So Much Sky
by Linda MacKillop
Photo by Bill Mackillop
The note appears hooked to the knob of my front door, a warning. The emerald ash borer disease has ravaged the hundred-year-old stately ash trees lining our road, and our city has decided to take them all down. The forty trees that spread their canopies over the length of six blocks like cupped protective hands will be removed as a permanent solution to cure the infestation. The city offers a plan to replace the trees in the spring with saplings, but how do you replace a tree that took a hundred years or more to grow its roots down deep while sending branches toward the heavens? And saplings come with no guarantee of surviving even one brutal Chicago winter with its hostile winds and temperatures.
Gusty autumn winds have already stripped the trees bare. I stare at the silhouetted branches most days as I come and go, as I stand in the living room holding a warm cup of tea, watching neighbors walk their dogs. The demise of the trees creates grief as I prepare to say goodbye to their shade that protects me while I read in the yard, goodbye to the whispers I hear through my open window on windy days, the haunting call of leaves brushing together like two hands meeting in applause.
Then one day as I study the silhouette of the trees against a gray November sky, I see something settled into the meeting place of several branches, many dark and dense objects cupped in those tree limbs. Empty nests—and lots of them. In the warmer weather, a city-sized community lives just above our heads, hidden from sight. Maybe former birds’ nests or squirrel’s nests, but all that matters in my mind is the picture of these shelters once formed by a mother to protect her young and prepare them for life, built with twigs and leaves and probably even a few gum wrappers—whatever it takes.
The grief of the trees’ demise echoes my own season of personal goodbyes as my four sons have branched out after college, spreading across the country. These pieces of my heart, flying away from north to south, east to west and one as far away as Macedonia with the Peace Corps—a place where generations often live together permanently. In our country, parents plan for their young ones to leave home, knowing the empty nest season is healthy. I just neglected to include the out-of-state and out-of-country details in those imaginings of our small boys who drew us into love then morphed into towering men with lives and loves of their own. The replacement saplings in our yard will never grow as quickly.
Motherhood took me by surprise thirty-three years ago. I finished college with other plans, dreams to write and somehow tell stories in a challenging job. Instead, one day I slipped into an unexpected story, filled with unexpected characters in the form of little boys who captured my soul and offered adventurous plotlines and poignant moments with their love for life, lizards, music, and me. My husband and I shared a passion to tame these wild sons with their antics and escapades and shape and form them into productive men. I never saw this plot twist coming in my life, a house filled with kids and me at the helm. The women in my family of origin seemed sworn to a sorority of silence over many topics, especially the topic of motherhood. Motherhood came early in their lives and seemed to deprive them of dreams, taking their futures captive forever. They never described the indescribable love a mother experiences for a child.
I don’t ever go home myself, back to a childhood home, back to visit parents. My parents and grandparents are gone now, my mother dying without making efforts to repair our estranged relationship, my father depressed and homeless for the last decade of his life. But despite less than perfect parents, I fell in love with the role of motherhood, feeling my parents missed so many joys for themselves.
“Look at his eyes! He’s staring right at us!” said everyone in the delivery room after my first son Kyle’s birth. They handed me the tightly swaddled baby, his cowlick prominent, his wispy blond hair mimicking a younger me, my younger husband, and my father, all of us representing a cloud of imperfect witnesses showing up in his looks. As those eyes locked on mine, my protective and nurturing nature burst to life and I began to plan how we’d form our nest. My new story started to unfold as we fell in love, staring at each other for hours and hours, me studying small hands wrapped by my larger hand. Someone told me once a child comes into this world looking for someone who’s looking for them. I was looking for each of my sons on the day of their births, and they were looking for me as I offered my pitiful broken self with all my love.
As parents we slipped into love like night slips into day, unaware of the exact moment of arrival. We didn’t begin to love our son because he first loved us or because of the cute ski cap he wore. My feelings took shape as we began worrying about Kyle downstairs in the Special Care Nursery when his body temperature unexpectedly dropped. They grew as I held him alone in my hospital room and on the car ride home when I wasn’t sure if he could breathe under all the blankets filling his car seat. I moved quickly to an engaged and loving place, knowing he was coming home with us, ready or not. And I sensed his soul, still recognizable to me today within his thirty-three-year old body.
