Months after the accident, her father—my brother Stephen—told me this: “I’m at the bottom of a crater, and I have to explore it. My face is so close to the rock, I’ve managed only to explore about one square inch so far. It’s humongous, and I don’t think I’ll ever cover it all. It’ll take forever, more than a lifetime. And no one can help me. I have to do it myself.”
“I guess I’d better go with the girls,” she said to her boyfriend, after he tried to convince her to squeeze with him into the car for the boys. They were returning from a religious retreat in West Virginia on May 10, 2009. She was twenty-five years old.
So she sat with two girls in the back seat of the other car. No one else was hurt. Not a scratch. Not a bruise. Not the driver. Not the girl in the passenger seat. Traveling the curvy, late-night road in the southern Ohio hills, the driver lost control when a wheel veered off the pavement onto the berm. The car flipped, rolled down an embankment. She was life-flighted from Marietta to Columbus. But the accident snapped her brain stem. There was never any hope.
On the wall of my study hangs her photograph, taken by her boyfriend. She sits at a picnic table. Behind her: green grass and a river, and beyond that the thick foliage of woods. Her eyes are closed. She has stretched out both arms and bent both elbows to raise her hands heavenward. The fingers curl loosely, and on her face spreads a beautiful smile.
I look at this photograph more often than I do the others hanging around me of my own three children.
When Stephen and I were very young, we would push wooden shapes through the windows of a house shaped like a shoe. Peg people—the boys triangles, the girls squares. The round green mother went in through the roof. The shoe’s tongue pulled down like a door, so we could reach our hands inside and gather all the shapes to start again. Boys and girls of red, yellow, and blue; the old woman with so many children she didn’t know what to do.
“Let’s go have an adventure,” Stephen said in his best Popeye voice. He held the yellow peg boy he called Shorty. I grabbed the blue peg boy I named Plupey and made him say, “All right.”
Shorty and Plupey had adventures all through the house. Shorty thought up one after another, and Plupey tagged along. When we reached the bathroom upstairs, I thought we’d have to quit our game, but Stephen had a better idea.
“We’ll turn into boats,” he said. He closed the drain and began to fill the tub.
For a moment, I was dumbstruck. His ingenuity amazed me. With the deep self-knowledge of a four-year-old, I understood that my brain did not possess the creative capacity of my brother’s. Never would it have occurred to me that we could simply move our characters into other toys. The boats had painted-on eyes and rubber-band propellers. I felt like our world had been saved.
“But there isn’t a yellow boat for Shorty.” Crestfallen, I grew fearful this transformation would not work out after all. The colors weren’t right. I worried that Stephen might want the blue boat. But then the second amazing thing happened.
“I’ll be the red boat,” Stephen said, without hesitation, without anguish, as if it were not a problem at all. Where I saw barriers, he saw possibilities. And if he has any memory of this now, I think it would be of the stories we played.
In my office I study trees. I have one book on ancient trees and one book on remarkable trees. The two overlap a bit, but the species I find most fascinating is the yew. A number of individual yews grow in the British Isles. Besides their ages, what surprises me most about these trees is that they have names. The Whittinghame Yew stands sixty feet high with a girth of 400 feet. The Harlington Yew, at eighty feet, is the tallest in Europe. The trunk of the Muckross Yew twists like a corkscrew.
I look up at my niece in the picture on my wall. Her blond hair is straight, shoulder length, the bangs pushed to either side of her face. One strand falls over her forehead, above her closed eyes, above the smile that loves the day, the river, the woods, the green grass, the company of the photographer.
At the hospital, by the time I arrived the morning after her accident, it was like calling hours in the ICU where she was kept intubated, her organs warm and viable for transplant. My brother and his wife and our parents had been there all night. Stephen, his face streaked with tears, told me, “She’s gone.”
I was immensely grateful that I could see her, and I didn’t want to leave her bedside. I kept going back into her room, as I and other relatives who arrived took turns filing in and out. I wondered if some visible injury lay hidden where her head rested on the pillow. I took her hand in mine and studied her long and beautiful fingers.
Stephen said, “It’s hard not to feel like there’s a reason why this happened. It’s hard not to look back and think that every single thing has led up to this.”
The next day I drove to work, but I broke down in tears and couldn’t stay.
At night, every time I dropped off to sleep, I woke up feeling as if I needed only to adjust my behavior some way and the world would be as it was once again. I slept fitfully and woke often, telling myself, “If only I do this, things will be normal again. If only I do that, she’ll be all right.” But what I needed to do, what adjustment I could make, grew vague and then disappeared altogether, as soon as I became fully conscious, along with the alluring though ephemeral moment of comfort. Of course, the world would never be normal again.
On the second day, I again drove to work and spent forty-five minutes doing a task that should have taken only five minutes to do. And I saw her face before me, her eyes open, her grin mischievous. “Let’s go have some fun,” her expression said. She seemed delighted with her good fortune, and I felt honored that she had come to say good-bye to me.
Marian earned a degree in creative writing at Oberlin College. After her death, her parents funded a scholarship in her name for high school students from their county interested in that course of study.
