“Keep a green tree in your heart and a singing bird will come.”

Chinese Proverb

Raked leaves from a sugar maple

In November, the deciduous trees on our property cover the lawn with a radiant multi-colored blanket of leaves. Each fall, I spend several hours raking them into piles. Then, I haul them to my flowerbeds where they act as nutritional mulch.

Our property was once a strawberry farm and before that, part of a forest. We purchased the land with a small house over thirty years ago but never worked it. Instead, we raised two boys who enjoyed a playground of 4+ acres.

One of our sons was born in what is currently the den, the other nearly so, though complications at the last moment precipitated a rush to the hospital. We commemorated the first-born’s birth by planting a Sugar maple tree. Two years later, our second son’s arrival was marked with a Quaking aspen. Though we stopped at two children, the tree planting was only beginning.

As our sons grew, it became a ritual for the three of us boys to plant a new tree each Mother’s Day. The value of our gift lay in the legacy tribute of a tree’s life. Furthermore, it came wrapped within the comedy of our antics. On one occasion, the boys and I broke a water pipe while planting a Japanese maple. That day may have been my sons’ first lesson in how to swear. Now, years later, it endures as a humorous anecdote in our family history. I like to imagine that tree’s delicate beauty stems from the bile spilt at its christening.

L-R, Maple, Walnut, Aspen

The first tree dedicated to my wife was a white birch. Its multiple trunks and drooping branches now reach 30 feet into the air. Many more followed one at a time, along with random plantings of bunches of Douglas fir, poplars, and Norway maples. Despite the dozens of additions, room exists for many more.

To plant a tree affirms life beyond the boundaries of our short stint on earth. While my cancer causes me to sometimes brood about mortality, the trees I’ve sown connect me to the imperishable wonder of creation. The routine chore of gathering leaves to share with my garden folds me into the mystery of how life everlasting encompasses us all.

Against that backdrop, I attempt to put my disease in perspective. Lately, it stutter-steps: one moment advancing, the next retreating. The cancer, multiple myeloma, seems reluctant. On consecutive visits, my blood labs crept upwards in a telling category. Then, at my most recent appointment, the movement stalled.

Maples in full color

Further proof of the lazy nature of my disease came from a series of X-rays on my pelvis and legs. Pain in my thigh and hip made me wary of advancing cancer. One of the sneaky ways this disease harms the patient is by causing lesions in the bones. Often, someone with myeloma does not know the extent of the damage until a bone spontaneously fractures. This development is not bone cancer, per se; rather, it is a result of the blood cancer interfering with the normal process of bone loss and replacement. Fortunately, nothing was found on the radiological exam but my renewed peace of mind.

Overall, my condition gives me reason to rejoice. I survived the first onslaught of multiple myeloma, much as an old tree endures a lightning strike. Remember, in 2007, the prognosis was five years. Given the status of my disease, its ambivalent nature and my constitution’s ability to respond to treatment, I consider that a poor estimate. No one can say how many years lie ahead. Nonetheless, I think there will be plenty of time to plant more trees.