It had taken a month to find it, but the local nursery finally had a new shipment of flowering cherry trees; there were only four left when we called and three when we got there. We bought it in the rain and planted it in the sun.
Sitting at dinner, looking out the front window, it struck me. This was not the first, but the second tree that I have planted which is intimately connected to some former students. One tree planted for loss. Another tree planted for memories. One tree of a life that was, another of what lives may be.
He was in my grade 9 English class and I knew his mother, a former fellow English teacher, and his ability to gently navigate the world was evident early. He knew and cared about animal rights, took actions to raise money and awareness on Indigenous issues, climate change, but he got headaches often. One cold day, they called me down to the office and sat me around a table with three or four other teachers and the principal told us. There is no way to understand the news of a student’s death – not then, and not now, some four years later when I had hoped to see him graduate. The school community buckled under grief and the curriculum became life.
His friends decided to plant a tree just outside the windows of my ground floor classroom – something strong and hardy and Canadian – a maple. They called it the Dylan Tree Project and we had a ceremony with the planting. The family came – his two younger brothers hovering close to the legs of mum and dad. I have the pictures snapped shakingly, but have never looked at them. The images exist within replayed in memory. One tree planted to remember a life.
Four years later another group of students are planted in my heart. After school had ended, they gathered under a mature cluster of trees at the park down the street for an end of year celebration mixed with an eighteenth birthday, this group of eight students, myself and another teacher. She opened gifts, they ate pizza, and prepared for cake and games. They asked about my university days; I shared anecdotes, joking about age, and they asked me what was my favourite. Twenty-four marked my sense of self, and emerged as one which often hovers in my imagination. But that is so far in the past now, that numerical age has lost this resting sense. Instead, age feels both apart and separate from the self. They hand me an envelope with cherry blossoms and a gift card for a cherry tree. They know I’ve wanted one, couldn’t find one at a greenhouse, but want me to buy one eventually. They wanted to give me something meaningful and lasting and they know I love trees.
We discovered the perfect location on the front lawn, a sloping spot of ground near the verge of our street, Elmgrove Avenue, visible from the front window. Each move in the planting process was considered – a ritual to prepare the ground with mulch and bone meal, nutrients to feed the tender young roots. A constriction formed and grew in my throat throughout the process and I was grateful for sunglasses. Another tree planted to remember a time that was and what lives may be.