I lost a 37-year old pine tree in Irma. Yes. I counted her rings. Quite honestly. I was glad to see her go. I was tired of watching her slowly suffocate. From the potato vine that was creeping up her trunk. With her sap dripping on my patio furniture. She could have fallen a multitude of ways. Hit at least three homes in her wake. But she didn’t. God chose a different path for her. Fences. Two of them. One that revealed a neighbor’s backyard. One I’d never seen. People I’d never met. The hole in the fence revealed a new life. You’d think it would be awkward meeting your neighbors for the first time. Standing on a log. Just hours after Irma made her departure. But it wasn’t. It actually was perfectly normal. Wonderful even. I’m quite grateful for that tree. The one I was happy to see go. As for Irma. I’m grateful that’s all she took.
There’s a gaping hole in the ground where she stood. My tree. All those 37 years. As she rose higher and higher toward the sun. Her loss. The hole she left. It’s nothing compared to the gaping holes in peoples’ roofs. Holes where houses once stood. Holes where prized possessions once lay. Irma created a lot of holes. Throughout the Caribbean. And Florida. My home state. And while the physical holes are easy to see. It’s the holes in peoples’ hearts that may go unnoticed. Holes created by loss. Heartache. Disappointment. Loneliness. Fear. Holes that will never be filled the way they once were. Holes that may remain long after the physical ones are patched.
I witnessed a dreadful thing today. Loss. For me. And another being. Gain. For me. And another being. It reminded me of a big hole already in my heart. Kind of like the one in the brush. Behind my house. Where the tree. Almost as old as me once stood. It was during my normal morning routine. Grading assignments. Sipping my iced coffee. When I heard a thud against my sliding door. More like a slam. A big one. I jumped from my stool. To investigate. And there I found a female cardinal. Lying on her side underneath the Adirondack chair on my patio. Breathing heavily. Clearly in shock. I panicked. FaceTime’d Marge immediately. I sat on my tile. Glass between us as Marge and I watched her recover. She eventually made her way to her feet. Her tiny, wobbly claws. Still panting, I decided to give her another few minutes. To recover. To gain strength. Before venturing outside to give her a little nudge. Sometimes we all just need a minute. You know. To get a grip. Our bearings.
When Marge finally said it was time. I made the short distance from my sliding door to my room. Where an easier access. My patio door. Would allow for a less intimidating approach on the bird. But within seconds. I was engulfed by mosquitoes. At least a million. You see. Irma. Not only did she leave devastation in her wake. She left standing water. Everywhere. The perfect grounds for breeding. I ran back inside. Swatting at my legs. I returned to the tile to plan my next move. Marge still with me. When suddenly. There he was. Simon. One of the stray cats who make home in the brush behind my house. The ones we feed. Simon. My girl’s favorite. The one who lets us get the closest. The one we like the most. I screamed. Jump to my feet. Banged like hell on the glass until I’d spooked him. That Simon. I made a mad dash to the patio door. Marge, too. Just in time to see Simon making the turn from my patio. Through the neighbors iron fence. The bird squealing in its mouth.
I screamed. Repeatedly. For what seemed like ages. Marge still with me. I didn’t have to tell her what happened. She’d already warned me of the cats. That I should go back out. Move her along. But those damn mosquitoes. There’s no way I could have saved her amidst the swarm of those biting creatures. I screamed again. And again. Until I finally gave out. Falling on the couch. Breathing heavily. In shock. Marge no longer with me. You may wonder why the dramatic response. Or if you know me. You aren’t wondering at all. You see. My grandmother. Lorraine. She loved cardinals. Males the most. With their vibrant red feathers. And beautiful songs. One week after her death five years ago, a cardinal landed on the tin roof just below my office window. I’d never seen a bird there. Not once. So I knew it was her. Saying, “I’m ok. And so are you.” And since that day, she shows up when I need her. When I’m confused. Sad. Heartbroken. Disappointed. Lonely. Afraid. Wondering if I’d made the right choice. Then there she’ll be. Saying, “I’m ok. And so are you.” So that cardinal. The one whose fate. Sadly. Ended on my patio. Her death left a whole in a place of my heart. One that has never been filled the same again.
I haven’t stopped thinking of that bird. Her loss. Simon’s gain. And in a way. My gain, too. She’s made me start thinking about my most recent loss. Not the tree. Yet something just as trivial. I wrote about my big day. With excitement. The night before my return to work thirteen weeks after my surgery. Thirteen weeks after Dr. Piper. The man with the mustache. Repaired my defunct TMJ joint and closed me up. During those thirteen weeks, my boss hired someone to fill the hole that was me. A good friend actually. A deserving candidate. But it left me without my job. My title. One that quite frankly, I had grown to love. One that came with high regard in my organization. One I no longer held. And along with it. The loss of prestige. Of greater flexibility. Conferences. Special meetings. And continuous praises of how vital my title was to the organization. And now. After five years wearing that badge of honor. I was back where I started. Same paygrade. Just without the medal. Almost everyone of my peers holding that title sent, “I’m sorry’s.” And, “how could they’s?” And, “Surely there must be a position somewhere.” But there wasn’t. And their messages of condolences. Outrage. Confusion. While endearing. Made my loss real. They confirmed what I feared the most. What I feared others would see, too. I had been demoted. Though technically it was no demotion. It left me feeling that perhaps I was no longer worthy of such esteem.
Now. I must admit something. Very important to the story. Pivotal actually. This demotion released me from an unhealthy situation. A toxic work environment. Management ruled by fear. Threats. And punishment. Almost constant anxiety within. Waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. And it always did. Most often on Friday. The quietest day in our organization. So when I got the call. The apologetically one. Unnecessarily explaining the risk you run with FMLA. I was relieved. The pressure of the last 18 months would be no more. I was free. And even more exciting. I was given choice. To move to any department. Any content. Any area I qualified for. Any. And so I chose a place I’d always been curious about. Intrigued by. A place that would lead me back to my purpose. The reason I became an educator in the first place. An opportunity to inspire. Cultivate dreams. Bring hope. And forge paths for young minds. Ones unable to figure out the next right step on their own. And I was excited. Am excited. Even amidst the loss. Because. You see. The loss. My hole. It created space for new life to grow. One I’m really happy with.
You know. My grandmother. She wouldn’t have been mad at that cat like I was. Simon. She probably would have said something like, “ugh, that damn cat. Always getting into something.” Because she loved all animals. Having been raised on a potato farm, she understood the circle of life. Having grown up in the Great Depression, she also understood loss. Heartache. Disappointment. Loneliness. Fear. And so, had she been with me today. She would have said something simple. Profound though. Something like: Loss is always a part of life. And that bird. She was simply part of a cycle. One that requires someone’s loss for another’s gain. A loss. And a gain. Another loss. Another gain. Old life extinguished. New life begins.
My Irma. That hole. In the brush behind my house. The place where stray cats make home. Where potato vines kill trees. And palmettos reveal Florida’s natural beauty. I wonder what new life will grow. Perhaps another pine. That will spend decades reaching toward the sun. Maybe a palmetto. One that’s been fighting its way. Deep within the root of that tree. Reaching for the light. Whatever it may be. It will be beautiful. As is the cycle of life. The loss of trees. Birds. Fences. Roofs. Homes. Precious items. And titles. They all make way for newness. Beauty even. And while we will struggle in the loss. Working like hell to fill these holes once more. We must look for the joy. Purpose. A fresh perspective. We must listen. Because one thing we can count on. The loss will reveal something we’ve never seen before. And who knows. Maybe it will be the most wonderful thing of all.