The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Time enough to learn to prune a tree

Rachael Conlin Levy

From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth.

— “An Autobiography” by Janet Frame

Here come my thoughts, returned from their wanderings through a frothy night sky that long ago birthed some of the building blocks of life, mine and yours, scientists report, began somewhere out there and not here on earth. I wonder whether the amino acids locked within the asteroid that fell out of a billions-year-old sky and sunk to the floor of this ancient lake bed my parents call home are now part of the sand I walk across.

I rounded the corner and saw my father in the yard, hacking away at the thorny limbs of an overgrown Russian olive tree, and he glowed, his tall, thin, weakened frame back-lit from radiation, from sun. He was up again after moving from his bed to the kitchen table where he ate breakfast and then fell asleep in his chair. Doctors wonder if he’s too tired to breathe and measure his oxygen levels but decide to wait. But for what, I wonder, for him to grow so lightheaded that he floats inches off the ground and my mother must tether him to the house with a length of frayed rope or else risk him getting lost like a balloon in the sky? They held each other on this thirty-third day of radiation and their tenderness was too bright. We talked little during my visit, and when we did it was of no consequence. Instead, I asked to learn how to prune a tree for such things are set aside when cancer sups nightly at your table

To cut a heavy, unwanted limb, you must begin from below. My father angled the saw a ways out from the joint and with even strokes cut into the wood until the saw was midway through and the branch pinched the blade from its own weight. He handed me the saw and showed where to begin the top cut so that angles intersected. By making two cuts, he said, you get a clean break that keeps the limb from ripping off the tree. Finished with that cut, I hauled the long arm of the tree to the slag pile and returned to study the tangled mass of branches, chose a second limb and began while my father walked off. I didn’t watch him go.

As a girl, I remember being sent outside to call my father in for dinner, and in the beginning it was easy to spot him because he was the tallest thing standing out there in the desert, but as trees grew and pens were built to hold chickens, rabbits and even a pig, it grew harder to find him and I’d end up hollering his name from the front door, wait for his answering yell, then run toward the sound and find him under the hood of a car or in a corner of the property repairing this or planting that. I was a chatty alarm,  interrupting the quiet and his work. Sometimes he’d ask me to hold a wrench to this part of the engine or cover the roots of that tree he was planting, and then we’d walk back to dinner together, but usually I’d sing out that it was time to eat and skip away before he could command my help.

Today, though, I welcomed the work as I heaved another branch into the slag pile and felt the ache of underused muscles being forced to act. One of my sons found me in the thicket and helped drag a limb across the yard before leaving me to finish clearing the area around the old swing set and then take the saw to the shed, where I found my father asleep in a lawn chair, sunlight catching the flecks of dust or was it ash that floated about him? I watched him for a moment, the rise and fall of his chest, knowing that his lungs have been cut and poisoned and now burned, before asking him if he’d like to go inside and rest. Together we headed toward the house.

Janet Frame is a New Zealand author whose fame is attributed to both her dramatic personal history as well as her literary career. After years of psychiatric hospitalization, Frame was set to have a lobotomy that was canceled when, just days before the procedure, her first collection of short stories was awarded a national literary prize. Thank you, Lorraine from Life Without Mathematics for recommending her autobiography.

7 responses to “Time enough to learn to prune a tree”

  1. A beautifully told story. I remember holding the wrench.

  2. Rachael says:

    I thought there was a wrench in your past, too.

  3. gracia says:

    “I rounded the corner and saw my father in the yard, hacking away at the thorny limbs of an overgrown Russian olive tree, and he glowed, his tall, thin, weakened frame back-lit from radiation, from sun.”

    So easy to visualise. And to feel. As Denise mentioned previously, “a beautifully told story”.

    Thank-you for sharing this here. And thank-you for the reminder to revisit Janet Frame’s words and soon.

  4. kyndale says:

    Yes, time enough. I know you are very thankful.

  5. Ivy Lane says:

    Found you over on Lecia’s blog… this post made me weep as it is so close to my heart. My Father recently finished chemo and radiation for one last time..nothing more can be done… he continues to forge through each and every day until he tires and has to nap in his chair… I don’t know why…but something made me come “here” and visit you today… glad I did.. prayers to you if needed…

    Happy Monday…

  6. Rachael says:

    Ivy Lane, I’m glad you visited and found my words helped in some way. I, in return, would be happy for your prayers.

  7. Lorraine says:

    Rachael: I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the Frame. Her sentence takes me to a swirling primordial soup time too. What a gruelling time you’ve had. How lovingly insightful of you to strengthen your bond with your Dad by sharing a task he excels in. I am slow in catching up with your news, and I do see things are a bit better for your Dad now in Dec. However my prayers and loving thoughts towards you and your Dad are joining the many others. God’s not bound by linear time zones anyway!

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