These days, I have healing on my mind. And that's why I'd like to tell you a story about the huge blue maple tree I used to have in my front yard. As I explain why it is blue, I will ask that you to keep an open mind.
The story of the blue tree involves faith. And the belief in the power each of us has to heal ourselves. If you’ve read anything about the so-called placebo effect, you will know what I’m talking about. If you are told that you are taking a very potent medicine, one that will cure you, then oftentimes it works, even if that medicine is just a sugar pill.
The mind is a very powerful thing when it comes to controlling the body.
OK. So the tree in question was a giant old maple that used to tower over the front yard of my lovely old white farmhouse in Austerlitz, New York.
Anyone who knows me know that I have a deep affinity for maple trees. I wrote my first novel, Dreaming Maples, after I “saw” the main characters acting out their heartbreak beneath a set of imaginary maples up in Vermont.
The key maple tree in my book is one I referred to as the Mother Maple, because it was a pivotally-important tree for my characters (the novel is a mother-daughter story.)
Anyway, the tree in my front yard served as a model for this tree that inhabited my mind back when I was writing the book in the 1990s. I spent five years writing Dreaming Maples, and a few more years revising it. So I had what you might call a very close relationship to this tree that was in my yard.
OK, so this is the part that’s a little hard to explain.
On a warm night in July of 2003, I had to leave my home to drive to New York City. I had to go to Sloan Kettering for a biopsy. It was the second summer in a row that I was dealing with cancer (Hodgkin’s Disease, a type of lymphoma.) The doctor at Sloan Kettering had told me a week or so before that I had a “new” spot of cancer, and that I absolutely had to have a stem cell transplant, a rather drastic procedure that scours your immune system, bringing you to the edge of death before restoring some immune function.
The thing about the stem cell is that it can kill you just as easily as it can cure you. And since I was feeling perfectly healthy, and had been for months, I was understandably reluctant to submit to the stem cell treatment.
OK, so I left the house with my husband under a perfectly clear blue sky that evening in July. I don’t remember if I was crying or not as I left, but I know I had terrific heartache. It was easily one of the scariest nights of my entire life.
My children stayed behind. My children are the ones who reported the weird episode with the maple in the front yard. Within minutes of our departure, the kids reported that the blue sky disappeared and in its place, a vicious lightning storm whipped up out of absolutely nowhere.
“Mom,” my daughter told me the next day, “It was the strangest thing I ever saw. You left, and everything was absolutely fine one minute and then the next thing we knew, lightning and thunder came crashing down, and then, all of a sudden the tree just collapsed.”
Just as fast as the storm hit, it vanished. The maple, a tree that had seen a century of storms, was split in two, the top half fallen across the yard.
When I got back home the next day, there were giant green boughs lying like mammoth arms across the lawn. I started to cry. To me, it was though that giant motherly tree I loved so much was reaching her motherly arms out to comfort and protect me. She had seen me the night before get into the car and drive away, to do one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do. It was almost as though she was calling out to me, throwing her biggest boughs half way across the yard. She had laid herself, her life, right down there for me in the front yard.
To honor that sacrifice, I decided to paint the remaining portion of the tree blue.
I hired a guy to come in to saw up the biggest boughs, and then I went to Home Depot to buy a gallon of sky blue paint. I asked the salesman behind the counter what kind of paint I should buy for “outdoor use.”
“Well, so, ma’am, what are you painting?” he asked me.
I scrunched up my face. “I am...painting...a tree,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t laugh.
He smiled. He sold me the right paint, and a long handle for my roller.
Over the next few days, I painted. Once I’d climbed as high as I dared on the stepladder, I phoned a young man in town and he donned a leather harness and hoisted himself up 30 feet and swung there, right above the main road, and he painted the very top of the tree blue. The neatest thing about the blue color of the tree is that it is exactly the same color as the sky, so that if you looked up, the top of the broken tree seems to disappear into the ethos.
Later in the summer, when my sister Karen arrived from California for a visit, she was so moved by my project that she asked if she could help me add a little extra color to the bottom of the tree. Together, we used the roller to add sea green and sun yellow to the tree, using leftover paint we found in the basement.
Painting that tree helped me face the trauma I had to deal with that summer. It reinforced my faith in all kinds of ways. It helped me find the courage to stand up to the miserable doctor at Sloan and say, “Look, I don’t care if you think I need a stem cell transplant, I disagree, and I want to get a second opinion.” (He was very arrogant and insisted I didn’t need a second opinion! "Why do you need one? I'm the world’s expert in this area.")
Painting that tree gave me the strength to go to Dana Farber in Boston to see a second oncologist.
The night before I went to Boston, I held a healing ceremony beneath the blue tree. I invited my closest friends and told them to bring drums and shakers. We sat in a circle as the sun went down. We lit candles. We sang. We banged on drums. We asked for healing. We offered up ears of corn. We read Native American poetry. We prayed for health, for me and for others. We even had a woman there – a professional photographer— who insisted on capturing the event in pictures.
When the evening ended, I felt at peace. I knew I had to go to see another oncologist the next morning. I knew I was probably going to get the same message from him that I had gotten from the doctor at Sloan, that is, that I needed the stem cell transplant, that I would have to be in the hospital for months, and face the dangers associated with the most invasive high-intensity chemotherapy possible.
The next day, the most amazing thing in the world happened. Sometimes I still cannot believe how things unfolded. My sister (who is a nurse), my husband, my daughter and I drove to Boston, and when we finally got in to the examining room to see the doctor at Dana Farber, he told us that he knew the doctor at Sloan, and that he disagreed completely with his opinion.
I didn't think I was hearing correctly.
But he was saying what I thought he was saying. He said that the doctor at Sloan had treated me the summer before with an experimental chemo regimen (called the Stanford Five.) He said that he suspected that the radiation that I had endured in 2002 probably didn't do the trick.
As my family and I sat there in total shock and amazement, he said that he would need to review my CT scans, etc., but that in his opinion, he was pretty sure that I would not need the stem cell transplant after all.
It’s hard to put into words how I felt when I heard this news. If you have ever faced a life-threatening illness, or know a loved one who has, then you might have some idea. I know I sobbed tears of joy. I know my husband and my sister and my daughter did too. And I know even though there is no proof that the blue tree helped, in my mind, it gave me the faith I needed to make it through.
Well, so, it turned out the doctor at Dana Farber, a remarkably kind and wonderful man named George Canellos, was right. I did not need the stem cell transplant. I can't say how grateful I am to this day in August of 2020, to that doctor. I also can't say how grateful I am that I have enjoyed enormously good health since 2003.
In 2015, we sold the old farmhouse, and by that point, most of the blue paint had worn away.
But I can't think about my beloved blue tree without stopping and saying a prayer of gratitude: thinking, "thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, for what you did for me."