On the backpack of a school friend, Marian once wrote what I would call an Ode to Love. One might even call it a psalm. Her parents have had this poem carved into the back of her gravestone. It is clever and thorough and profound. It has rhythm and truth. The word “yodel” in particular jumps out at me because, like turning peg people into boats, it’s an ingenious choice that would never cross my mind to use, especially coupled with the word “love.”
After the 2008 presidential election, my brother wrote a smart, well-worded letter to the Editor of The Columbus Dispatch suggesting it might be a good idea, after all, to spread the wealth around. At his day job, Stephen interviews clients with financial problems in a county poorer than almost all the other counties in the state of Ohio. He works for the government and has become an expert at interpreting state law in a way that will yield to each welfare recipient the best possible financial support and health care, even though it is never very much. The people he speaks with are mostly angry and/or hopeless, trapped in poverty. And since the demand for interviews cannot be met by the staff in his office, he and his fellow employees are constantly overworked.
Yet four evenings a week and eight hours on Saturday, my brother gives music lessons—guitar and piano. He never raises his rates, and in the years since his daughter’s death, he’s given more lessons than he ever has before.
In our childhood world, Stephen hid his face in the couch pillows and instructed me to play a note on the piano, any note, for him to identify – C, G, A – and he was right every time.
In our childhood world, as we played inside or out, Stephen advised me to watch out for Body. “He doesn’t have a head,” Stephen said. “He’s just . . .” and he paused for effect, stringing out the words, waving his long, slender fingers near my face “. . . a . . . Body.” I shivered and wondered whether Body was hiding under the sandbox or, when I was inside, up the back staircase. I was afraid to open the door. I didn’t want to look.
One evening, Stephen crumbled some hamburger, saved from dinner, outside the back door for Body’s supper. A meat eater, I thought, means he could eat people, too. In the morning the bowl had been licked clean.
So I stayed close to Stephen, who knew all about Body and his habits, as much as I possibly could. At the back door, I’d ask him, “See Body anywhere about?” and only if he said, “No,” would I skip outside and head for a swing.
I trusted his vision so implicitly, I never questioned how he knew so much—what Body ate and when he slept. How he knew where Body was hiding. It never occurred to me to ask why he could see Body and I could not.
Yews are often found by graveyards, or—to capture the chronology more accurately—graves were often dug beneath the canopy of a great yew. The age of yews can be predicted by where they grow with reference to the nearby church, according to Ancient Trees. Northerly yews are the oldest, dating from the Neolithic period (4000-2000 BC), yews east or west of a church—such as the Tandridge or Crowhurst in Surrey—date from Celtic times, and trees to the south or southwest grow on Saxon sites.
The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Scotland is definitely 5,000 years old and possibly 9,000 years old. Lewington and Parker write that it existed before recorded history, before Egyptians built the pyramids, while mammoths still roamed the earth.
So many years to live. Life beyond my comprehension. I look at the young woman in the photograph. Her loss in my life feels as long and heavy as the years and weight of an ancient yew.
When my niece was a child, she told her grandmother that the roots of trees were as widespread as their branches. “Although the roots are underground, out of sight,” she pointed out, “a tree really looks the same at both ends.”
At the memorial service, my mother shared her granddaughter’s perception of trees, the spreading of branches above and roots below. She said, “I’ve never looked at trees the same way since.”
At the service, Stephen sang two songs, and I wept because this was the moment I realized he would survive this, that as long as he could make music, he would survive.
Before the service, he passed out copies of a CD he had made of Marian’s voice. Mostly she is dictating a letter to her college friends, but the disc also includes music. Stephen artfully arranged recordings in the background—Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan—to complement her reflections on the meaning of life in general and of her life in particular. Some tracks reveal her own skill as a musician. She speaks of hopes and dreams and doubts. She says, “So, yeah, I can see how doing this is like writing a letter to God.” And every time I reach “Love, Marian” at the very end of the disc, I start it again at the beginning, so I can hear her little girl voice, full of such charm and innocence, singing “Sunshine on My Shoulders.”
After we grew up and became parents, my brother and I, we read to our children—fairy tales and poems. Stephen suggested Arabian Nights. On the ceilings of our children’s bedrooms, we pasted glow-in-the-dark stars and planets and the moon.
“What does a child need growing up?” I wondered. “Education, self-esteem, accomplishments? What’s the most important thing a child should learn?”
“I always have a song running through my head,” Stephen told me once. “I just want her always to have a song. I don’t ask for anything more than that.”
When Stephen and I were small, our mother, who still looked at trees in the old way then, read to us every night. After we climbed upstairs and got ready for bed, she slipped her hand behind the door to the back staircase, found the light switch beneath the hook and eye, turned it on. She sat on the old wooden chest in the hall and read fairy tales and poems. When we were older, she read Oliver Twist and then Great Expectations, a book whose cover showed tombstones in blue twilight.
