I don’t really remember it all that well. It’s sort of a hazy memory, honestly, but I remember the tree. I’ll never forget the tree. There was nothing really special about it, per se, but we just stood by it every day.
It was like clockwork. The buses came every afternoon, and we all gathered in the same place waiting and standing next to that tree. Its branches overlooked the principles’ car. I think it was a peach tree, but I’m not sure. I just remember that it was skinny and crooked. I sometimes wondered if it was about to reach out and grab one of us and threaten to keep us in high school forever.
If I had sunglasses, I would put them on and pretend like I heard no one, like I didn’t exist. I was that quiet kid that just stood there uninvolved but totally immersed in thought. Sometimes, I would wear headphones and listen to some classical music, which kept me from thinking about how no one would talk to me; about how alone I was, but at the same time, it made me imagine a world where I did have friends. And that’s all I needed – an imagination.
I’ll never forget the faces I encountered there. They are as clear as the tree, but I can’t describe them any more. I just remember their stories: one day, for example, I remember a girl crying and standing next to me, because she had just broken up with her boyfriend of three years. I had been listening in but was quiet as usual. I wondered if she was standing next to me so as to be a part of my bubble. It was one of the only times I ever said anything to anyone – out of sympathy for her.
“If I knew what to say to make you feel better, I’d say it,” and with that she hugged me and wouldn’t let go. It was one of those awkward hugs because I didn’t really quite ‘get’ how to respond to it. When you’re not really used to being hugged or hugging back, you just stand there awkwardly and somehow soak in the warmth of it while also feeling inept at what you’re doing.
But it all goes back to the tree we stood by. When I think of those moments, I think of all the tree must’ve witnessed – the same things I witnessed. It was quiet and firm and unwelcome somehow.
One of my fellow companions on the school ride home who always talked to everyone whether you wanted to respond or not, looked at me and started asking several questions. He was one of those kids that always wanted to know “why.” He had more questions than a scientist, but that’s not what you would have thought when you first met the kid. You just think about how annoying he is, and you think about how to get rid of him. Chris kept bugging me, “Do you study a lot? You look like you study a lot?” The questions continued, “I’ll bet you’re really smart. Are your grades good? I wish my grades were good.”
The questions were always the same – something about how smart I was, which I had to be the smart kid, because if I wasn’t, then why was I so quiet? He knew I was thinking about something. The smart kids are always the quiet ones. Or so everyone believes. It’s one of those stereotypes you find hardest to shake. You automatically assume that they’re either smart or rude, and if they wear glasses, it has to be the former, but I was cultivating how to be both.
I always gave Chris terse responses. “I guess” was probably the most common response, although I always took slight offense to his questions about how smart I was, and I always tried to correct him when he said he wasn’t smart. But I was annoyed by his constant smiles and constant questions. I wanted to be as happy as he was. I wanted to say something more to him, or at the least understand why he was the way he was.
Our tree grew spring leaves and summer came, and they held on through the heat. No more waiting for that bus, and soon, I would be old enough to drive myself to school. No more Chris or crying girls. No more tree. No more yellow bus with loud, obnoxious kids.
Chris killed himself that summer at a Christian camp in East Tennessee. I still don’t believe it. He’s still that happy kid. I was the one who was supposed to be quiet and lonely and broken, not him. He’s still alive and just now experiencing the second semester of his freshman year of college. I read as much literature as I can get my hands on about suicide these days. I recently read about how Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, considered killing himself. At this point, he was probably imprisoned, and in the Greco-Roman world, suicide was an honorable thing. “To live is Christ and to die is gain,” he says (1:21), but Paul chooses not to kill himself, because he feels he can still do more good through his letters.
But all that knowledge doesn’t really comfort me.
Our tree was cut down. Apparently, it died, and the school didn’t plant anything in its place, so there’s just a large empty gap where the tree once was, but I think I like it like that. It marks a change.
At night, I’ve been known to sometimes return to the bus stop and stand there for a few minutes. It’s a different world at night, and it’s a quiet world at night, but it has a ghostly presence to it. As you stand there in the dark, it’s almost as if you can close your eyes and picture those faces again. My tree comes back into my mind, and suddenly, it’s as if I’m there again – hoping to just get done with it all. There’s nothing at all wrong with a little nostalgia.
If trees could talk, oh the things they’d say. My tree turned green in the spring because the rain replenished it, and then, when it died and was cut down, it was sort of sad not seeing it in its place anymore. It just wasn’t the same high school. And, I highly doubt that the tree ever served any real purpose. It was too small for firewood and too small to be used as furniture.
But somewhere, that tree was thrown onto a pile of other trees, and it’ll rot and it’ll replenish the ground. And maybe, eventually, grass will grow in the place the tree rots. And some other tree will grow there wherever there is.
Chris’ name hasn’t been erased from my mind, but he still has a powerful impact on who I am, on who I want to be. And I put on a little smile and I start to talk a little and ask some questions and I live a little and love a little and care a little harder than maybe I did before, because Chris, Chris is someone I carry with me.