The Box Collector

I would sit there hiding behind a heap of weeds and overgrown rosemary plants, spending my afternoons watching. People would always come, but on average no more than two a day. When a person walked up to the back of the building and stood at the edge of the descending stairway, I would lift the binoculars that I kept wrapped around my neck and try and get a good look at them. Their shoulders would always be hunched in defeat. Some dressed nice but others looked disheveled. When I got a glimpse of the person’s eyes I would notice the same thing every time. There was blankness, as if no one resided behind those eyes anymore. No matter who they were, everyone who walked to the edge of that staircase would always stop for a minute or longer. They would look down the stairs as if they were staring into an abyss. In those moments I would always feel this uncomfortable sensation come over me because I knew that I would be the last person seeing them alive. I knew that in that moment I could jump out from my hiding spot in the bushes and try and convince them to remain alive, but that was not my role. I was just a spectator and as a result I would always remain in the bushes, waiting for the person to walk down the stairs towards the box.

The city in which I live started the box program a year or so ago, around the time I lost my last job. They started the program in response to the immensely high suicide rate that the city was experiencing. The economic recession was in full swing, banks were swallowing up everything that hard working people owned and jobs were vanishing like mist on a hot summers day. The majority of people who live in my city are middle class people who take great pride in their homes and jobs and when they found themselves without either suicide seemed to become a popular solution. Entire families were killing themselves. At one point it seemed as if everyone was doing it: teachers, electricians, gardeners, construction workers, architects, dentists, chiropractors, therapists, housewives and children. The cost of sending out paramedics and police to the scene of the suicide, hospital and clean up fees were all causing the city to go broke. In response to this crisis the mayor decided to sign into action the box program.

The box program is the cities alternative to messy suicides and to having to pay to send paramedics, police and clean up crews to the scene of a suicide. The program offers individuals the opportunity to climb into a brand new clean white box long enough for someone who is over six feet inches tall to fit comfortably in. Inside the box is a single, complimentary cyanide capsule. There are no questions asked and the individuals final moments can be spent in complete quiet. The person climbs into the box, swallows the cyanide capsule, lays back and then closes the box lid over them. Simple. Every morning city officials come and collect the box and then leave a new one in its place. Bodies are cremated and this is the end of the story as far as the city is concerned. “Everybody Wins,” was how the box program was initially marketed to the general public. For about a year now the box program has been incredibly successful. It seems as if those who want to commit suicide much prefer this method to the more messy ones.

The white box sits against a cement wall in the back stairwell of the cities community center, which was shut down some time ago. The box is on the ground, in the left hand corner and the head of the box is pushed against a locked black door with a sign on it that reads, “Do Not Enter.” Beside the box there is a smaller box of tissue papers and several pamphlets, which offer individuals information about why suicide may not be the best option for themselves and/or their families. On the lid of the box, in bright red letters is written: Please swallow the capsule first and then place box lid on top of the box BEFORE lying down to rest. Thank you.

During my time observing from the bushes I witnessed a few individuals walk down the stairway and then a few minutes later walk back up. I was always glad when I saw this. It was as if the person was getting back something that they almost permanently lost. Their eyes were always bloodshot and filled with tears and they looked as if they were about to collapse. I always wondered to myself why they decided to come back up from the depths. Did they read the pamphlet about suicide prevention and then decide to give life another shot? Or was there someone else already in the box?

It is well known in my city that those who want to participate in the box program should show up first thing in the morning so as to get an available box. The boxes do fill up quickly and even though on many days they are empty way into the afternoon, it is still considered wise to try and get there early. Few things are as disheartening as showing up to commit suicide and then seeing the lid already on the box and knowing you have to wait another day, maybe more. Must be difficult to return home after you assumed you were leaving for the final time.

I would hide in the bushes and observe people participating in the box program a few times a week. I really did not have better things to do. For some reason engaging in this activity added a certain element of excitement and adventure to my life that was not there before the box program. In a strange way I felt as if watching those people gave me a kind of purpose. I would pack myself a bagged lunch, bring a foldable stool and a pair of binoculars and then claim my spot within the weeds and rosemary plants. I would wait there in the bushes behind the community center until I could catch a glimpse of a person who was heading down towards the box. I found it strange that I was so morbidly fascinated by this, so much so that I was willing to spend 4 or 5 hours hiding in the bushes.

It is fascinating to see a person in the final moments of their lives. In my head I constructed a narrative, trying to make sense about what brought them to this point. I was also curious to see if I would recognize any of the individuals who showed up to participate in the box program. It was always the strangest sensation when I recognized someone that I knew. I saw my third grade teacher, my old therapist, my dentist, an old dog trainer my family used to use, a girl who bagged groceries at the local supermarket that went out of business and my parents gardener. Even though my heart would always pound when I would realize that I knew the person- I still never did anything to stop them from climbing into the box. It was not my place to do so- they had made up their own minds and I knew that I needed to respect that.

When I initially lost my job as a librarian I also struggled with suicidal thoughts. I did not know what was going to happen to me or how I would survive economically. I felt like a failure. Bills were piling up and all of a sudden a chronic feeling of impending doom invaded my life. Suicide seemed to be a less painful way out from the difficult situation I found myself in.

Before I became a regular observer watching from the bushes, I was one of those people who made their way down the stairway and into the box. I climbed into the box and held the cyanide tablet in the palm of my hand. I looked around and saw the tops of trees, birds and I could hear the distant sounds of the little league baseball team playing on the old baseball field not far from where I was. As I held the capsule in my hand, I was violently shaking. I felt a wave of fear come over me, since I was not sure about what came after death. I also felt like I was not a hundred percent ready to leave this life. I read through one of the pamphlets besides the box, searching for a sentence that would give me the strength to want to continue to live. Fortunately, I realized that even though I was broke, depressed, without a job and with little hope I could still enjoy being. I could still enjoy the pleasures that hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling and touching had to offer me. I heard the distant and beautiful sound of a bat connecting with a baseball and decided to put the cyanide capsule down and make the most of whatever life I still had left to live.

Since that day when I managed to climb out of the box I have been fascinated with those people who are in a similar situation that I was in. Maybe it made me feel less alone to see others who were struggling just as much as I was. When I saw a person stop before those stairs I was convinced that I knew what they were thinking: “Do I really want to do this?” “I don’t think I can take any more of this life,” “I am such a failure,” “I just don’t want to live anymore, death will be easier.” When they decided to walk down the stairs I knew that they had just made the biggest decision of their entire lives.

For the past month or so I have decided to quit hiding in the bushes. I think that I have seen enough from behind the weeds and rosemary. Ironically enough, several months ago I applied for a position with the city working as a box collector and last week I was fortunate enough to get the job. Every morning, seven days a week, I come with my partner to collect the box. I still find it interesting that there is never a day where there is not a body inside the box. We lift the box together, carry it up the stairs and then put it in the back of a long white city van. I then take out a new white box and put it in the old box’s place. My partner is in charge of lifting the box lid and placing the cyanide capsule inside the box. We both try and leave the area in as nice of a condition as possible so that those who are going to participate in the box program spend the last few minutes of their lives in a clean space. The other morning when we were bringing a box up the stairs I noticed something that made me laugh out loud. My partner asked me what was so funny and I said, “nothing.” What I noticed was this older gentleman hiding in the bushes, dressed in tan pants and a green button down shirt observing us through a pair of binoculars.

How I Became A Lemon Tree

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1.

You may not believe me but I am currently speaking to you as a fully-grown, verdant and quite content lemon tree. Currently my lemons are in full bloom and the ground above my roots are littered with lemons that have fallen off of my vines. With a feeling of deep satisfaction in my roots I am able to watch over the backyard that I once spent so much time working in and I can even look into the bedroom where my wife sleeps. There is a Eucalyptus tree not far from me, which is the tree that my wife and I were married under. As a man I never thought that I would think this, but it is actually a very pleasant life living as a lemon tree.

Even though the initial transition was difficult, it is not as surprising to me as it may be to you that I am a lemon tree. Back when I was a human being, I was inundated with a perpetual cycle of hunches about life being more than what meets the eye. Even though I allowed our modern world to squeeze out of me a good amount of my childhood sense of wonder and awe, I still felt like anything was possible. The world of work, bills and societal expectations may have closed me off to a more free and unbound way of being, but still I knew that there was not that much separating myself from the rest of the plants, animals and other animate things that I shared this planet with. When I worked in my backyard I would often stop and just stare at the flowers, trees and other living creatures and feel a deep sense of kinship with it all. This may be why when I finally made the decision to become a lemon tree, I really was not worried about it. Even though my wife was initially horrified with the choice that I had made, deep down I knew that it was the right thing to do.

2.

Prior to becoming a lemon tree, I was a happily married man with a plethora of ambitions. At the end of every month I had a stack of bills piled on my desk and I felt relatively satisfied with the choices that I had to make in order to pay them. I was working hard towards becoming a financially successful psychotherapist and I had a nice house, a car, a dog, a wife and a love of food and drink that I was able to afford. In a sense I was living what is often referred to as the American dream. I enjoyed collecting records and reading books and even though I was no longer a young and naive man I still harbored romantic dreams about living my life as a writer and artist. On a grander scale my life was no different than most other professionals who had reached mid-life and made some peace with the fact that their youth filled dreams had not come to fruition. I was ok with this reality and was deeply involved in the study of Zen philosophy to help smooth out some of the harsher edges of my life. I was in love with my wife and becoming settled with things as they were.  This is why it still surprises me that the innocent act of sitting down one evening to read a novel and sipping on a glass of water with a slice of squeezed lemon in it would end up having such a life altering effect.

I can barley even remember the miniscule seed going down my throat that night. I was embedded deep in-between the lines of a David Foster Wallace novel and can only now remember a slight hiccup, a minimal bump in the road as the seed traveled down my throat. Once I had swallowed the seed I thought no more about it until a few mornings later when I noticed a very slight shade of green sticking out from both of my ears. At first I was not alarmed about this and assumed that it was backed up gook in my ears that was slowly oozing out. I had been meaning to get my ears cleaned for sometime but had procrastinated on doing so. That first morning when I noticed the green substance in my ears I told myself that it was time to make an appointment to get my ears cleaned. That day I called to make an appointment for the following week. I wrongly assumed that that would be the end of the problem.

The following morning the green substance had turned into what looked like a few small green leaves sprouting out from my ears. I pulled on the leaves and broke pieces of them off. I observed the strange substance in the palms of my shaky hands and could not make sense of it. I continued to try and pull the strange material out of my ears but it felt uncomfortable- like pulling lint out of a belly button. I grew slightly panicked because I knew that this material was not made of the same substance that I often found at the end of my Q-tips after cleaning out my ears. In a voice that indicated something was wrong, I called my wife into the bathroom to help me make sense of the strange material coming out of my ear. She looked in my ears and then attentively observed the green substance. She studied the material, and then looked into my ears again and again and again. She then told me that it looked as if there were small little leaves growing out of my ears.

I was terrified of doctors but my wife insisted that we go see an ear, nose and throat specialist and find out what was going on. Since the only way to get a same day appointment with a specialist is if you are very wealthy, a fellow doctor or a celebrity, I was not able to book an appointment until two days later. My wife decided that we would keep an eye on things and I continued to go about life as normally as possible. I avoided looking into the mirror and tried to push the matter out of my mind but at work my clients all seemed to look at me like something was not right.

On the day I was supposed to meet with the doctor I woke up with what looked like small, twig like brown branches growing out from both of my ears. I felt a deep pain in my ears when I first lifted my head from my pillow. I touched my ears and felt something that should not of been there. I ran into the bathroom to have a look. In the mirror what I saw terrified me. I screamed to my wife, who was still asleep, to come into the bathroom. When she ran in and saw me she immediately passed out.

3.

The doctor did not know what to say. He had never seen anything like this.  It was an enigma. It was as if for the first time in his twenty-two year career he had nothing to say and knew not what to do. His nurses crowded into the small observation room with posters of the inner workings of the ears and throat on the wall. The nurse’s mouths were all agape as they stared at me under the fluorescent lights. It was as if they were all helpless to say anything. All the doctor could do was use a scissors and attempt to cut off the branches. Strangely, when he did so the branches quickly grew back twice their size. By the time I left the doctors office, not only had I felt like a strange object on exhibition but I also had foot long branches with an abundance of baby green leaves growing out from both of my ears. I knew then that there was nothing that the medical establishment could do for me.

4.

I canceled all of my clients for the following week and realized that I was going to have to stay inside. There was nowhere in public that I could go with branches growing out of my ears without being arrested or an object of scrutiny. I was a therapist and as a result was very familiar with how our society treated others who looked abnormal. It was wisest to stay in and allow my wife to take care of me. When you have no idea what to do, when a fate comes upon you that you could never have before imagined- the only thing you will be able to do is try and go about life as normally as you can. Despite the fact that the branches were growing and the leaves where getting bigger I spent my days reading a long David Foster Wallace novel, doing sit-ups, meditating, cleaning the house, playing with my dog in the backyard, cooking and leading what felt like a rather normal domestic existence. My wife gradually adapted to the leaves and branches growing out of my ears and tried to calm me with kisses, back massages, foot massages and a refrigerator filled with my favorite foods. Neither of us knew what we were going to do about the unimaginable fate that had found me. As times passed it began to feel like we were just waiting around for some kind of answer.

Every morning when I woke up and every morning before I went to bed, my wife helped me prune my branches- cutting them back as much as possible so that I could be comfortable. But after we did this for a few days we realized that it was a futile effort because the branches and leaves would grow back twice as large. I do not remember when it was but after several days of living with what was already a physically uncomfortable condition, my wife and I made the decision to just let the branches grow and see what happened. We both knew that no doctors could help us at that point. To be honest, even if there was a doctor that could, I did not want to deal with becoming a source of bizarre entertainment and study for a medical staff whose routinized jobs caused them to turn living human beings into objects. No thank you. Not for me.

It became very difficult for me to sleep. Often in the early hours of the morning I would get out of bed and go sit on my couch in the front room. There I would stare out a large window and into the dark night sky that was lit up with stars and occasional airplanes. I would wonder about the pilots of those planes and think about how difficult it must be to work a job where you have to fly all night long. I would sit there in the early morning silence and stare out into the darkness wondering about what I was going to do. How had I suddenly developed these branches growing out of my ears? How could this happen to me? For hours I would search for answers until I remembered the night not long ago when I swallowed the lemon seed.

I then began spending the early morning hours glued to my computer searching Google for some kind of answer. I would type into Google phrases like: can lemon seeds cause a person to grow branches and leaves out of ears, cause of branches growing out of ears, symptoms of swallowing lemon seed, cure for branches and leaves growing out of both ears, natural cures for branches growing in ears, and on and on. I would often become depressed because despite the plethora of information on the internet about every symptom and disease anyone could possibly have, there was nothing about growing branches and leaves out of both ears. I felt alone in the universe, a victim of an impossible fate.

After two weeks of living with my condition I had fallen into a deep hole of despair. The branches had become so large that it was getting difficult for me to pass through the various doorways of my home. If the branches got stuck on a wall or the side of a door and made the slightest crack, I would experience a pain much like pulling teeth. My psychotherapy practice was failing since I had to cancel all of my sessions with clients. Some were considerate since I told them that I was very ill, but those who were dealing with narcissism or borderline personality disorder were more concerned about the quality and consistency of their treatment so they threatened to find a new therapist if I did not see them. I started to develop headaches and a perpetual sour taste in my mouth. I could no longer eat most of my favorite foods since my depression interfered with my appetite. I had hit the lowest point in my life with several feet long branches covered in fully grown green leaves growing out of my ears. My wife and I felt totally hopeless as to what to do and it was getting to the point where I had to do something. So one evening while sitting at the dinner table and sharing a bottle of red wine I asked my wife if she would help me. Being the gentle and loving woman that she is, she was willing to do anything for me but when I told her that I was going to dig a hole in our backyard and that I needed her to bury me in it her spine slumped, her smile melted away, her eyes drooped and she let out a deep and defeated breath of air.

5.

That evening my wife and I held each other all night long. We made love twice. After our lovemaking had exhausted the both of us my wife curled her naked body into mine and gently rubbed her hand through my hair and branches. She kissed my neck and chest hundreds of times and told me how much she loved me. My wife cried and being a man who had never had an easy time with other people’s emotions I tried to calm her and tell her that there was no reason to cry. Again and again I reassured her that burying me in the backyard would not be such a bad thing to do. I told her that I would always be right outside the bedroom window watching over her. I promised her that I would never leave her alone for a moment and that whenever she needed me I would be just outside. My wife is far from gullible and as much as she wanted to believe what I was saying she knew that she would be burying her husband alive. In her mind she was convinced that it would be the end of me.

It was no easy task to talk my wife into assisting in my burial. We sat at the dinner table for hours arguing about why the idea was or was not ridiculous. My wife seemed to think that there had to be another way to deal with the problem. She also felt that even if I had twenty-foot long branches growing out of my ears, she still loved me and thought I was the handsomest man in the world. I was still her husband. It required a lot of emotional and mental effort on my part but after hours of going back and forth I was able to get my wife to empathize with me. I was able to help her realize how much pain I was in and how depressed I had become. As far as I was concerned my life as I had known it was already over. I had become a prisoner in my own home, my psychotherapy practice was falling apart, I could not sleep much at night and I had all but lost my appetite. All the pleasures of life were fleeing from me and I so badly wanted to rest. With tears running down her flushed cheeks my wife finally relented and told me that she would do whatever I wanted.

I did not tell my wife this, but deep in my gut I knew that if I were buried in the ground it would not be the end of me. I had a hunch that the branches would continue to grow out from my ears and turn into roots, which would then, in time, somehow turn into a tree.

6.

That evening I was up before the sun. The long branches growing from my ears made it almost impossible for me to walk into my tool shed and grab my shovel. While trying to get past the lawn mower and the compost barrel I broke off a piece of one of my branches. It felt like I had just jammed my toe into a brick wall and I wanted to scream. The pain was overwhelming and beads of sweat developed on my forehead. The memory of that sensation still makes the leaves on my tree shiver. It was a pain like none other I had ever felt before but like all pain- it eventually passed away. I walked through my backyard with the shovel in my hand and found what I thought would be a good location for a tree to grow. As I promised my wife it was right outside the bedroom window. I took off my bathrobe and in my boxers and a long black t-shirt I began to dig. When I was finished the sun was up and birds were singing in the trees. I could hear the sounds of the beginnings of commerce in the distance. Cars, buses and trucks all determined to reach their destinations on time. I looked down into what was a deep enough hole for my body and branches to fit in and then decided that it was time to go inside and wake up my wife.

Before I woke my wife I stood above her for a moment. I observed her beautiful long, brown locks of curly hair spread out all over the white pillow like an abstract painting. I always loved the way that she looked in the mornings- so innocent and sweet. Her red lips and rosy checks were all pale from a long night of lying supine. One of her bare arms rested on top of her head making an L-shape and I observed the wedding ring that loyally rested on her finger. I remembered the day many years ago when I first gave it to her. We were as in love then as we still were at that moment. Quietly I thanked my wife for all that she had done for me and for all the love that she had directed my way. I was forever grateful to her. And then like snapping myself out of a daydream, I maneuvered my way down over her so that I did not poke her with one of my branches and woke her up with a gentle kiss on the forehead.

