Tree of Life

He’d thought his father was gone forever, until that magical day in the snowy woods.

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An artist's rendering of a man and his dog looking up at a large tree

A forest of fir trees spread out before me. “Sam!” I called. “Come on, boy! Get back here!” I let out a whistle that pierced the winter morning silence.

My black Lab came bounding through the freshly fallen snow. He stopped at my side and panted, pleading with his eyes for a treat. I pulled a bag from my pocket and tossed out a bone-shaped biscuit. Sam caught it in midair.

We were romping in the frozen fields behind my grandfather’s old house, a place I always came when I felt lonely. I only lived a few minutes away in northern Maine, but returning to my old stomping grounds always felt like entering C.S. Lewis’s Narnia.

The trees’ branches looked like fingers dipped in fluffy white cake frosting, filling the air with the distinct scent of balsam.

This morning I needed to be whisked away. It was the anniversary of my dad’s death, the sixteenth anniversary of the day he left this world on the sixteenth of December, 1996.

My dad had grown up on this land, and he’d often take me over when I was growing up. On weekends in the wintertime we’d pack a lunch and spend all day out here. Dad chopped wood, the stub of his trademark King Edward cigar dangling from his mouth, while I stacked the logs into neat piles.

While Sam played in the snow, I rested against an old rock wall. To my right was a small knoll with a patch of bare ground and the dark stump of an old tamarack tree. A hackmatack, my dad used to call them.

The stump barely showed above the line of snow draped around it, but I could see its rough bark peeking out.

My father and I had once cut firewood together right here on this spot. In fact, we’d cut down a tamarack. My mind flashed back to that day. Was this the stump from the very tree we’d chopped down?

Sam ran to my ankles and begged for another treat. I pulled one from the bag and tossed it to him, then gazed back at the stump. I could almost see my dad standing there, working on the old tree. The memory seemed to come alive for me in the snowy woods.

Sam ran off again, kicking up powder. Up ahead among the trees a figure flashed in and out of sight, fading as rapidly as it appeared, like the flickering picture on an old television set. The fuzzy silhouette came slowly into focus.

Too big to be Sam. It had to be a man, but he was facing away from me and I couldn’t get a good look. A plume of blue-gray smoke wafted upward and formed a wreath around his head. The unmistakable smell of a cigar spread through the cold, fresh air.

The man coughed and picked up something from the ground. A chainsaw, a Stihl 440 Magnum, just like Dad used to have.

As the man bent over, he spotted me. He turned to me and stared.

“Dad?” I whispered.

I wanted to move toward him. Touch him. Say something more. Ask how this could be. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t move or speak. I seemed to be stuck outside of time.

“Come on, boy, let’s get going,” the man said. “Let’s get to work and cut this hackmatack down.”

He moved toward the stump, but now it was a fully grown tamarack tree. He let the weight of his chainsaw drop toward the ground and pulled the cord. The ear-piercing buzz broke the silence as the chainsaw roared to life. The man cut a wedge into the front of the tree, back and forth, back and forth.

He stepped back as he prepared for it to fall safely away from him. He looked again at me, still frozen in place. Was this a vision from heaven? Or just my imagination?

“Well, are you going to just stand there and let the tree nail you?” he said, grinning. “Come on, lemonhead. Wake up!” If this wasn’t my dad, maybe it was an angel doing a perfect imitation.

I walked forward and stood beside him. Watching carefully now, studying every movement of Dad’s arms as he cut the tree down, the weight of my loneliness dissolved around my feet and I felt safe and content. I wanted the moment to last forever.

Together, we watched the tamarack fall to the ground with a loud thud, sending thousands of snowflakes up into the air. A bark made me look over my shoulder. Sam ran back toward us through the snow. He slowed down as he came up beside me.

I expected him to tug at the limbs of the tree, or try to nudge my father into petting him. But instead he simply nestled down beside me and wagged his tail, pleading for another treat. He hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary. I could tell.

I flicked Sam a biscuit and turned back. Now I saw only unblemished drifts of snow. No fallen tamarack. No chainsaw. No Dad. Only the aged trunk of a tree that had been cut down years earlier.

Silence filled the air. Wind rustled the snow in the treetops. Sam broke the quiet with his request for another treat, but the bag was empty. As I inhaled the deep, cold air, a whiff of cigar smoke filled my nostrils.

I walked back to the truck and whistled to Sam. It was time to go back home—with my memories of Dad forever in my heart.

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