There is a birch tree growing about ten to twelve feet from our front door. As I step out of our house, it is directly in my line of vision, my eye ever drawn to its presence. I have watched it grow over the seventeen years that we have lived here. Silhouetted against many a different sky, it is now a majestic size, taller than the house and only just about as old. An apparent two trunked tree, which could in fact be two trees growing closely side by side, with beautifully curtained, short, slender branches and wispy, delicately egg shaped, pointed leaves that filter the seasonal sunlight, moonlight and starlight and form a singular crown. Its resinous varicoloured, creamy white patched trunk a visible beacon in the gloaming hours. It allows me play peek a boo with blue skies, cloudy canopies and darkened ink black night skies. It also is as beautiful in a different way when not wearing the bright green leaf of summer or the yellow of autumn. Stripped bare by the seasons. Stripped back to the bark, the branches and the twigs, its’ contours creating a most beautiful dancing almost ethereal like presence.
A two trunked tree growing in a mound of soil that once rested under the foundations of our home. A structurally elegant tree, full of strong fluid movement against the sky. A relatively small earth pod surrounds it, accommodating its’ shallow roots. Providing a home to so much other seasonal growth. Its’ individual understory includes bluebells, brambles, stitchwort, thistles, primroses, and foxgloves not to mention the rich and vibrant insect life, fungi and micro-organisms that it generously sustains. A tree that grew of its own accord, in perhaps not quite the right place. Off kilter with the hedgerow. I imagine that this beautiful tree could be to me, what sunflowers were to Van Gogh, if I could draw or paint. Even without that talent, I get or imagine that I get something similar to the feelings of companionship and solace that Vincent garnered from his sunflowers.
I have a love of this tree, which all my children used to climb, limbs in earnest scrambling, hiding amongst its’ branches. Camouflaged amongst the leaves, feeling like the sky was so much closer. Bridging a gap between here and their lofty there. I have a love of this tree as it has kept me company on many of the sleepless nights after John’s death when I could not allow the presence of anyone else to give me solace. The nights when I would have to get out of the house at four o’clock in the morning and just breathe. Standing in our porch, it and the night skies had a tangible existence. It continues to offer a companionship on my less frequent after-dark forays.
I have an additional love of this tree because I had a conversation with my brother John about it. A fairly mundane conversation about whether he thought the tree presented any danger to the house, if a storm was to uproot it. I can see him, feet planted in our driveway, after the two of us had walked around the sodden winter soaked earth and given the bark a rub. The two of us side by side, inspecting the tree that doesn’t feel like it’s in the ground at all, elevated as it is on its’ earthy pedestal. A determined offspring of some other, older well established birch tree whose tiny one seeded winged nutlets settled and took root in just that spot on disturbed ground. John, calculating the trajectory of the tree fall if the worse was to happen, but telling me what I so wanted to hear, it would be grand. It should miss the house.This seeing of him now, as he was then, is a gift that I increasingly treasure .
Back in the 7th century under Brehon Law in Ireland, trees were classified as Noble or Commoners. The birch tree which lends its name to the first letter of the Ogham Alphabet (Beithe) is a commoner. It features strongly in Irish folklore and Celtic mythology as a symbol of love, new beginnings, growth and was deemed to have protective qualities. Babies cradles were made with birch wood and brooms were made from birch twigs to bring that protection indoors. As October and John’s sixty third birthday came and went, his fourth not here, and we were a Covid household, I found myself wandering aimlessly through the minutes that made up his birth date, grieving for his future and the older man he is never going to have the chance to become. I found myself wishing that his birthday present was sitting, late for the post, on some kitchen surface as was par for the course. I never thought I would have such a longing to buy socks. Instead of socks I find myself gathering a mélange of small items and bringing them from the outside in because they speak to me of John.
I have brought the birch twigs inside,( before I read up on their lore) being drawn to them as I was. I used them last year for a winter bouquet, so pleasing is their architecture. They rest, dry in a vase on the windowsill beside photos of John. An exquisite but poor substitute for the sense of safety and protection and a certainty of being, that his death stripped from me. In every fibre of my being I was certain of John being there, if I needed him. I was certain of him being here even if I didn’t need him. As this year draws to a close, and we come closer to New Years Day, which marks four years to the day since I last saw John, my blanket of grief gets heavier, trailing around me, filling in the cracks and gaps of Christmas festivities. I know its weight by now.
I will forever, associate January 1st with John, it is a significant date in my calendar of living. New Year’s Eve has always had a special place in my heart which has had a nostalgic bent to it since I was a small child. As a child I grasped the “Idir” ness ( or in between- ness) of date. New Year’s Eve, catapults me to memories of the Cork Road and memories of people who have have lit up the way I have travelled. New Year’s Eve is also a day of great celebration, marking as it does the birth of my eldest daughter, twenty one years ago. Great sadness does not negate great happiness or vice versa.
It has been a strange year, no doubt. This time last year we were just entering the lockdown to end lockdowns! My swimming for two at the Guillamenes was out of bounds. The three hundred and sixty five days that have just passed, that bring my days without seeing John to one thousand, four hundred and sixty have been a year of altered living for the entire world. This Christmas season, it is the sea herself, who prevented me from swimming as much as I would like. She has been majestic in the denying of access for days at a time but Christmas swims have been had, proper winter, mind blowing, body numbing cold water swims. Christmas swims with people I love, who made it home this year. So I do not begrudge her show of power and strength, her surges and her swells. I have emptied myself into her time and time again this year past. Time and time again she has replenished me when I sometimes falter or stumble through my life on dry land. I am hopeful that she will allow me to swim out the old year and swim in the new year with a refrain of Auld Lang Syne sung with love to that place between the sea and the sky. The place I look when I need to hope there is a where, a somewhere, where John is peaceful and whole. The horizon, where it makes heartsense to send love to John from here to my hopeful there.
I started this post way back in October in the lead in to John's birthday, with the Bee Gees's tune " How Deep is your Love" on long play in my head. Then we became a Covid household and others had greater need than I, of the laptop and Netflix in their splendid isolation, so I handwrote some of it in my book and went off on tangents. I only got blown back to it in these unnamed jumbly days after Christmas. My previous words getting lost in sweet wrappers, leftovers and copious amounts of tea.
Much, was typed very early one morning when sleep eluded me and I set up camp at the kitchen table with yet another mug of tea, no longer willing to do battle with the bed. After some time writing I stepped out into the wintry dark of the early dawn and looked at my tree and listened to the orchestral wind being conducted through her branches. Then I sensibly decided to go back to bed and rest. When I left the house some hours later to do some messages, there in the porch on the mat by the front door was an twig of birch. My heart leapt. I have never found one nestled in the porch before. I am not above accepting signs from the universe that gift me moments of solace even though I resist. I have to lean in hard to the willing suspension of disbelief. The thought crossed my mind that as I had left the laptop open on the kitchen before returning to bed, it was a possibility that one of my lovely household cast an eye on my blog and did this delicate and generous act of kindness. I am sure though that either way it is a sign. A sign of love. Love that stems from John, from wherever to here and back again for which I'm grateful.
...and you come to me on a summer's breeze
keep me warm in you love
then you softly leave"
( Bee Gees: How Deep is Your Love 1977)
Post-Script - There was no swimming to be had to see out the old but there will be time yet to swim in the new as we get used to writing 2022. Whenever I get in, will be the first swim of a brand new year. You were John, as always in my heart. Windswept, with the glorious thundering waves in the background and wild foaming sea horses racing to break land, I walked the coast road, had a heater of coffee and companionship of love. The consensus amongst us being, that you would have gone home with both flipflops. From here to there with love.