Before COVID, it was just a crabapple tree.
It sits at the corner of our house, and two windows look out upon it. However, until March, the shades on those windows were almost always drawn. I rarely even noticed the tree. Then, on March 17th, I left my therapy office for a planned staycation, assuming I’d return a week later. The next day the NBA suspended its season, two days later our kids’ in-person schooling was suspended, and by the time I was supposed to go back to work, our whole lives were in suspension.
I didn’t work from my office for five months.
Instead, I conducted distance therapy from home by video, in the quiet corner of our house that looks out upon that crabapple tree. For months, that crabapple tree was the backdrop to every session. At first, it remained bare, branches click-clacking together in the final winds of wintertime. Then, ever so slowly, it erupted into every shade of pink, as its flowers unfolded into the warmth of springtime. Eventually, the petals fell and the new growth of summertime began. It turns out, new crabapple leaves arrive in bright red, before settling into the longer-lasting deep green of the year’s warmest months. Then, recently, I noticed something that broke me open.
On the crabapple tree, I could see red and yellow withering leaves.
At first, the feeling seemed like a bit of an overreaction, but I decided to pay attention to it anyway. I noticed grief and I noticed joy, all at once, the feeling of love and the feeling of love lost, in the same moment. You see, the crabapple tree had become a companion of sorts during an unprecedented time in my life. It had become my marker of time’s passage. The leaves’ birth and growth and death were a reminder to me of my own aging, of the transience of time, of the temporariness of it all. More than anything, those yellow-withering leaves reminded me of this:
It is almost impossible to truly treasure your companions until you cherish your time with them.
In True Companions, I write about a body of research that shows young people tend to value the spreading of their wings, the expanding of their influence, and the accumulation of their stuff, while the elderly tend to value being present, enjoying ordinary pleasures, and connecting more deeply with their truest companions. The research shows that this difference actually has little to do with age and everything to do with awareness. In other words, the young tend to ignore the passage of their time and their vitality, whereas the elderly live with their “fragility primed.” They know it’s all about to end, and this knowing makes it possible for them to live and love with the urgency of a true companion.
The crabapple tree reminded me that I am entering the autumn of my time here. Relatively soon, some ancient breeze will tug at my yellow-withering body, and I will be pulled free from the tree of my life. I will float downward, and I will land on the ground of Being, and my chance to love inside of human skin will be over. The whole thing makes me joyful about having been a leaf at all, about having had the chance to love the people I’ve been given to love. It makes me grieve the swift passage of that opportunity. And it focuses me, as I think about how I want to show up for my people for as long as I can.
In this, I am not alone.
Recently, I called my wife’s grandparents. Her grandmother is ninety. We suspect she survived COVID in January, though no one was testing for it at the time. Since then, the decline in her strength and memory has accelerated rapidly. As we talked, she could remember that they’d had their car serviced that morning, but she couldn’t remember why. She could remember that they’d gone out to eat afterward, but she couldn’t remember where. Relatively quickly, she seemed to give up the fight with her aging neurons and passed the phone to Kelly’s grandfather.
He’s ninety-three now and still improbably sharp. He told me what they’d had serviced on the car and where they’d eaten for lunch. We chatted for a while about current events. He told me a joke or two. Then, as the conversation was winding down, he told me something he’d never told me before in my twenty-plus years of knowing him.
He told me he loved me.
He was a little awkward about it, and he appended it by saying, “Of course, that goes without saying.” I told him I loved him, too, and we hung up the phone. I was broken wide open again. If it goes without saying, why did he say it? I think it’s because, as he looks at his withering wife and feels the imminence of her separation from the tree, his fragility is exceedingly primed.
When you are mindful of your time here, it doesn’t just make you feel happy; it makes you feel everything. It makes you feel the buds and the flowers and the new leaves and the green leaves and the withering leaves. And in the feeling of it all, you will feel the urgency to practice right now the thing that, in the end, you will have wished you’d practiced all along:
My book True Companions: A Book for Everyone About the Relationships That See Us Through is available for pre-order. Find out more by clicking here.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable, and his next book, True Companions, will be published in 2021.