There is no better place in the world to feel sad.
Yesterday, when I looked through my kitchen window, I saw a strange-looking bird sitting on a branch of the willow tree in our backyard. I went to my study to get the camera, but by the time I got back to the window the bird was gone. I closed my eyes and tried to visualize it, then I found a book on birds in Alberta, but that bird was not in it. I went outside, walked around the tree, and looked all over for a feather. If I find a feather, I thought, I can reconstruct the whole bird.
But there was no feather, no bird droppings, nothing. That bird was gone for good, and although it was small, the emptiness I suddenly felt inside me was huge. So I sat under the willow tree thinking that there was no better place in the world to feel sad. Willows, I thought, are symbols of sadness and their hanging branches are like the long hair of maidens crying above deep water. There’s no water in our backyard, just our old concrete garage. A long time ago the willow tree was planted too close to the garage and now it’s pushing against one of the corners. The main trunk has already grown around that corner, and from a certain angle it looks like the willow is devouring the garage.
The willow has six trunks. It is too big, we were told by the arbor care people, and it should be cut down or trimmed down to two trunks. When we moved into this house, the tree had ten trunks. In the last five years we have had four of them cut: two were growing too close to the roof of our house, and the other two threatened to fall onto telephone and hydro lines. That means, I thought under the willow, that it’s losing one trunk each year. In six years, I thought, there will be no trunks left; only a huge stump will remain. And I pictured myself sitting there, and I remembered Shel Silverstein’s book The Giving Tree, the saddest book in the world, and I felt like crying a little, but I told myself that I shouldn’t cry because our neighbours could see me, and I never, ever cry in front of neighbours. My mother always thought that men should not cry; only weak men cry, she would say, and weak men are not men anyway. On the other hand, the Four Seasons had a hit song many years ago, “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” So, who does cry? Small girls and weak men? My mother didn’t cry; she was tougher than many men, my father included. As for him, his eyes would fill with tears every time he heard an unpleasant weather forecast. I am somewhere between them, and if there is a gene for crying, I inherited half of it from each of them. In other words, I am neither strong enough nor weak enough, just like a willow.
Willows are dangerous, the arbor care men told us, because their branches and trunks break easily, so when strong winds blow outside, we shouldn’t stand under them. But there was no wind the day I saw that bird; there was only that terrible feeling of emptiness and loss when it disappeared, as if the world were out of balance. It is strange, isn’t it, that such a small event, apparently unrelated to us, has so much influence over our beings, touching us somewhere deep inside and perhaps changing us forever.
I closed my eyes again but the image of the bird had completely disappeared from my memory. Soon, I thought under the willow tree, nothing would remain of that bird. No history, I thought, would record its flight and the way it had landed on a branch of the willow tree in our backyard. No history would record the sadness I felt when I realized that the bird had gone, although that’s what this world is made of, and it doesn’t matter whether you see it as fiction or non-fiction, as an invented story or a real account. There’s always something that’s not included, something that remains, and that small thing is what all stories are about, including this one, if this one is a story at all.