The beginning of a year stands atop the endings just past. Some come unannounced—we realize a thing is over only in hindsight. The last diaper changed on the youngest child, the last vaccine to end an epidemic, or the last shot fired in the closing battle of a great war are landmarks rarely noted or known as they happen.
There was nothing unannounced when the great swing tree fell at my house in 2013. It was a white oak, nearly 90 feet tall and 14 feet in circumference at its base. By rings it was over 160 years old, predating Lincoln’s presidency and the Civil War.
It shaded our yard in the summer, rained acorns on us in the fall, became a lean-to for sleds and inner tubes in the snow. My kids pretended beneath it as I worked by an open window nearby. Once my son pinned his older sister to the trunk and growled, “Who’s afraid of the man who hates children?”
Later from a lateral branch we dangled a long swing by pulley and rope. Neighbors, cousins, strangers all took turns on it (and some bones got broken along the way). A daughter’s 13th birthday party took place by the swing. One Thanksgiving extended family raked leaves into a huge pile and took turns lunging out over the hill off the swing, dropping down into the leaves. In his 80s one of our neighbors, so enchanted by all the activities, tried to swing on a summer night and became stuck in the dark, dangling over the hill alone until he somehow climbed down from it.
Then, the tree roots sodden from days upon days of rain and the tree trunk worn from all our burdens upon it, the great oak lifted itself out of the ground at 9:40 one night, and fell. It came down as one whole piece and at an angle, just laid itself across the hill, missing by only feet both our house and the house of our now 94-year-old neighbor. It did smash across my husband’s car, totaling it, and took out two other trees.
We and our neighbors emerged into the dark, watery fog, unscathed. But the tree’s loss gave us a new definition for sudden. Perhaps it tottered or wrenched itself against the ground for days, but all we knew was a rumble, the house shaking, and a deathly thud. Blink of an eye. End of an era.
And somehow that was fitting: It had been my youngest daughter’s first day with her driver’s license. She returned from soccer practice, parked her dad’s car expertly in its spot, then I watched her come inside, responsible and leaving her childhood behind her. The next morning she headed outside under clear sunshine to pull herself up into the downed limbs. “I always dreamed of climbing in these branches,” she said.
The tree’s ending punctuated new beginnings. Only two weeks later my growling son got married. Then a daughter. In 2014 the youngest heads off to college and beyond. Already the great trunk has been lumbered, and one slab has become a conference table for my son’s office, as my children take root in other towns and other houses beneath younger trees.
Just about every day I see from my desk window the blank space where the oak once stood. It’s a good reminder: Earthly seasons do end, earthly battles will be finished, and we all one day—fast or slow, counted off by decades or by days—will lay down our earthly cares and burdens to rest, finished. Some endings come slowly, almost imperceptibly. Some take our breath away with their sudden thud. And like a new year, or a clear morning of sunshine after a night of rain, a new, uncharted season waits.