From my bed, I had a view of the hall. As she bent over the book, the light shone on her hair, making the gray strands shine silver. I watched her lips move as she read of the convict, hiding in the graveyard, asking the little boy for food. I heard her enthusiasm and delight as she read of Pip and Joe comparing bites in their slices of buttered bread. They played a game without words. They communicated without speaking. They shared an awareness. And I knew Stephen was listening in the dark.
In my study I take notes from Meetings with Remarkable Trees. The black yews of Wakehurst grow along a rock walk in Sussex, their roots exposed on the moss-covered sandstone. Though not covered with leaves, these roots reach for life just as the trees’ branches do. Across the broad sweep of time, writes Thomas Pakenham, these trees are not static. Over the last century, they’ve traveled across the rocks, driven by erosion, as their roots reach for soil.
My eyes travel to the photograph, and I study the young woman. She wears a black sweater on this cool day in spring, and the cuffs of her blouse peek out at her wrists. Calm and peaceful she looks, as if there’s nowhere else on earth she’d rather be. A beautiful smile stretches across her face, and I can almost hear her quiet laugh, her silent giggle. She raises her arms as if she would hug the world.
Two years since the accident, two months between the day of her birth and that of my oldest child: at 27, he studies the Himalayas. As we ride our bikes together, he tells me how little oxygen exists in the Dead Zone, above 26,000 feet. He describes the tragic Mt. Everest climb of 1996 when eight people were killed in a sudden, deadly ice storm on, coincidentally, the same date as the car crash—May 10. I listen intently while I stare at my front bicycle tire, trying to keep it on the path, trying to keep the wheel under my control. He has all the numbers memorized and all the camps. The climbers go up to Camp Two, then down to Camp One, then up to Camp Three, on to Camp Four. As he explains the acclimatization process, I almost veer off the path, so interested am I in what he’s describing. He counts how many nights they spend at each camp, how many days before they attempt the summit.
“I’m so close to the rock face,” Stephen told me, “I don’t know where I am—how far from the bottom, how much farther I have to go to reach the top.” He said he’d explored one square inch so far, maybe two, three at the most. I imagine him checking for a foothold, raising his hand above his head, searching for the next place to grip the rock.
I yank my bike wheel back on the path and remember what I read about the yews. From North to South they grow from Scandinavia to North Africa, and from the west in Ireland they stretch east to the western edge of the Himalayas.
For eleven months, I couldn’t tell where he was or how he was doing until one night on the phone, after a long silence, my brother spoke of the accident, the driver, the details of that night. The other passengers in the car. What caused it to happen. A reason! He wanted a reason. I kept silent, wishing him to speak.
Then suddenly he said, “I’m Miss Havisham. I’m stuck there at the wreck.”
And from the darkness where I knew not how to reach him, I instantly understood exactly where he was. He was waiting for her life to move on from where she had left it.
“Everything is suspended,” he told me, “like Miss Havisham at her wedding.” I thought of her gown, the cobwebs on her cake. “Nothing moves,” he said, “nothing progresses forward.” He didn’t want time to pass. He wanted it to be always that moment—the moment when things could have been different. So he stayed there—the most dangerous moment of her life, ironically, his safe place.
That’s when he told me about the crater, about being at the bottom, about seeing nothing but one square inch of rock face. “I’ve thought of another metaphor,” he said.
Not until after I talked to him again and told him the wrong thing—“Being Miss Havisham is bad!”—did I come to appreciate his tremendous effort to communicate. Finally, I realized how far he had traveled to see himself outside himself and articulate where he stood along his journey of grief.
In our childhood world, we played dress up in the walk-in closet. Stephen wore the silky purple robe that made him king. I, the queen, wore the cotton paisley robe, yellow and blue, with just one tiny rip in the armpit of the right sleeve. As king, Stephen made a game that lasted for hours, dictating – with a wave of his arm – which younger sibling should be thrown into the dungeon, and who should strike out into the world to find a robin’s egg.
Once I played in the closet when Stephen wasn’t there. I donned the purple robe myself, and noticed, for the first time, that it was nothing more than a rag. Cotton batting escaped from rips in the back and sleeves. I could hardly tell which holes to push my arms through, and the robe, when I pulled it on, showed less purple than white. Still, I tied the belt around my waist and prepared to give out commands. But, though my younger siblings looked at me expectantly, none were forthcoming, and the game fizzled out. It was not the royal robe that was magic, I knew then, but my brother Stephen.
After an eight-hour shift interviewing the angry and the hopeless, Stephen plays music for the children of his town, the youngsters, the teenagers, the young adults. He shows them where to put their fingers on the neck of the guitar. He instructs them on how to pick and strum. He curls his hands over the piano keys and stretches out the same long and beautiful fingers he gave to his only child.
Lewington, Anna and Edward Parker. Ancient Trees: Trees That Live For 1000 Years. London: Collins and Brown, 1999.
Pakenham, Thomas. Meetings with Remarkable Trees. New York: Random House, 1998.
Elizabeth Lantz holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from The Ohio State University. Her work has been published in Kenyon Review, American Literary Review, South Dakota Review, and Georgetown Review. In 2017, she was a finalist in the New Letters Nonfiction Contest and a Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop.