by Charity Singleton Craig
I should have been paying more attention to the puppy–what she was eating, where she was digging, how often she did her business. Instead, as I followed our five-month-old chocolate Labrador retriever, Harper, from one corner of the yard to the other, my mind flitted anxiously through the details of our lives: Work. Errands. Kids. Dinner. Then there was Mom. Those other things I could do something about, but my mom’s situation left me with a continual low-grade sadness I hadn’t been able to shake.
I’d been caring for mom to varying degrees for more than three years now, with the ongoing effects of her stroke continuing to deal blow after blow to her independence … and mine. The declines were gradual at first, an occasional fall, slurred speech, and difficulty planning. But after Mom sold her three bedroom ranch and moved into a two bedroom apartment near me and my family, the declines came more quickly. I thought of her now, slouched over in her wheelchair at the skilled nursing facility where she lives.
The puppy pulled hard on her purple nylon leash ready to go in, but I couldn’t yet. I wrapped my husband’s flannel jacket closer to me and walked toward our lone tulip poplar tree with the resin face I hammered in myself. I ran my hand along the deep ridges in its trunk. Then, without thinking, I threw my arms around it, leaning in and resting my face against the roughness of its bark. I resisted tears as I thought about all the new items on my to-do list recently: Paying Mom’s bills, calling Medicare about an unpaid claim, wiping drool from her shirt, even ironing on labels so the nursing home wouldn’t lose any more of her pants or socks. It can be so lonely being a caregiver, I thought, exhaling slowly into the tree.
This time, Harper jumped, and her leash snapped me back to my yellowed winter lawn and the swirling frigid wind. I squeezed the trunk one last time, feeling bolstered by its sturdiness, and headed toward the house.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, tulip poplars, or, more formally, Liriodendron tulipifera, were once among the tallest trees in the eastern forest, reaching up to 120 feet tall and five feet in diameter. Even now, they are ideal for reforestation because of their rapid growth and commercially desirable wood.
In a small midwestern backyard, though, the tree’s rapid growth makes its wood weak and brittle. I spend hours picking up sticks and branches after every storm. The species also has a low germination percentage, reduced to near impossibility here in our small city where its beautiful green and orange seed-bearing flowers are swept, raked, or mowed before they can break open and sprout. And while the shade from the tulip poplar creates a welcome retreat on summer mornings, its thick roots have severed underground electrical lines, rearranged fence boards, and cracked the pavement of our patio.
Still, I like to think that the tulip poplar somehow feels at home among us, its human and canine family, that it sees the squirrels who scurry up and down its branches like brothers and sisters, that maybe it even feels a kinship to our snowdrift crabapple next to the garage and the neighbor’s sugar maple that creeps a little further into our yard each year. In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohleben describes the ways that trees of the same species are connected to one another and communicate through scents released in the air and chemical compounds and electrical signals spread through their roots. But some trees interact even with their “competitors,” Wohlben explains. They help support other species with whom they would otherwise spar for sunlight, water, and nutrients.
Why? Because “a tree is not a forest,” Wohlben writes. As an individual, a tree is vulnerable to wind, weather, drought, and extreme temperatures. “But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age…. Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible.”
Throwing my arms around the tulip poplar has become something of a regular occurrence these days, as the stresses of caregiving become more intense. I tell myself it’s because being around trees is good for me. We’ve known for a while that trees improve the air we breathe, and more recently, that they strengthen our immune systems and lower our blood pressure. Other studies have shown that being around trees results in less anxiety, hostility, fatigue, and confusion and encourages more positive emotions, vigor, and personal restoration.
But I think the tulip poplar offers me more than that. Just being near the tree has reminded me that my commitment to caring for my mom in her later years is less about my responsibility as a daughter and more about the importance of not being a lone tree myself. I’m part of a community, connected deeply at the roots to family, friends, even strangers who need me. Together, we moderate the extremes of life for each other. For years, Mom took care of me as a child and later as a single adult when I underwent treatment for stage 4 cancer. She helped me paint the walls of my first house and decorate the hall for my wedding reception. She shared her personal resources with me at great cost to herself, and now it’s my turn, “for as long as possible.”
That doesn’t mean it’s not stressful, though. And I have no idea how long the work will be mine to do. Some days I just want to stay protected under the shade of the tulip poplar’s leaves. But with my face smashed against its rough bark, I know I don’t do it alone. Not really.
“Thank you,” I whisper to the tulip polar as the puppy pulls me away yet again. “I’ll take care of you, too.”
Charity Singleton Craig is a writer, author, and speaker, telling stories of faith, hope, and love through essays, articles, books, and presentations. She is the author of The Art of the Essay: From Ordinary Life to Extraordinary Words (T.S. Poetry Press, 2019) and coauthor of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts. She has written for several publications, including Edible Indy, In Touch Magazine, Redbud Post, InCourage, Christianity Today Women, The High Calling, The Curator, Discipleship Journal, Tweetspeak Poetry, The Write Life, Grubstreet Daily, and others. You can find her online at charitysingletoncraig.com and Instagram @charitysingletoncraig or at home in central Indiana, where she lives with her husband and stepsons.