The Span of a Life

Donald has been obsessed with mandalas for as long as I have known him. In fact, mandalas inspired his book, The Geometric Wholeness of the Self, a book that is brilliantly creative, although almost unreadable. He is a retired architect and philosopher and has sought the meaning of life in every structure he has designed, including our home. Even as dementia claims his brain, a mandala still catches his eye.

He told me that he wants to grind down and sand the old stump of the huge valley oak that fell next to the little house on our property where we used to live. Our son Casey and his wife Melissa, and our grandsons Wesley and Sabien live there now. The beloved tree fell several years ago, missing the house but smashing the car of our vineyard manager who was living there at the time. Donald says that he wants to then take a picture of the sanded cross-section of the stump, count the rings, and then mark what was happening each year that the tree grew, like marking the height of a child on your wall, year by year.  Donald claims this tree was 400 years old. 

Dementia does that with time. Time becomes irrelevant. There is only the truth of the present. But even knowing this, I find Donald’s estimate of the tree’s age annoying. Several years ago while the tree was still standing and Donald was struggling with the loss of the many functions of the neocortex, he accused me of exaggerating when I said the tree was probably 300 years old. It was one of the largest oaks that I had ever seen. Those days he countered almost everything I said as if making me smaller made him bigger. He had never done this before, and he hasn’t since, but it was part of accepting that he was losing his mind. At the time we didn’t know that we were in a precipitous drop.

When the tree fell, I did count at least 240 distinguishable rings. The tree was old, not that old for an oak, but certainly for a human. And compressed in those rings was the growth during years of Indian wars, of the Russian occupation of California, and then of the Spanish and Vallejo. Families built the little house near the oak when the tree would have been at least 100 years old and then built a shed within its drip line that became its demise. These families, who came to California from Ohio in covered wagons, lost ten children, marking their graves with redwood tombstones in the little cemetery up the driveway. Day in and day out they lived next to those who passed on to the next dimension.

So at age 88, Donald’s mandala research has turned to tree stumps. The span of a tree’s life held within that mandala of growth connects that which is deep in the earth with that which reaches high toward the heavens. His memory, the richer the further back you go, is like the tree rings: The mansion his father lost in the Great Depression when Donald was 3, and his bedroom there; the Sunday morning the men stood outside the church, silently smoking cigars, as they learned of Pearl Harbor; the kindness of his one-room school teacher whom he was in love with when he was 6 and 10 and 11. The trajectory of his life rounds into a pattern he seeks like Dante’s Beatrice, compelling, whole, something he knew once and will again. 

Now he aims to grind down and sand the cross-section of the stump so he can count the rings.

The stump is an important structure for my grandsons, and particularly Sabien, aged 7. Having begun to return to earth, the tree harbors lizards and salamanders and a little snake, all who live in cracks and hollows within its stumpy trunk. Sabien rappels up and down its height daily by grasping a cord that he has fastened to the tree’s heart. He knows the lizards individually.

So when Grandpa tells him his plan, Sabien panics, in tears. I reassure him. “Don’t worry, Sabien,” I say. “There’s no way Grandpa is going to use power tools, and certainly not on this tree stump.”  Later I tell Donald, “The stump is too rotten to sand. Besides, lizards are living there.” 

Donald looks at me, concerned. “You will need to tell me that again,” he says. And then, again, as he has many times over these last years, he confides that this tree was so big that no one ever saw it.