, playing on some device or other, or fiddling with some object or other, without much care.
I sat in the front seat feeling forlorn and a bit queasy. I stared out of the window at the trees, the smattering of snow still on the ground in patches here and there, the starkness outside the windows resembling what I felt inside. The loss of my family members had happened to me, and yet the later two losses had also devastated my husband Bob, since he had known my father and middle brother well, and had never met my older brother and mother—had only heard the stories of them—but I had never had to fully confront what these losses were going to mean for our children. Maybe I hadn’t wanted to think about it, or maybe I was so consumed in my own grief at first that I couldn’t quite manage the thought, or maybe because such things were currently far from young children’s concerns, I didn’t need to think about it, but that day as I attempted to present what my family looked like when drawn on a page, I was destroyed by what I was handing my son, my daughter.
One of the thoughts one has when one has or wants children and loses a family member is that the child will now no longer have an “X” —grandmother, grandfather, and so on. I was well aware of this. I had had those thoughts when my mother was dying and I was childless. One of the things I had said to my mother through tears while she was sick was that I was never going to be able to give her grandchildren now. Even if I had gotten pregnant immediately by someone, anyone (I considered this), there wasn’t enough time for me to have the child. I had had similar thoughts when my father and brother died when my son was only three, but I hadn’t had to really deliver the news to my son, as he was still fairly intellectually unformed then. He did know Papa was gone, and he grieved for a couple of days, walking through the house asking where he was, since my father was, at the time, living with us, but then Liam just stopped asking. My brother who lived far away, he had only seen a handful of times so he didn’t know to ask for him. These were thoughts that had existed primarily for me, or me and Bob, and were therefore still a part of the loss I experienced, we experienced, the disappointments I had had about the history I would be handing my children, but they were not yet outside of me, existing as a true part of their history, and in this moment in the car, that became more real to me than it had ever before. What I had had to shoulder was something I had to pass on to them to shoulder, though maybe not in quite the same way, without memory of the actual people the names represented, but that burden was not something I had ever wanted them or anyone to have to bear.
The landscape between St. Louis, Missouri, and Quincy, Illinois, where we lived is mostly unpopulated and barren. There are trees, but there are more fields than trees, and it is mostly flat. As I looked out at those trees, the first line of “Phantom Limbs,” then bearing a much lesser title, came to me, and I flipped over that piece of scrap paper and began writing. The poem went through several revisions after that day—the writing process and drafts of this poem I often share with my students since I actually have various versions and didn’t just hit “save” after every revision—but much of it is as I wrote it, overcome with emotion, the landscape rushing by at 60 mph, Bob at the wheel as he always was, and the kids in the backseat.
This must have been somewhere between 2009-2010, since Maeve was born in 2008, when Liam was five and not yet in kindergarten. That tree, the one on my lap, as bare as it was, still had our little unit intact. There we were, on the page, Bob and I married in 2001, Liam born in 2003, Maeve in 2008, and this, not the slip of paper, but what it represented to me, was the greatest gift I was able to offer our children: two parents who loved each other and them fiercely, and had fought hard to have and raise them.
I read that poem now, with its last two lines added for dramatic effect, and am pained. I wince as I read them aloud: “Completing the halved tree, I tell my son, as I gesture in his direction:/ “All families have trees—this one is yours—.” The end dash allows for both the son and the reader to enter the poem, but suggest a quite different mood from the one I actually experience. These lines may make for a better poem, but they are haunting, and almost embarrassing when I stand before dozens of student eyes judging how a mother might say such things to her young son and try to explain how lived experience can become poetry, but must be altered and changed as the piece necessitates. “In poetry, we obfuscate, unlike in memoir, where we expose the core,” I explain.
This poem does not reflect the complicated emotions I experience every time I reflect on passing this halved family tree to my children. I am the one who is haunted, the one wanting to mend the tree, somehow repair its branches, sew them together, glue them, render the branches and the tree whole again. But trees do not heal. There is so much from those lost I would like to pass to the children and strive to, but the deaths of my family members and what led to them are not something I would ever willingly pass to them, nor do I want to offer these truths hauntingly, as in the poem. Trees cannot heal, but they will cover their own injuries, thereby creating the appearance of mending, with new wood. People, too, do this. Sometimes, they also heal by covering their own injuries, as grief doesn’t go away, it simply becomes less present. And just as the limbs that have broken off create “phantom” sensations as though they are still there in individuals who have had amputations, when family trees lose their limbs, the family members who remain are offered daily reminders of the continued presence of those branches. These I do offer my children, with love.
