I’d never read The Oak Tree a week ago. Honestly, though I consider myself reasonable well-read, I’d never even heard of it. Little did I know the part this poem was about to play in my life. I was in my carefully constructed world of chaos, blissfully unaware of the plans that my friend, and soul-sister, Mamma Mia was making for me.
Then the email came. “Would you contribute to a blog that my friend and I have created?” Of course, at first I think she’s joking. Just a few months before this, she had been chastising me about my infrequent writing on my own blog. She had added the comment, “You are the worst blogger in blogging history.” Sounds mean, I know, except if you knew Mamma Mia you would also know how she can make you feel like Queen of the Universe while laughing at you. It’s a fabulous talent of hers. Also, that I didn’t even know she had added the comment until a good two months after the fact didn’t help my defense.
So I logged on to this site, read the poem several times, and have spent the last week agonizing over what to write. The truth is, some days I do feel like an oak. Some days I don’t. It turns out this wasn’t a good week for being an oak. Two huge problems at work collided on the same day. The first was my boss, a new principal of ours, who increased tension at our school by tenfold when he accused a coworker (and friend of mine) of being “toxic.” This roughly translated means “a woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind.” Secondly, I lost my favorite novel to teach. How does one lose a book? The district took it. They had decided that To Kill a Mockingbird would be best taught in 10th grade.
Of course, several of us junior high teachers (9th grade is taught in junior high in our district) objected and the decision was made that we would each be able to present a case for keeping it. However, in the end, it came down to mixed messages, secret meetings, and a decision that was already made long before our opinions were asked. Of course, to add to it, my husband has been working out of town for months, leaving me all alone with three young children nine days out of fourteen. Am I whining? I’m sorry. Mamma Mia was clear that this was to be a blog about hopeful things, uplifting things. Keep reading. I promise it’s coming.
Please don’t get me wrong. Most of my adult life I have felt like an oak. It’s that strength that comes from somewhere deep underneath the surface. Many times you forget that it is even there. You see the wind coming and brace yourself for the hard smack against the ground. But then the wind subsides and drifts away and you unclench your eyes to see that you’re still standing. By the grace of God, everything is okay.
I was 14 when I first became aware of how deep my roots stretched. When I was 12, my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She battled it for 2 years. I wouldn’t say that I dealt with the situation well. I dealt with it like a confused, self-centered teenager. Throughout her willful war against cancer, I was most concerned with how MY life was affected. In my 9th grade year, she passed away. Suddenly I couldn’t be mad at her anymore for being “sick.” I was still angry. Even though I knew it was wrong, I couldn’t stop thinking that she had given up, had left her 4 daughters behind. But the effectiveness of being angry was lost in mourning.
There was the funeral, lots of family, and little time to think. Eventually it was time to go back to school. What a surreal feeling to look around and wonder how many of my classmates were going to leave school, go home, and find a mother waiting with open arms. It didn’t seem fair at all. Then less than a month later, my beloved grandmother passed away. Another kick, and I hadn’t even had the chance to stand up yet.
The death of my mother and grandmother wasn’t just a wind blowing leaves and branches; it was an earthquake. The entire landscape changed that year. Everything looked upside down: mountains perched precariously on their snow-covered peaks, rivers pouring from gaping holes in the sky. I was entering a new world where death played an important part. For the first time, I had to make a choice about who I was. Would I blame God, hate the world? Would I give up home, withdraw myself into a world of darkness? Would I ever truly be happy again?
This week, as I thought about that pivotal point in my life, I had my first epiphany about oaks:
If you are an oak, you can’t pretend to be something else.
Believe me, I tried. I tried to lie down and wilt like a spent blossom in the fall. I tried to give up myself like the grass and just blow wherever the wind wanted me to go, no feeling, just movement. In the end, when the wind stopped blowing and the earth congealed and hardened, I was still standing tall and strong.
Upon hearing my story, people often remark to me, “I don’t know how you dealt with losing your mother at such a young age.” It’s a funny comment to me. It’s not like I had any choice. No one asked me if I wanted to lose her. How did I “deal” with it? That’s part of what is means to be an oak, I guess. In times where I felt like giving up, something larger than myself kept me going. Even now, as I tell you my victory story of making it through, deep inside I know it wasn’t me. It was my Father in Heaven. Somehow, through all of the heartbreak and anger and confusion, I still knew that He loved me, that He knew my sorrow. Those are the roots that held me up during that time. They have names: Faith, God’s Love, and Peace. They’ve only grown stronger since.
So back to this week; I’m having trouble at work. I survived losing my mother at age fourteen; this should be no big deal, but it is. This has been the most disheartening experience of my teaching career. On Wednesday, I was talking to my fellow English teachers who are also dear friends about losing our favorite book. My conversation starter went something like this, “I am not asking any of you to go farther with this, but personally I have to. I have to go to the district office with this. I have to feel like my voice is heard. If I don’t, it will eat me up.”
“If you’re in, I’m in,” Bethany responded. “If you fight, I fight. That’s the way it is.” It was that statement, that unconditional support, which gave me the second epiphany about oak trees, even if it doesn’t quite fit the poem:
Where you find an oak, you will find a forest.
I didn’t become an oak all on my own. I have always been and continue to be surrounded by strong people who try to do what is right. Each one has been an inspiration to me, a root that delves deep below the surface. They all have names: My mother, Ella, who taught me to make hard decisions. My father, Daniel, who taught me to weather life’s storms with patience. My step-mother, Deborah, who taught me to have confidence in myself and what I can do. My grandmother, Evelyn, who taught me the power of laughter. Mamma Mia taught me the power of a good friend and most recently, “Quiet women don’t make history.” My children have taught me that love IS sacrifice. My darling sweetheart has taught me that I have unique gifts to offer the world. My Savior has taught me that I am of great worth and that life is a gift. Each one, a core, winding between rocks, maintaining a firm hold to the ground. Each one a crucial part of my stability.
I am still standing.