When I was a very young boy, maybe six or seven, I used to love it when my parents would bring me to the park by our house. It was not all the grass, open space, wild life and swing sets that I loved. It was the climbing tree. When my parents and I would arrive at the park I would run away from them as fast as I could. In the distance I could hear my father’s voice yelling “slow down kid!” But I did not. I ran towards the climbing tree and then once I got to it I would climb up the tree as quickly as I could. The reason why the tree was called the climbing tree was because it was easy to climb. Everyone was always climbing on it. It looked as if it was bending towards the ground because so many people had climbed on it. The top of the tree was only about ten feet off the ground and the length of it was around thirty feet. I would quickly make it up to the top of the tree and straddle one of the trees branches. Beneath my feet, which were hanging in mid-air, I could see the top of my fathers balding head. I would stretch out the tips of my feet and try to touch his balding spot. He would always look up at me and with a perplexed grin say, “Knock it off kid.”
As a teenager I spent a lot of time in that park. Girls would jump on the guys backs and we would have a race to see who could get to the climbing tree first. The girls would laugh out loud and kick the sides of their male carriers and yell, “faster, faster!” The rule was that whoever lost the race had to tongue kiss in front of everyone. We would all climb quickly to the top of the climbing tree and sit around in the shade of the branches and leaves. It would take a half hour or so to convince the shy losers that they had to make out in front of us but when they finally did we all watched as if we were studying for some kind of exam. It became so silent that you could hear the interaction of their tongues. We would spend hours mingling in the climbing tree. When someone brought it, we would drink alcohol and smoke weed. We carved our names into the branches. Sometimes we would couple off towards more private areas of the climbing tree. It was up in the branches and the leaves that I had my first contact with bare female breasts (I remember thinking that they felt like water balloons). At some point during the day or early evening a parent would always come, stand at the foot of the climbing tree and shout out, “Time to come home lovely children!”
When I returned home during college breaks I would see a few high school friends of mine who were also home. We would meet in the climbing tree, smoke weed and spend hours in the branches and leaves gossiping about what happened to various people we knew in high school. We had no idea then that those were some of the final times we would spend together before going our separate ways.
After graduating from graduate school I returned home to live for a year or so. I was unable to find a job so I spent a lot of time reading novels and writing in my journal in the climbing tree. The sound of the leaves rustling in the wind would often lull me into a restful sleep. I would look up into the blue sky and contemplate eternity. What did it mean to be alive? What did it mean to die? Was there any meaning at all? I would look for various familiar names carved into the branches. My name was still there. It had a heart next to it and under the heart was the name of the girl who let me touch her breasts. The last I had heard about her was that she was married and in a medical residency program. I still had no idea what I was going to do with my life.
After living in Portland, Oregon for a year I returned home for a visit. I was in need of a break from my impoverished life and despite my parents frustration with me, I needed some love and financial support from them. I was working as a bartender in a seedy little bar in downtown Portland. I hated the job. Between the constantly gray weather in Portland and the fact that I had no idea how to improve my life situation, I had fallen into a deep depression. One evening after my parents had gone to bed I decided to walk over to the climbing tree. I brought with me a fifth of whiskey and a joint. I climbed to the top of the climbing tree and straddled one of the branches in the same way that I did as a little boy. I wondered if the branch was high enough and strong enough to hang myself from. I felt like a complete failure and I hated myself for not being able to accomplish more in my life and I hated my parents for giving me so much anxiety and grief about my failures. My friends all seemed to be independently finding their way in life but when it came to independence it felt as if I was constipated. Stuck. In a moment of despair I carved “FUCK LIFE” into the branch I was straddling. The next morning I awoke on the grass, directly under the climbing tree. I had a painful bump on the side of my head and the left side of my body was sore.
A few years later when my father died, I returned home with my wife. After the funeral my wife and I went to sit in the park. While sitting on a park bench we got into a fight. Rather than being sad about my father’s death, I was still angry at him. I took my anger out on my wife. After our fight, my wife and I were not getting a long very well so we never ended up going to the climbing tree. The day after the funeral we returned to Portland.
