It is summer now, and the tree is willowy, tall, and green. I take strength from that tree, as if its sap and my blood silently, spiritually mingle. It has become our family’s tree of life, the fruit of our community’s compassion and love.
The tree was planted in memory of my eight-year-old son Todd, who was killed suddenly in a shocking accident. Todd was square and sturdy, tall for his age, and he seemed to buck around our home with the energy of one of my father’s bull calves. He was affectionate, stubborn, and bright. Part of me died with him. To tell of my love and life and loss with Todd is a story for another day. This is a story of the love, sharing, and willingness of members of one ward to take the emotional risk of becoming personally involved in the healing of a wounded family.
As Todd’s birthday approached, the first we would mark without him, the pain of his absence became overwhelming. Sometimes I was almost breathless with grief, as if my heart were being pulled from my soul. My other children were coping with their grief in their own ways. Brian would talk; Chad would withdraw. Six-year-old Johanna would draw pictures of Todd, bordered by red hearts. Meanwhile, a dear sister in our ward was quietly mobilizing an entire ward to perform a beautiful act of healing. Dozens of people, some who loved us and others who hardly knew our family, were giving energy, time, and resources to prepare a special tree planting.
As the planned day neared, Sister Shaun Humphries shared the idea with me: “We want to plant a tree for Todd on his birthday.”
“Everyone does. We want to plant a tree for Todd, but we want you to choose the tree.”
Drained by grief and the task of caring alone for three surviving children, I barely had the energy for daily tasks. But partly because I was touched by the idea, and partly because I did not have the strength to refuse, I called the grounds-keeper at the university where I worked. That was the beginning of a small miracle. As we talked about trees, life began to flow back into me. This kind man knew every tree on campus with an intimacy born of love for all growing things.
The first sunny day of spring I wandered the campus to find the trees he had described. It was the first day I remember beginning to live again. I spent hours in the solitary companionship of trees. I learned their names and how they grew. Getting out into the sun, walking in the spring air, and even the simple act of looking up at their leaves and branches renewed me. I explained to the grounds-keeper that I was looking for a tree to plant as a memorial for my dead son. When I asked what he would plant, I felt his instant empathy as he responded without hesitation, “I would plant a mighty oak.”
Yes, the tree must be an oak, strong and stubbornly hardy, a proper symbol for my son. And Todd’s best friend, Allan, who was with him when he died, must be with us to choose the tree. It was the first time Allan had spent much time with our family since we had lost Todd. It felt good to have Allan with us as we wandered through the nursery searching for the right oak. He brought back a feeling of the familiar, and his shoulders filled the emptiness my arms had come to know.
After we had chosen the tree, a dear neighbor seldom seen at church appeared, almost miraculously, with a truck to take the tree home.
On the eve of Todd’s birthday, three brethren surveyed our yard to find just the right spot for the tree, trying to imagine a future time when Todd’s nieces and nephews might play beneath its shade. They chose a spot near the south corner of our home where the tree could gather sunlight as a free gift from heaven, dug a hole, and placed the tree in it.
Soon our yard was filled with dozens of people: families, children, our bishop, friends. One sister brought what seemed like hundreds of colored balloons, anchored by little white baskets. Others brought food for a picnic in the sun. The courage of such acts was remarkable. No one there had ever participated in anything like this before. We had lived in the ward less than two years, and few of those attending had ever been in our backyard. No one knew what reactions there might be.
At first, my ten-year-old son did not want to attend. “It’s going to be like another sad funeral,” he protested, reflecting the fear of some others. But the fear was short-lived, for the air was filled with hope, sharing, love, and life.
The sight was not unlike a dream I had of a reunion in heaven. In my dream, heaven wasn’t vague white clouds, it was rich in color: green grass, blue sky, warm lakes, and beautiful people all connected in love. It was heaven now, in our backyard. We talked of Todd. My father and sister prayed. I shared a favorite poem. Then we sang what has become Todd’s hymn, sung at his funeral in sorrow, now sung on his birthday in healing love:
(Carolyne V. Sandell-Berg; trans. by Ernst W. Olson. Copyright Board of Publication, Lutheran Church in America. Portions reprinted by permission in Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 1985, no. 299.)
Then each of us let go of a balloon. We all looked up and watched those hundreds of colored balloons go toward heaven. We imagined that if others in the valley noticed, they were remarking that something significant was happening. Indeed something profound was happening: a family was marking a beginning of healing, planting a tree of life, the fruit of the righteous compassion of a ward in Zion.