It was only weeks before the harsh, northern winter blew in when this sapling was planted four years ago. Its trunk was more like a stem, and it stood in miniature compared to the decades-old trees towering nearby. I had wondered if the baby Maple would make it through those first months. The freezing cold and whipping winds of the Detroit River are hard on the well-seasoned let alone the newly planted.
A few months before, I had flown to Canada to see my family and to walk this place in search of the just-right spot to plant the tree - the closest thing to a gravestone in the park where we had scattered my parents’ ashes a few years before. I was embarrassed that I had waited so long to mark the place of their earthly farewell, but the living kept pulling me from my tribute to the dead.
This park —in the border town of Windsor, Ontario —had been my dad’s idea. In his late teens, he, his brother, Larry, and their teammate, Marcel Pronovost had walked here from the boarding house where they lived as junior hockey players with big dreams. The trio had sat on a bench like the one in this picture and looked across the river to Detroit, the city where they fantasized about playing NHL hockey for the mighty Red Wings.
“Do you think we’ll ever get there?” Provonost had asked in his thick French-Canadian accent.
“We’ll get there, alright,” my dad had answered as if he already knew.
And they did. All three became Red Wings and won Stanley Cups.
More than sixty years later, as my father’s life was waning, he asked us to eventually leave his ashes in this place - ending where he began. My mom added her request to be near water, which she had always loved. Eventually, with family gathered, I satisfied both of their wishes. Here.
Several years later, I finally made my way back again to find the just-right place for the park service to plant their tree. I walked the riverfront on a hot August day, and for forty uninspired minutes, I searched and searched. No place felt right.
“Where should it go?” I whispered. “Show me.”
As I walked on, I spotted a bench like the one that was now long gone —where three young hockey players dared to dream. I rested my hand on the back of it and looked toward the river where I saw a statue with two up-stretched hands and a butterfly that made me think of the ones that had come to me for months after my parents died. Nearby was another stone carving — an old man and woman sitting together that reminded me of my mom and dad. I knew this was the sacred spot.
A couple months later, the sapling was planted, though I wasn’t there. Family logistics and then Covid kept me from venturing across the border to visit the tree, plant my mom’s favorite flowers under it, and sit awhile on the nearby bench, dreaming my own dreams. It’s been four years and I still haven’t made it back there.
But just in time for my father’s birthday yesterday, my cousin, Debbie, who lives in the same town, went to the tree and snapped a new photo for me (below). Its trunk is a little bigger and stronger. Its branches reach a little further. I stared at it, longing to stand under this tree that’s a reflection of my father’s life, with small, humble beginnings and determined sites set on bigger things.
The little tree that could.
As I think about all of this, here’s the thing I want you to understand. Loss never transcends to not-loss. Not entirely. Not from my vantage point. It’s always there though it doesn’t always feel as big as it once did. It’s okay to feel it - even many years after it first breaks you open. It’s okay to remember with tears, or joy, or both, or emotions all your own. There’s no right or wrong in this process that’s unique to every one of us. And, it’s okay to stop, to remember, and mark a day with a tree or an ice cream cone or whatever else you want - no matter what someone else thinks about it. Your grief is never subject to their opinions.
Maybe we, in the shadow of grief and loss, are like the tender sapling. Small and fragile at first, with roots no longer deeply planted and a sense that even a slight wind will topple us. But, like the tree, we also grow in this new place, stronger every year, roots extending further - even as winds bend us to our limits and sun sustains us.
We, too, are the little trees that can — standing in the shadow of the trees that came before us and in the midst of the saplings that will follow, marking days like this, my father’s birthday, and the kind of love that never dies.