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The Dogwood Tree

by Cara Holman

I never see it coming. Just once, I want to catch spring in the act. I want to see the petals and leaves uncurl, one day at a time, like in time lapse photography. Instead, I seem to miss it every year. One day I am longing for spring, and the next, everything is in full bloom, just like that. Suddenly one day the world is immersed in a profusion of color, and I find myself wondering just where it came from.

Only once did I come close to catching the process in the act. There was a tree outside of my dad's window, an old weathered Kousa dogwood. It didn't look like much; in fact with its gnarled old branches, it appeared half dead. But it became a symbol of life for me, and I watched it every day until it began to consume me. Somehow it seemed all important that the tree bloom while dad was still around to enjoy it. Each day I carefully scanned it for signs of new growth.

They said my dad had metastatic lung cancer. The funny thing about cancer is how you can be going along just fine and then one day, the telltale aberrant cells show up on a routine scan. Or you're not feeling quite right and you go in to check things out just to be on the safe side when your doctor tells you that you have cancer. That's how it was with my dad. For dad, there apparently were no magic cures. His cancer, it seemed was subject to the same immutable forces of nature as were the petals on the tree outside his window.

They say a watched pot never boils, but of course it does, no faster, no slower than it would have otherwise. And so it was with the tree. I was cautiously optimistic, and I was not disappointed. One day, there were unmistakably the still greenish beginnings of petals. Every day from then on, there was a bit of progress, but even so, it still caught me off guard one morning when I arrived to find the tree blanketed in creamy white flowers.

It seemed the process was not linear after all. All it took was one unseasonably warm and sunny day to send the tree into full spectacular bloom. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it for myself. Suddenly the gnarled old tree draped with hanging moss and covered with lichen was transformed before my very eyes.

And there it stayed, suspended in time, while dad and I looked on and admired it every day. Until one day, when dad's eyes became unseeing, and his respirations went from labored to irregular, and finally ceased altogether, as the life slowly and gently ebbed from him. The setting sun bathed the room in a golden glow, while the dogwood with the beautiful white flowers stood sentinel against the sky as I said my final goodbye to dad.

I sometimes wonder what happened to that tree, now that dad and I weren't watching it anymore. I expect it is still doing whatever it would have been doing had we never laid eyes on it in the first place. The tree took its cues from elements far more basic than us: the sun, the wind and the rain. But I find comfort in remembering the tree as it was, in full bloom and dad warm and alive, with the blood still pulsing through his veins.

Cara Holman is a stay-at-home mom of three children, two of whom are grown. She makes her home in Portland, Oregon with her husband, youngest son and two very large cats. A brush with breast cancer two years ago led her back to writing, when she joined the Women With Cancer Writing Group at OHSU. Several of her pieces have appeared in "Along the Journey," Volumes I and II, produced by this group.