The Cigarette Tree

This morning I woke to dreams of a cigarette tree in my neighbor’s back yard. One of many strange dreams showing up around here lately where hags with stringy gray hair ramble through dark rooms, ogle my sleeping carcass and croon ugly funeral tunes. My neighbor doesn’t have a cigarette tree. I don’t even know what a cigarette tree is. I imagine it, though, the red-tipped, smoking twigs like Camels or Lucky Strikes, or Pall Malls. Not the fancy, filtered kind we puff on now, if we still puff, but the older, stronger ones where, when one smoked them, left flecks of tobacco on the tongue, and on the teeth of swanky women, along with red lipstick and brown coffee stains. Cigarettes are associated with death. So are gray-haired hags roaming through the house in different dimensions, slipping past eyesight, earshot—seeding distrust and tension in their wake.

The only kinds of trees my neighbor owns are deciduous and lose their leaves this frozen time of year. And this year the freeze and blast of arctic Canada arrived way too early. Some years it refuses to come down here at all, but this year it made its way into our homes before Thanksgiving. My ash, my maples, my willows, and aspen dropped their leaves weeks back. And my neighbor’s trees all lost their leaves, too, all except one. It stayed bright orange, even at nine degrees. That’s better than a smoking-twigged cigarette tree, all those bright leaves burning in the cold—one of those colds where a hint of ice is in the air, you can see it, feel it on your lips and tongue, feel it in your nostrils.

What a sight, that bright orange when everything around is steeped in the deep death of early winter. The bird bath frozen, the peonies long gone, the roses turned a rotten shade of gray. I love looking out there at dawn, seeing that tree stand out. And I wonder how it could do that…stay brilliant like a flame in a dying fire in the face of Alaska’s rip-roaring swoop south. Maples just can’t do that.

But then I wondered if it wasn’t a symbol. I like to write poems and in the craft of poetry we deal with symbols—images generated by thoughts of one thing are turned into something else, metaphor, simile, that kind of thing. And maybe the flame-orange maple is a metaphor for something—for the insistence of existence in the face of daunting assaults from nature.  You know, a symbol of everlasting life, the ongoing resistance to time’s passage, that kind of thing. Or it could be my reminder of how life forges on, even in the face of dying and sorrow.

We have some sorrow around this house, this week. Our friend Trisha Pedroia died unexpectedly just before Thanksgiving. She was too young, but often death comes too soon. You know that old saying, “Death is no respecter of persons.” Trisha was vibrant and electric, energetic with her horses, her Sassy dog, her vineyard, her photography, her cowboy poetry and music, and with her friends, too.

But she is gone and there is no way to reverse that. I think that’s what pains the most, that there is no reversal and it also reminds us that we will be in that same set of cowboy boots someday. Maybe sooner than later. And even though I try like hell, I can’t escape the fear that lurks behind that notion. Yes, we’ve lived good lives. Yes, it’s something that happens to all of us.  Yes, it is all part of the process. Yes, they are all waiting on the other side , maybe….

We are faced with the loss of the only thing we can really, without qualification, say we know. Life on earth. And we have now been reminded that we too, are like sheep and pigs and birds and bugs and corn and seaweed. We will die.

And there is another kind of ache that we deal with. That’s the hole unfilled when a close friend dies. Trisha wasn’t always a friend. I knew her late husband Vince first. When he and I found a common link with poetry, we grew close, and Trisha always seemed to be a bit dubious, a bit cautious. But then Vince died, and through all the anguish we shared, she accepted me, us, and a whole lot more.  And “Whoa,” like she’d tell one of her horses, Andy or Red, “Whoa.” When she accepted you, you couldn’t have a better friend. One of those relationships where you know where you stand, what’s what, who depends on whom, one of those relationships you want to be engaged in.

And now that is gone—memories and keepsakes can’t replace it.  Like I said, the hole is unfilled. No shovelfuls of anything will replace it and I think that’s where so much of the grief is centered.

I remember a friend of mind getting killed in 1976 in a gun accident. He was twenty-one, funny, quirky, irreverent. And he was dead. Bam, gone, kaput. “Who shot him?” I asked. “What does it matter,” someone said. And I stuttered to answer that question….”because it hurts, down here and ….” There was a hole, as if the bullet barged right through me and left something that to this day, stings, thirty-four years gone.

At his Rosary, the air was like ten thousand wet sheep pelts and the room was packed with tough Basco herders. They sobbed. Like a full sack of wool on your back, four or five hundred pounds. Pressing the lungs into the heart into the diaphragm into the stomach down into the guts. I thought I’d suffocate. Outside, in the cool wind of Arizona spring, I coughed in huge draughts of night air, the scent of orange blossoms, and fought that need to ball up and petrify.

Later a fiend talked to me, to a bunch of us. Standing there with a Marlboro in the corner of her mouth, smoke circling up, burning her eye, she said, “It’s not that he’s dead. It’s because you have been reminded of your own mortality. That you too, are going to die. Someday, somehow.”

I wanted to reach out and slap her arrogant face, but I bit my lower lip and shut my mouth. Something I’m not too good at doing. Because, she was right. We grieve because we too are mortal.

But there is something else, a deeper grief when we lose people who mean a lot to us. I won’t say people we love, because that word is not specific enough to describe the wide varieties of emotion we can and do have for particular people. So let it be said that we grieve at loss, at the loss of those we will truly miss, whether they die of old age, accidental gunshot wounds, accidents of other types, IEDs in Afghanistan, cancer before their time—death at the hands of Father Time, or their own lack of caring—something like tobacco or smack or hooch.

Let it be said, Trisha is gone. The hags of discard are loose in my house. The flame-orange leaves have now fallen from the maple tree in my neighbor’s yard.

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