The Collapse

A tree fell at the office next door to the building where I work.

It had rained hard for much of the long weekend after a drizzle-y week, and the roots seemed to have just sighed too hard and either they or the ground let go. Maybe both.

The once shapely Bradford pear tree fell away from the driveway, the building, and other Bradford pear trees to lay down in the thin seam of grass between that property and the parking lot for our building.

Every day for a week, I watched the branches of this 30 foot tree slowly collapse from their own weight and lack of nutrition. This tree settled first onto its thicker, inner limbs. After a couple of days, the edges of this very round treetop, which faced the windows nearest my desk, had collapsed. Those thicker branches bore the weight of the outer, smaller branches until they could not bear that weight anymore.

For a few scraggly limbs, being pressed laterally by gravity is not so different from being pressed vertically. Those branches reaching high are still almost as tall as the one-story gabled building behind it. But even their leaves had grown pale. The undersides faced the sun in the morning and, without water from the roots, the leaves were scorched, dried out, and squeezed off.

I did not expect to watch a tree die every day. I expected people with saws to come, and trucks, and for a scattering of leaves and twigs to be all that remained.

I expected death to be that way. Surgical. Clinical. A gush of blood or a shot or a nap. A beeping suddenly ceasing. A sudden fall and a swift demise. Surreal in its swiftness but over. For the fear of my own suffering, I think I want it that way. But in others, I think I want a fight, a prolonging, even when it’s clearly almost over. Yet, I haven’t found death to really be this way. I have more time than I think—so much time, no sense in rushing—right up until I don’t.

They are the tree. Or, if there’s an accident, a massive heart attack, a fatal stroke, the tree is me.

The profound suffering is mine, is yours: weight that can’t be carried the only way we have ever carried anything. And now the edges of our life, our family, our emotions are collapsing. Our tender surfaces are exposed. And I see how cut off we can become from all that feeds and sustains.

Then there’s the weight, the crushing, the breathlessness, the collapse.

It’s horrible to see.

You know it’s coming. Sagging skin, brittle bones, dodgy balance, purple welts. Moans. Face so slack you have to strain to see the chest rise. Forgetfulness and fewer filters, if they remember much of you these days. Gradual. Unexpected. Sad. Slow. Mean.

Or you don’t see it coming, except maybe while squinting into the past. Flagging footsteps. Early to bed. Insomnia. Shallow sighs. Hurting eyes. Dropping things. Forgetting to eat. Obsessing over the trivial. Biting anger chased by the inconsolable wretch of sobs.

And when do you call it “over”? When do you say “the tree is dead”? When the limbs are all broken, the roots all severed? When the dying one—person, relationship, friendship, pet, home—has finally lost all it’s leaves? Or when it first falls?

Take a leaf. Squeeze it between pages. It’s coming.

It’s coming, so watch. Don’t turn away. It’s hard to look but this isn’t the first tree that’s fallen in this way and it sits in a line of Bradford pear trees, shapely and tall. You know that Bradford pear trees split. You know they grow too top-heavy and fall.

The others will fall. You can’t stop that.

Park a little farther away from them. Enjoy the reddening leaves, the shade, even the smell.

Witness the end.

Maybe, later, plant another.

3 thoughts on “The Collapse

    • Katie Brookins says:

      Thank you, Steve! I wrote this about a year ago, while processing the most recent of several sudden deaths in my family . Around that time, you emailed me a link to one of your posts and asked so genuinely about my summer that I told you the truth of it. And your caring helped far more than I can express. Revisiting this post in a healthier year has been its own form of catharsis, and I’m so glad that you found something true in it. Thank you.


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