Before my mother died, she planned her funeral.
She had time to do it. It took over a year for the cancer to branch itself through her brain, into her bones, her blood. That very first scan, I saw it. A dark claw, like an Atari space alien, reaching possessively into the wrinkles of her brain.
It was hot in the church. Hot and humid, as east coast summers are. Tears and sweat and bodies came together, creating a rippling wave of heat.
Ripples, too, from the tears. The tears, the tears. A softening, then a clarity. Oh yes. This is why we are here. Despite the crowd, my family and I, in the front row, the least desirable seats. The guests of honor.
When I stood to speak, my dress stuck to the back of the pew. An audible rip over the sniffs and murmurs. A gash of fabric mirroring the gash across my face where my smile once rested. The tiny dark flowers across the small of my back involuntarily felled.
“Four Skinny Trees,” by Sandra Cisneros. I almost didn’t read it. I was 17. I was overwhelmed. My name did not appear on the program.
But that is what my mother chose, and that is what I read.
I read about four trees, encased in concrete. Trees with ferocious roots that belied what was on the surface. Trees that, despite the odds, survived.
As I read, I thought of her, of course. How deep and profound her roots were. How far they spread. How many people they reached. And yet—it was not enough.
Why did she choose this? I wondered, as a fan rhythmically opened and closed the gash in the dress. A wordless, writhing scream. She is not these trees.
Only now, two decades later, do I see it. What my mother wanted to tell me that day she planned her funeral.
I am the trees. My brother.
That day, our world was concrete. An unmoving, unmovable mass of gray. We stood surrounded, outnumbered. Alone. We listed, we bent. Our roots poked dangerously through the cracks, tripping the well-intentioned passerby.
Yet, we grew. We reached. That year, our rings were narrow. The next year too. For longer than seemed probable, we survived in times of drought.
And still we reached. Our roots were sound. We had been planted well.
We struggled above the arid streets, even though it hurt to tear our flesh against the unforgiving concrete. We were hardened with scars, but we rose. Until, at last, a glimpse above the shadows of the buildings. The glimmer of sun. A sky streaked with blue.
Alison Wilkinson lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and three children. She blogs at run.knit.love.