Shortly after Kyle’s birth, my dad appeared in my life after one of his two-year absences, appearing in my driveway as a mysterious and unknown old guy, hardly recognizable to me. When he got closer, my eyes stripped away the costume of his graying hair and weary look, droopy body and thinning frame, allowing me to see beneath the aging exterior the man who hid me on the top of the closet in childhood games of hide and seek, who walked me to pre-school, holding my hand and letting me skip school for the afternoon when I cried to stay with him. The man my mother divorced who drifted lost and alone, lonely and different than how we once knew him. But despite the difference time wrought in his appearance and circumstances, I knew his presence and soul. I will know my sons in the same way.
Early in my parenting experience, disappointment arrived in the form of my own inability to smoothly handle the chaos of family life. After Kyle, a second son arrived three years later. An already tenuous quiet departed completely. Raising children has a way of pointing out your flaws and the effects of a troubled background. So we built our nest weaving raised and spewed voices into the construction along with the bits of leaves and tree debris until one day the disappointment in those young eyes receiving my tantrums pierced me. My broken self determined to heal for the sake of small boys, finally realizing I entered parenthood with good intentions but with an inept skill set. I looked and looked for the instruction manual with no success.
And then a set of identical twins arrived.
To Mommy, I am sorry that I hit the baby. I kNow you are Having a bad
day. So heres a dollar for good luck.
As I sought out help from more experienced parents, books, and prayer, we continued the process of forming our nest with tangible and intangible objects. Toys, books, art supplies, camping gear and sports equipment filled our rooms while we also inadvertently added bits of personal mess, garbage, and family history, weaving all those items tightly together between the structure of the twigs and wood and gum wrappers of our framed walls. The very essence of our home became part sturdy refuge—eating dinner together nightly around the worn gate-leg table I once refinished, curling up for reading time each evening, frequent expressions of affection—and part unwanted scraps of criticism, heightened emotions, and slamming doors.
And the absence of solitude wore me down. Moments alone were nonexistent unless someone relieved me for a few hours. My husband often walked in from work dangling car keys like a reward. Barely saying goodbye, I would snatch the keys and drive for hours trying to complete a thought before I needed to return to relieve him. But for all the chaos, the screams in the background, the dirty dishes, rushed meals, cries in the middle of the night, trips to the emergency room with meningitis, dehydration, stitches, and swallowed paint chips and hernias, I began to change and heal.
Despite the noise swirling about this introverted me, I learned to be quiet on the inside. To function in the job, I needed to stay calm. In the heart of deep insanity where Bill and I today still cannot watch home videos of that period without gritting our teeth, I found peace. In the middle of an overload of stimulation, with music blaring, children yelling, toys banging or beeping or playing annoying little recordings, a dog barking and a phone ringing, I learned to focus on the need at hand, the most pressing issue, the loudest crier. When more people than my brain could possibly process begged, screamed, cried for my attention, I silenced the inner demons to look at my children and listen to them.
I saw their faces and freckles and mouths as they silently read, hands fumbling with learning to tie a shoe, pudgy fingers drawing a picture, one brother helping a younger brother build a Lego car. I saw them embarrassed in front of others for wearing a silly outfit to a doctor’s office, the twins trying to scale the wall of their cribs with the high jump. Kenzie standing with his hands and face pressed against the screen on the front door, for twenty minutes at a time, watching cars drive east and west past our house. Kyle holding a bird book, staring at the bird feeders outside the kitchen window, trying to learn their names to tell his dad.
And we discovered life. We discovered thunder storms from the safety of the front porch swing, watching the lightning roll in and counting one one-thousand, two one-thousand until we heard the loud boom. Feeling scared but knowing we were safe. We discovered sleeping outside as we camped in the mountains together, or on the ocean in Maine, watching lobster boats roll just before evening so we could cook some of their catch over our open fire, and then take turns reading out loud to each other in the tent before falling asleep. We discovered ferry boats to islands in Canada and things that I’d never done in my own childhood—like kite-flying and the circus, riding the Swan Boats on Boston Common and going to the Mayflower. We discovered lying on the grass on a summer evening in the Berkshires listening to the Boston Symphony play at Tanglewood, children’s theatre and dandelions, with the gray seeds spraying over my yard to Bill’s dismay. We made snow sculptures painted with food coloring and water—green snow dragons and red turtles all over our yard on a wintry day, and sand sculptures at the beach where water flowed throughout hand-carved ravines and canyons and then out to the great sea. We discovered life together.
And I changed, experiencing a type of death resulting from of all the demands. But the replacement me felt fresh—and refreshing. My replacement had more to give and more to say and listened better, generously passing out the gift of time. My impatient self gave up and headed for some place to live where conditions were perfect and free of messes. We also performed ambitious house cleaning, tossing out negative patterns of behavior and even the influence of a few toxic family members in the hopes of offering protection to our sons.