Despite having lost my immediate family, the one I had created was still thriving when “Phantom Limbs” became one of my first published poems. It is frozen in a before time when our little unit, our branch, Bob, the children, and I were as yet unharmed.
When I was 19, my older brother Paul “snapp[ed] off willfully,” committing suicide. He was 25 and was cremated, against my mother’s wishes. A pine tree was planted to mark his spot. (At the time, there was no money for anything more). When my mother died at age 51, I was 23. She was in “slow decay” from the cancer that took her and was quickly “whittled” away by it each day that summer. She was also cremated; she had grown accustomed to the idea by then. My mother had been in the Army, SP 1, so her marker was free, issued by the military, and includes her then married name and her rank. When I was in my late 20s, I purchased a marker for Paul that matches my mother’s Army-issued one, even though they have different last names, since my mother took her second husband’s, my stepfather’s, last name, and only I and a few others would know while visiting those grounds that the two were mother and first-born son. I was the only one of my immediate family to make visits to the gravesite, though my visits have been infrequent since I haven’t lived in the same state since I was twenty. Sean, my middle brother, did see Paul’s once, when he came to see my mother the summer she was dying.
After a cross-country trip in my twenties when I had visited the cemetery and stared at my mother’s spot and the blank spot next to hers, I felt it needed to be done. Paul needed a marker. Enough was enough. It had been too long already. I was still in grad school; I must have charged it and paid for it with student loans. It was for the tenth anniversary of Paul’s death. It was 1998. My father hadn’t done it. Sean, older than me by three years, hadn’t done it. They were never going to—it wasn’t something they cared about, but I did. I had to do it. Being buried with no marker seemed to negate Paul’s very existence.
The one time I went to a family reunion on my father’s side, when I was around twenty and had just moved from Arizona back to New York, where I was born and raised until the age of nine, and where my brothers and father had remained when my mother moved me to Arizona, my father stayed home. I don’t know where Sean was, but he had never had any interest in my father’s family anyway, partly because my father displayed so little. I went with my aunt, my father’s sister, and some cousins, and stood among a hundred people I did not know or feel any familial connection toward. I hardly knew my aunt and cousins, having been out of state for over a decade, but I was curious and eager to create family bonds. I remember little about the event except one bracing moment when all of the bodies and faces zoomed away as on an old television set where, when turning off the knob, the picture was reduced to a single dot before disappearing altogether. That single dot was on a family tree that had been drafted on paper and taped around the room where the wall met the ceiling. I followed it looking for the branch of my immediate family. Finally, I found my father, Frank, and my mother, Maureen, and two lines leading south to their two children: Sean and Deirdre. Paul had no line, no branch. He had only died a few years before, but he had been erased altogether. Or rather, he had never been drawn. There had been three of us.
Paul’s and Mom’s ashes and markers lie side-by-side on that hilltop in Arizona, a place that doesn’t really make sense for either of them, below the pine tree that was planted when Paul died. It’s a serene spot, but hardly tended. When I visit, the grass is typically golden and burnt, the vases of the memorial park tipped over, plastic flowers littering the place. The grass has sometimes grown over the corners of their markers, and I am reminded that that hilltop was never a place they belonged. They are and were displaced people who are now residing in what appears to me a displaced cemetery.
When my father died at the age of 68, “crack[ing] unceremoniously,” he was cremated. When my brother Sean died unexpectedly two weeks later at age 40, an unintentional suicide, he was cremated. These deaths were a few months before my 37th birthday. Their ashes sit side-by-side in my hall closet. Their keepsake vessels, tall and blue for my father, indicating his role in the family, and short and green for my very red-headed and Irish looking brother, albeit far taller than my father in real life, sit in my china cabinet beside the bowl of pine cones from Paul’s tree, and a “beach in a bottle” I made for my mother the summer she died—sand and seashells in a plastic peanut butter jar collected from a Long Island beach near where I had lived during early childhood, where my mother had lived, married to my father, for nearly a decade before fleeing to the desert in Arizona to be near a sibling, a sister. The sand in that plastic jar represents my mother’s “keepsake” ashes to me. Dad and Sean’s ashes for burial are in a closet, as yet unburied, but the literal or figurative “keepsake” ashes for all four members of my family are in the china cabinet.
Next to the literal and figurative keepsakes in the china cabinet there are now three more: a silver one for me, and two identical gold ones for Liam and Maeve. In the closet, next to Dad and Sean’s burial ashes, are now Bob’s. They are not displaced on a hilltop. They are next to each other and they are at home.