When my mother died a few years after my father, I returned home with my daughter. I had been divorced from my wife for over a year. After my mother’s funeral I brought my daughter to the climbing tree. I let her make her own way up towards the top of the tree and I followed slowly behind her. As I climbed I could feel my heart palpitating in my chest. I was short of breath and I felt tightness in my chest. When I finally was able to make it to the top of the tree my daughter and I sat silently together in the branches and the leaves. My daughter asked me why her grandmother did not move or talk at the funeral. I did not want to fill her with anxiety about mortality, so I told her that her grandmother loved to sleep. “All those people were there to watch grandma sleep?” she asked me. I told her that grandma was really good at sleeping her way through life and sometimes people like to come and watch her. Then my daughter asked me if I had played in the climbing tree when I was her age. I told her that I had. Together we straddled one of the branches and watched our feet dangle together in the air. I held her tight to my chest and when I looked down towards the ground I could vaguely see the top of my father’s balding head. The day that my daughter and I were returning to Portland, I quickly went to visit the climbing tree with a sharp kitchen knife in my pocket. I slowly climbed the tree and had to concentrate hard in order to maintain my balance. When I found the branch where I had carved “FUCK LIFE” into it, I used the kitchen knife to scratch it out.
After selling my parents home I bought a house in the suburbs of Portland. I had fallen in love with a woman who was a psychotherapist and together we had two children. Even though I was much too old, I returned to school and became a psychotherapist. My wife and I started a private practice a few blocks from our home and for the first time I was beginning to feel good about my life. It had been almost a decade since I had last returned to the climbing tree but my wife and kids wanted to see the tree that I was so often talking about.
My three kids, my wife and I returned to the park for what I knew would be the final time. That day was sunny and I could swear I smelled the far away ocean in the afternoon breeze. All kinds of multicolored bugs hovered all over the grass as my family and I walked to the climbing tree. The tree looked as if it had aged so much from all the years and people who had climbed around on it. One by one my family climbed up the trunk of the tree. The climb was not so easy for me anymore. My back hurt, my temples pulsated and I felt like my chest was going to cave in. Halfway up the tree I looked up at my wife and kids who were all waiting for me at the top. They yelled down, “Common old man you can make it!” I put my head down and continued to climb. When I made it to the top I felt one of my daughters use her hand to pat the balding spot on top of my head. Short of breath and slightly wheezing I looked up at her and said with a smile, “Knock it off kid.”
We all sat together in the branches and the leaves and I told them about various memories that I had about hanging out in the climbing tree. We all found my name with the heart carved into the branch. Strangely the girl’s name had faded away. When I told them about the first time I kissed a girl in the tree my daughters all yelled out, “gross dad!” My daughters then climbed around on the branches and I sat silently with my wife. We observed all the names carved into the branches as if we were looking at art work that was centuries old. I saw a lot of my high school friend’s names. It had been more than thirty years since I had seen any of them. My wife put her arm around me and I cried a little. I noticed the spot where I had scratched out what I had written in my moment of despair and I decided not to tell my wife about it. I watched the birds and the squirrels and then climbed over towards one of my daughters when she yelled, “Look! A butterfly cocoon!” We studied the cocoon and then we all carved our names into the branch, just under the cocoon.
My wife and kids climbed down the tree and I told them that I just needed a moment alone. I maintained my balance by holding on to a branch and I looked around. I could see the vague outlines of a lifetime of memories. I saw myself as a little boy, I saw myself in high school and I saw that young man drunk and deliberating over hanging himself from a branch. I could not help but think that if it was not for that tree I would no longer be alive. I leaned over and gave the climbing tree a kiss. I put my aging face up against one of its branches and I thanked it for everything it had given to me over the years. I told it that not a day would go by where I would not think about it. I felt stupid saying these things out loud to a tree but I believed that someplace beyond my human ability to perceive, the tree understood me. I then looked down and saw my children and wife running around in the grass. Slowly I climbed down the tree. Step by step by step until I had made it firmly onto the ground. And then just for fun and without purpose I yelled out, “Time to come home lovely children!”
It was not long after that day that I heard that the climbing tree had fallen down.