As we grew new memories with our sons, the chaos in our home distracted me from painful memories and my estranged parents. Often we laughed loud enough to stir our dog from deep slumber. Then one day I startled from my own slumber to realize the sweet sounds of my sons’ voices, pleading prayers, chaos, escapades, and a good man had healed me. Even though I longed for quiet, I wasn’t ready for it all to end.
One day I sat in a MacDonald’s with my young school-aged sons, eating a chaotic meal that included loud arguments among the boys, outburst of song and demands for more fries. Messes and spilled drinks embarrassed me. Why couldn’t these boys be more civilized? A nicely dressed woman in her mid-50’s sat at the next table protectively cupping her coffee between her two hands. She sat alone and stared at us, possibly lecturing me in her mind to control those little ones. She neither read nor looked at her computer, instead watching us carefully.
When she finished her coffee, she stood to go but stopped at our table on the way out. I waited for the stern rebuke.
“You are so rich,” she said to me, her eyes awash with a deep sincerity and maybe a little longing. “I hope you know that.”
I looked around at the splattered ketchup and surly looks from one of the boys, their food-stained clothes and the empty wrappers falling on the floor around our table with scraps of food. I surprised even myself when I agreed with her.
She left alone.
Today, I am that woman, often going alone to restaurants or coffee shops and admiring the young families, recalling the chaos but not ungrateful for my peace. My nest echoes with the voices of my four sons deepening in range as they grew, their voices revealing hurts or laughter over pranks and board games and dinners comprised of everyone’s favorite comfort meals of chicken scampi, homemade pizza, stuffed shells. One day I pushed them all far from me by sending them off to college, and then hounding them after graduation to get their resumes in order. With my enthusiastic and unsolicited job coaching, my sons must’ve thought I was dying to be rid of them.
As transplants from the East Coast now living in the Midwest without all our sons, today only remnants of our nest-building efforts remain. Besides gum wrappers, the old camping gear sits in a box in the basement. Plaster arm casts in the antique trunk at the end of my bed, old bike helmets plastered with stickers, old bikes broken down into multiple pieces, outgrown clothing. The memories arrive with a bittersweet rush of appreciation and its accompanying silence. As an introverted writer, I often longed for these quiet days to replace the loud and chaotic home and to allow this solitary person the luxury of days staring out the window, creating stories in my head without the interruptions of carpooling, trips to the ER, and voices clamoring for attention.
Then one day the quiet arrived, bringing mixed feelings.
Unlike the estrangement and relationship woes in my family of origin, my sons love each other with a loyal tenderness. One year they decided they wanted a permanent visual of this brotherly devotion. Instead of coming home for spring break, they all went to a tattoo parlor together during a brother visit in Tennessee. One at a time, they rolled up their sleeves and invited the tattoo artist to draw identical permanent lines looping around each of their arms, four green branches forming a band, each line representing one of my sons.
Heavy trucks with forklifts and buckets stand in front of my house with dangerous looking grinders. Men dressed with layers of warmth beneath fluorescent yellow vests wave their saws as they ride lifts to the heights of the ancient trees, taking them apart piece by gigantic piece, allowing them to drop to the ground in a heavy thud.
Photo by Bill Mackillop
My street will never be the same in my lifetime. We will accept the city’s offer to replant in the spring, to share the cost with them in the hopes of receiving a small amount of shade from a sapling which will one day grow strong and tall, but not until long after we’re gone, after we’ve watered and fed their roots. We choose fast-growing American elms from the city’s list, hoping someone someday will enjoy the forty- or fifty-foot tall disease-resistant trees and their gift of shade. But we’ll never see the saplings turn to towering trees.
As the sons enjoy their new homes across the country, I enter a M.F.A. program in creative writing late-in-life. I write a novel, and then another novel, and then I write essays and start a blog. I visit my sons and attend their weddings and meet their new in-laws and wonder what their children will look like.
Outside, the men finish their work and the last tree falls to the ground. In place of the branches stands so much sky. So much sky across the road behind my neighbor’s house, stretching down the street or off into the distance beyond my yard, drawing my eyes up to notice what’s been there all along. Cloud formations in great displays of dramatic hues and shapes, forming pillows just above our heads beckon creativity in our lives. The space will allow for a glimpse of horizons in the future, of vivid sunsets bursting color over us all, snowflakes speckling the air and whiting out roofs and patios, rain nourishing gardens and grass, washing clean the joggers and me from all that dirties us. Horizon, stretching out with its promise of more and tomorrow just beyond my range of vision.