There’s a Japanese red maple tree in my side yard, massive in stature, its normally vibrant, deep red leaves darkened by autumn to a rich purplish-black hue. The tree came to us as a sapling – a gift to my oldest son when he was just a young boy, by a beloved grandfather who would one day betray the grandson he adored.
The tree has weathered much; New Hampshire nor’easters are never a gentle thing, yet the tree persevered and continue to grow no matter what kind of battering came its way. Over the years, it’s not only grown, but flourished, and then a couple of years ago, a particularly treacherous storm almost split the tree in half. We lost about a third of its branches and a piece of its trunk, and I wasn’t sure if it would survive.
Not surprisingly, my son was upset to see what had happened to the tree, not knowing if it would bounce back and one day be able to make it into the yard of his own home, which had been the intent since his childhood. His grandfather, who had grown the sapling from an offshoot of his own large tree, had spoken of how big and strong the tree would be by the time my son had grown and what it would take to transport and transplant the tree at a new home.
My son, who is very much a traditionalist, couldn’t help but be swept away into the vision of having a tree in his yard with roots that quite literally started in the yard of his grandfather – talk about a family tree. And as my son grew, so did the tree. Regardless of his age – and without particular interest in trees, by any means – the Japanese red maple tree was something special to him – as was his grandfather. I would hazard a guess that other than his father and me, along with his late godfather, that his grandfather was the one of the most influential adults in his life. The two had a bond that was apparent to all, and a relationship that meant the world to them both.
In time, my former husband (my son’s father) would have physical issues that would later be diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease and eventually Lewy body dementia, and our lives changed dramatically in response to his illness, his needs and most of all, his behavior. When something like this happens, it can pull a family even closer together or rip it apart. For the most part, it tightened our family connection far more than I ever anticipated – our immediate family at least.
The relationship between my father-in-law and me – and especially my children – changed dramatically. While we all struggled, I think my father-in-law had the hardest time understanding and accepting what happened to his youngest son. He came with his wife to our house, almost every day, while I was at work and the kids were at school, particularly after my former husband could no longer drive. Their focus was primarily on their own son – not my children.
In time, my father-in-law became obsessed with his son’s well being, so much so, that he encouraged and enabled him to do things that he shouldn’t have been doing, and felt as though the rest of us didn’t do enough to help him or weren’t understanding enough. He allowed him to drive when it was no longer safe, and do countless other things that weren’t well thought out. In his grief in trying to deal with how awful his son’s illness was, he lost sight of what was really happening in front of him or what was in anyone’s best interest, including his own.
And what was happening was that he was alienating everyone else, particularly his grandchildren, who desperately needed adults to rely on as their father’s ability to parent lessened with each day. And they were kids, in their teens, in early adolescent, and still in childhood; each of the four at a different stage of their young lives and without the ability to do any more than what they were doing for their father – and what they were doing was pretty remarkable. They were patient, kind, and respectful regardless of what they saw in response each day – and they were far more mature than they should have had to been at this point in their lives.
But it wasn’t enough. Their grandfather resented us all, felt we didn’t care enough, and particularly began to target the kids, and my oldest son; the one who he once couldn’t find a fault with suddenly wasn’t able to do anything right, at least when it came to his father – and it escalated. In time, the strong relationship became little to no relationship at all, with the exception of when there was an issue with my former husband, when he was no longer living with us.
My father-in-law would reach out to my oldest son for solutions, for assistance with problems – and to me as well – and there were many. There was only so much my son could do to help – or to even remotely try to change what was happening since we had so little control over the situations that were constantly unfolding. And as the frustrations grew, so did the frustration and disappointment that my father-in-law had in my son, who was certainly not responsible for any of what was happening. But when someone is in pain, and looking for reasons for blame, scapegoats can come easy.
Had he been able to remove himself even slightly from the emotional impact of the pain he was so deeply immersed in, and turned to my son – or any of us, really – for comfort and support, rather than placing blame, we all would have benefited. My children, and especially my oldest son, needed their grandfather’s love and support as their connection with their father winnowed away a bit more each day and we all lost as one more relationship faded painfully away.
My father-in-law is gone now, and toward the very end of his life, I do believe that he was greatly pained by the additional loss, and made tentative outreach attempts to my youngest son, hoping perhaps to rebuild from there. We’ll never know. His relationship with my oldest son, however, never resolved, and my son carries the pain of that betrayal with him – and still loves his grandfather deeply to this day. Intellectually, I see why things happened as they did, and emotionally, particularly as a mom, my heart breaks for what could have been and what was.
And each morning, I look out my bedroom window at the Japanese red maple, marveling at its beauty and noting the deepening of the red leaves as we move farther into fall. Today, as I walked the side yard with my dogs, taking in the morning sunshine, we stopped beside the tall tree. Its trunk is scarred, yet healed. The tree is majestic in its beauty, reaching tall into the sky, strong and vibrant in spite of what it’s been through. It suffered such a fracture, damage that I thought it would never heal from – and yet, it did. Such resilience allows me to see the possibilities ahead, and I believe, had time been on our side, such a healing could have happened with my father-in-law and my eldest son.
A young boy once toted his watering pail through the yard to nourish a small tree. In time, he played baseball in the yard, fielding balls along the edge of a growing tree. He cut grass around its thickening trunk and raked leaves in the shadow of its deep leaves. He mourned its injuries in the dead of winter, cherishing the memories associated with its inception, hopeful for its survival.
In its strength and brilliance, I see that boy – now a man – in the Japanese red maple. A bit weathered and scarred at the core, yet beautiful with so much promise to come. With care, that tree will make it to my son’s yard, when he is ready to put down stakes and own a home, and one day, I’ll sit under that tree – perhaps with another small boy or girl, and tell the story of how that tree grew to be so mighty.