My wife and I had our morning coffee together and did not say much. I tried to tell her that I was going to grow into a beautiful tree right outside the bedroom window, that I would always be there but she said nothing and sadly looked at me in the eyes. All she could do was tell me that she loved me. We sat there in silence for a while and listened to the clock ticking and the various other morning sounds that our house made. In her white night gown and long silk bathrobe from Victoria Secret that I had bought for her a few months before, my wife leaned over towards me and said, “lets get this over with my love.” We set down our coffee cups and walked out into the backyard, holding hands. I then showed her the hole that I had dug and she pushed her hair away from her face and I could hear her quietly repeating, “this is crazy.” But like all loyal partners, when I handed her the shovel she seemed determined to do for me what I asked her to.

I will never forget this memory. In my boxers and black t-shirt I climbed down into the hole and my wife got down on both knees. As she leaned over to kiss me goodbye the sprinklers suddenly came on. We both continued to get all wet but still remained locked in our deep kiss. Something felt very symbolic about both of us getting all wet during our final kiss. It was as if we were both being cleansed of any residual guilt we might carry. When my wife stood up with the shovel in her hand I felt grateful towards the sprinklers. My wife’s white night gown was all wet which allowed me to see her naked body beneath. As I managed to maneuver my way down onto my back I remained focused on her body. The outline of her hips and breasts had a calming effect on my nerves. I folded my arms and nodded my head, indicating to my wife that I was ready to be buried.  With her hair soaking wet and her face covered with tears she blew me a kiss that I felt land directly on my heart. She then proceeded to cover me with dirt.

7.

This is the short story about how I became a lemon tree. I did not want to burden you with the longer story. Ever since I have become a lemon tree I have realized that life is to be lived- not read, written, worked or entertained away. In my human life it was impossible but I now spend my entire days and evenings in one spot. Other than when I am resting I continually observe life playing out all around me. I have nowhere to go and nothing to do other than be. As a result of just being nature is able to run its course and allow me to continually bring forth an abundance of lemons. It is through this existence of just being that I have become happier than I ever was as a human. Of course I miss being with my wife and dog in the way that I was as a human but now my dog spends its days resting besides my trunk. My wife built a swing, which my branches hold and she set up a beautiful little sitting area under the shade of my leaves.

Everyday, rain or shine, my wife will come out and spend hours swinging and sitting in one of the chairs under my leaves. Sometimes she will pick lemons. Even though I can not talk with her she will tell me all about her day and things that are going on in her life. I will watch how her hair drifts in the wind, the way her crossed knees look sticking out from under her dress and with all the desire of a man I will feel lust for her run madly through my roots. All of the same feelings that I had as a man are still there but the only difference is that now I am a lemon tree. When my dog rubs up against my side and my wife swings from my branches, I feel such indescribable joy and satisfaction. What once felt like such a horrible fate now feels like a real blessing. As much as I miss my life as a husband and a psychotherapist, I could of never imagined then feeling the immense amount of love, contentment and gratitude that I now feel. It is as if for the first time in my life I now feel rooted in the right place.

………and then there are those moments of intimacy that I look forward to throughout the course of each day. When I was a husband I was never able to fully open my heart to my wife. I always felt some kind of fear and an annoying blockage that would get in the way of me giving my wife the love I knew she deserved. As a lemon tree it feels like this blockage is no longer there and I am filled with so much love that I feel unafraid in expressing it as much as I can. Every night before my wife goes to bed she will come outside and stand besides me in her nightgown. She will look up into my branches, clean away anything that looks broken or in need of care in the same way that she used to run her fingers through my messy hair. And then just like when we used to curl up in bed together every night, she will snuggle her body up against mine and tightly wrap her arms around my trunk. I can feel the side of her sweet face pressed tightly against my trunk and I can feel the tears running down her face. She will hold me like this for as long as time and her strength will permit and what is strange about this is that now, when she is crying I am able to also cry. My tears are a bit more sweet and sticky than hers but she does not seem to mind getting my sap all over her skin.