When Bob was dying, we had a talk about his ashes. We sat side by side, he in his lift chair and me in my father’s chair, which had originally been my grandparents, and I said, “Do you want to be buried, or scattered, or what?” Bob said, “It really doesn’t matter to me. It’s not about me at that point; it’s about you and the kids. If you need a place to go, bury me. If you want to scatter me, go ahead. I don’t really care.” Reading these words on this page as he spoke them, you might think they were said with anger or sadness, but they weren’t. They were said flatly and were very matter of fact. This was just how we talked, how Bob talked. Bob was a philosophy professor and he truly didn’t care. He wasn’t concerned about his body after death.
Bob wasn’t a religious person, and clearly neither am I, or those ashes would probably be somewhere else. It was our shared belief that death, after it occurs, isn’t about the dead; it’s about those left behind. His sentiments reflected shared attitudes about death we had both come to adopt long before my father and brother Sean died, and echo a conversation I had had with my father years before about his own wishes. My father wanted to be cremated because it was cheaper and cleaner, but didn’t much care whether his ashes were buried, or where, either. He said if we wanted to bury him, there was a family plot, and I could put him there. Otherwise, I could do what I wanted.
For the first two weeks after my father’s death, I had plans to cremate him and place his ashes in his family plot, but then Sean died, and my brother would have never wanted to be in my father’s family’s plot in upstate New York, or on that hilltop in Arizona, and separating father from son somehow seemed wrong, and what would I do with Sean’s ashes once my father’s were buried anyway? And so the ashes of my dad and brother Sean came home to the homestead Bob and I had purchased as much for them as for our own family until I could decide, and they had stayed with us since. The concerns about cremation my mother had had when Paul died, and which I had then supported, were no longer hers when she was dying, though she did want to be buried next to Paul, since he was already there, and those concerns are no longer mine for when I die, either. But now my husband Bob was dying and I was facing yet another decision about what to do about ashes and burial and death.
Bob was dying. He had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in December of 2011, a mere two months after “Phantom Limbs” had been published. He had exhibited no symptoms before December. Bob was 43 when he was diagnosed; I had just turned 42 the previous month. Our children were three and eight at the time.
It was now the summer of 2012. Bob was now 44. I was still 42, having not yet had another birthday, the kids were four and nine, and we were sitting side by side in the living room making decisions about Bob’s death.
I looked at Bob and said, “Oh, come on, I can’t have a closet full of ashes!” I laughed and shook my head. “People think I’m weird already, with Dad and Sean’s still in there,” I said as I gestured towards the closet in the dining room, now Bob’s bedroom, which was opposite the chairs we were sitting in in the living room. I smirked at him and waited for his response.
The ashes in the closet were always on my mind then; I hadn’t felt right about sticking them in a closet, at first. I was just very confused about what to do with them. They were funny, in a macabre sort of way, and I had frequently made jokes about them to others in the five years since my father’s and brother’s ashes had taken up residence, but there was also a deep absence that placed them there. I had moved over thirty times in my life even though I was now living in the house I had lived the longest in—six years at the time of this conversation with Bob. While my father had lived all but the final months of his life in New York, the rest of us had been nomadic. Only my father had had roots, and even those had decayed considerably over time. My brothers, my mother, and I had had no particular place to call home for long, and without a shared place to come from, to call home with a capital H, a place to return, a place where, as Robert Frost wrote in his poem, “Death of the Hired Man,” “when you have to go there,/ They have to take you in,” all of us had come to call home wherever we were standing and trying to temporarily take root.
Bob smirked back at me and said, “Of course you can! You can show people.” He directed his hand to distinguish between various positions of ashes: “Here are my Dad’s. Here are Sean’s. Here are Bob’s….” …And then with a sweeping gesture, he swung his right arm, now bent at the elbow, hand irreversibly curled, in front of him, from the left to the right, and said, “and here are all the ashes of every man I’ve ever slept with!”
Bob leaned forward in laughter, and I did too.
After composing myself, “Alrighty then,” I said, with a knowing, amused nod.
Until Liam and Maeve decide where Bob belongs, or until we can decide as a family where we all belong, I will keep us all at home. Until our branch of the family tree has rooted firmly enough to write a capital H, wherever we are rooted, where we will grow, is wherever we are.
This piece is an excerpt from a memoir-in-progress. The poem “Phantom Limbs” was first published in the Fall 2011 issue of Boston Literary Magazine.